Fisk Jubilee Singer finds voice after cancer

The Tennessean | Jessica Bliss,

Brianna BarbourMedical staff hovered over Brianna Barbour, drawing lines on her with a marker.

They outlined her lower neck around her throat and circled down across her sternum.

They marked off the target for radiation.

At the time, Barbour didn't consider the dream-damaging side effects. She just wanted her cancer to die.

Five days a week for a month, Barbour underwent the cancer-killing treatments that would help the then-Fisk University freshman overcome Hodgkin's lymphoma. She came out in remission. But the radiation destroyed more than just the cancer. It scarred her lungs and her heart. It damaged the singing voice that accompanied all her aspirations.

"Everything," the 22-year-old soprano says, "kind of got turned upside down."

Discovering her goal

To Barbour, the Fisk Jubilee Singers were like no other performing group she had seen.

The a cappella ensemble projected with grace and power Negro spirituals originally sung by slaves before the Civil War. They had no conductor. No sheet music. They sang words they knew by heart, from their heart.

And on the day a 14-year-old Barbour saw them perform at American Baptist College, she knew she wanted to be one of them. Singing had been a constant in Barbour's life since age 5. It felt natural. And, she says, when she sang she could let go and "not worry about the next thing that's going to happen."

Feeling unburdened by the performance, the high school choir member from Jackson, Miss., set herself on becoming a Fisk Jubilee Singer.

She did so not worrying about what would happen next.

Damage done

On the scan, the cancer cells lit up differently than the others. The doctor called Barbour's mother in the hallway. That's when Barbour knew to be worried.

"Something," Barbour recalls the doctor saying, "doesn't look right."

Barbour was 16 when she was first diagnosed with Hodgkin's. But after eight months of chemotherapy, she seemed to have beaten it. She moved north to Nashville to major in music and audition for the Jubilee Singers. She earned an alternate spot, meaning she practiced but didn't travel. She worked vocally and prepared to assume a full-time role.

Then, before the spring semester her freshman year, she started having trouble breathing and walking. She went back to the hospital. This time, the doctor didn't have to have a private hallway conversation. Barbour knew what was coming. Her cancer had returned.

There wouldn't be just chemo. There would be radiation. Doctors with markers targeting the spot. A month of her older brother driving her to five-day-a-week treatments. And the aftermath.

With the cancer-killing machines aimed right at her throat, her esophagus became scratchy. It hurt to swallow. She had to take a numbing medicine before every meal. She drank a lot of Boost for liquid nutrition.

And when she returned to school the following fall, she felt like she had to start over. To be able to sing again, she had to relearn how to breathe.

Rebuilding her voice

Depression descended.

Even in remission, Barbour wasn't at full health. Her heart, damaged by the radiation, didn't pump like it once had. She started retaining fluids. She lacked energy. There was a period when she didn't want to go to class. She didn't want to do her work. There were days when she didn't even want to be at Fisk.

But even then, she still wanted to be part of the Jubilee Singers.

"To be able to sing with other students who sacrificed and committed to the group," she says, "it kind of draws you back."

So, despite her discouragement — a feeling like her voice wasn't progressing — she persisted in relearning what she had known for years. And, she says, "it's not like riding a bike."

Barbour had to teach her diaphragm muscles how to move. She had to reconnect her body and her brain. She had to build back her endurance and recover her vocal intensity. She had to demonstrate she was worthy and capable of performing as a Fisk Jubilee Singer.

Brianna Barbour 2

And she has.

"She's very strong," Jubilee Singers Music Director Paul Kwami says. "... Very devoted."

Now a senior at Fisk, Barbour is one of 16 vocal artists who perform worldwide. She is a leader among the group, Kwami says, often sitting at the piano to help the younger singers learn.

"It means a lot to me when I see our students taking on our tradition," he says

'Never-ending journey'

Barbour helps carry on a legacy started in 1871 when George L. White, Fisk treasurer and music professor, created a nine-member student choral ensemble and took it on tour to save Fisk — a newly founded university for young people of color — from financial straits.

The Jubilee Singers broke racial barriers here and abroad. They performed their first concerts in small towns where they were met with surprise and some hostility as young black singers who did not perform in the traditional "minstrel fashion." They traveled overseas, entertaining kings and queens in Europe. And for the last 145 years, they have preserved and shared the rich tradition of Negro spirituals.

Today, the group highlights the diversity of music in Music City.

Even as Barbour continues her own fight against her cancer, "a never-ending journey you don't forget about," she recognizes the parallels. So many before her worked to create, preserve and continue this legacy — the one of the Jubilee Singers.

She is grateful to have become a voice among them.

Reach Jessica Bliss at 615-259-8253 and on Twitter @jlbliss.

Hear the Fisk Jubilee Singers 

The Jubilee Singers have several local performances remaining this season.

April 2, 7 p.m.
Krider Center for the Performing Arts (650 Volunteer Dr, Paris, Tenn.)  
Tickets: Free event/no tickets
More info: Douglas J. Richardson, 931-232-0842, 

April 9, 8 p.m.
Spring Arts Festival Concert at Ryman Auditorium (116 5th Avenue North, Nashville)
Tickets: $39.50-$125.00
More info: 615-889-3060, www.ryman.com

May 1, 7 p.m.
Sesquicentennial Commencement Concert at Fisk Memorial Chapel
Tickets: Free admission
More info: Paul T. Kwami, 615-329-8744, pkwami@fisk.edu">pkwami@fisk.edu

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