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,

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


  1. Fisk University to Unveil New Home for Fisk Jubilee Singers®
  2. 87th Annual Spring Arts Festival
  3. NAIA All American Honorable Mention: Stevonna Scott
  4. Wynell Edwards Retires After 47 Years of Service to Fisk
  5. Fisk Jubilee Singers® concert adds special guests
  6. Fisk University to Host Sesquicentennial Scholarship Gala at Music City Center
  7. Fisk University Establishes Research Center with $5m Grant From National Science Foundation
  8. Fisk Jubilee Singer finds voice after cancer
  9. Fisk students have long history of fighting injustice
  10. Fisk Jubilee Singers bring gospel tradition to Boston
  11. Fisk Forum
  12. Dearly Departed
  13. Hotel Rooms for Reunion 2016
  14. Alpha Beta Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. Celebrates 90th Birthday with Fisk Beautification Project
  15. Fisk University Celebrates its Sesquicentennial with Various Events Year-Round
  16. Jazz on The Move: The Music and Life of Nat King Cole
  17. Frist Center for the Visual Arts Celebrates WFSK 88.1 with Free Admissions for Faculty, Staff and Alumni
  18. WFSK 88.1 Hits Milestone with Educational Programming
  19. Renowned Vocalist Presents Program of African American Spirituals
  20. Monique Odom ’95 Named Deputy Director of Metro Nashville Parks
  21. Around Campus
  22. Kim Whitley Wins Hollywood Game Night
  23. Fisk Women of Prominence Luncheon
  24. Jazzy 88 WFSK - Upcoming Events
  25. Dearly Departed
  26. Jacquelyn Favours '13 Joins Meharry-Vanderbilt Alliance
  27. Fisk Professors Win $333,249 Research Award
  28. Elizabeth Taylor ’02 Joins The Tennessee State Board of Education
  29. Kimberly Goods ’93 Named Teacher Of The Year
  30. Fisk Sunday
  31. Fisk Coverage Of Founders’ Day
  32. Women Of Perfection Participate In Annual MLK Day Of Service
  33. Kansas City Public Schools Names Dr. Mark Bedell ’97 New Superintendent
  34. Berklee College of Music Presents the Fisk Jubilee Singers®
  35. Hotel Rooms for Reunion 2016
  36. Dearly Departed
  37. Sesquicentennial Exhibits – John Hope & Aurelia E. Franklin Library
  38. University Open | Monday, January 25th
  39. Classes Cancelled and University | January 22, 2016
  40. Religious Leaders for Fisk Prayer Brunch
  41. 34th Annual Convocation: In Celebration of the Life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
  42. Holiday Music at Fisk University
  43. University News - October 30, 2015
  44. University News - October 24, 2015
  45. Legacy Day
  46. University News - October 17, 2015
  47. Interim President: wants to improve finances
  48. Interim President
  49. Leadership Transition
  50. Sesquicentennial Calendar
  51. 2015 Jubilee Day Schedule
  52. 2015 Homecoming
  53. 2015 Live Well Benefits Fair
  54. New Student Orientation 2015: Brochure
  55. New Student Orientation 2015: at-a-glance
  56. 30 Great Small Business Degree Programs 2015
  57. Title IX
  58. Fisk Student Selected for Summer Research Experience at National Institute
  59. Fisk Inks Partnership Agreements with Nine Chinese Universities
  60. Trustees Establish Global Studies Fund
  61. Math Club Orientation
  62. Lady Patriot
  63. Nashville Freedom Schools' - Newsletter
  64. The walk for healthcare
  65. Sesquicentennial Art Project artist selected
  66. Volleyball Camp
  67. Awarded Grant from the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Agency
  68. Board of Trustees - New Members
  69. Los Angeles Fisk Alumni Association | Jazz Brunch
  70. Mandatory Senior Class Commencement Rehearsal 2
  71. Mandatory Senior Class Commencement Rehearsal 1
  72. President Announces Tuition Freeze & CFO Appointment
  73. Fisk 100 Revisited
  74. A $50,000 Makeover for Fisk Student Areas
  75. Student Leaders for 2015-2016 Academic Year
  76. Fisk University Associate Professor Dr. Lean'tin Bracks Has A Banner Year
  77. Inaugural Valda Montgomery Child Health Symposium Held at ASU
  78. Paine College Names Fisk Alumna Provost and VP of Academic Affairs
  79. Students Challenge State Voter ID Law
  80. 2015 Fisk University Baseball Team
  81. Swing Low Sweet Chariot moment captured on new Exeter Pound note
  82. Alumna Named Executive Director
  83. Alumnus Issues $500,000 Challenge to All Alumni
  84. Registration Opens for 2015 Maymester, Summer, and Fall Terms on March 16th!
  85. 2015 Retool Your School
  86. University Closed - Due to Inclement Weather(02.18.15)
  87. University Closed - Due to Inclement Weather(02.17.15)
  88. University Closed - Due to Inclement Weather(02.16.15)
  89. Live Demonstration of Mediation
  90. Fisk University News - January 2015
  91. Dr. Natalie Arnett selected for Prestigous Five-Year NSF Career Award
  92. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Annual Convocation
  93. Advertisement - Vice President for Finance & Administration
  94. Fisk president discusses historic university's current state and future
  95. Happy Holidays from the Fisk University Family
  96. Christmas at Fisk
  97. Mark Crowder wins National ABRCMS Award
  98. 2014 Fisk Homecoming
  99. First Lifetime Achievement Award to Trustee Emerita Leatrice B. McKissack
  101. Fisk University Maintains National Rankings
  102. Increased Enrollment For Third ConsecutiveYear
  103. Jazzy 88 WFSK Begins 2014 Fall Fund Drive with 9th Annual 48-hour Radiothon
  104. American Red Cross | Blood Drive
  105. Jubilee Day
  106. Sesquicentennial Art Commission
  107. New Student Orientation Fall 2014
  108. From a Spark to a Flame:
  109. Dr. Gladys Inez Ford
  110. Van Vechten Art Gallery
  111. New Student Orientation at-a-glance Fall 2014
  112. Fisk University Pre-College Summer Program
  113. Baccalaureate and Commencement 2014
  114. Gables Elementary
  115. Press Release 04/24/14
  116. Press Release 04/10/14
  117. Fisk wins HCASC challenge
  118. Retool Your School
  119. 2014 Scholars Weekend Schedule
  120. Campus Safety Awareness Week
  121. 85th Annual Spring Arts Festival - Schedule
  122. Business Week at Fisk University
  123. 2014 Honors Convocation
  124. 16th Annual Fisk Research Symposium (FRS) - Call for Abstracts
  125. Fisk University and the Los Angeles Alumni Association of Fisk Univeristy
  126. Fisk University has made great strides in past year
  127. Prelaw Seminar at Fisk University
  128. Keynote at Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Annual Convocation
  129. SACSCOC Reaffirms University's Accreditation
  130. Last Night's Art Talk: Alicia Henry and Jaamal Sheats at Fisk
  131. Fisk University Presents Christmas at Fisk
  132. Fisk Alumni Article Featured in the Marin Independent Journal
  133. Stieglitz Collection Unveiled at Fisk's Partner, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art
  134. Fisk Homecoming Schedule
  135. Fisk Homecoming
  136. Allstate Quotes for Education
  137. Nashvillians reflect on March on Washington, Martin Luther King Jr
  138. Fisk University Celebrates its Trailblazing Students
  139. Honorary Degree Nominations
  140. Fisk University receives 2013 R&D 100 Award
  141. Fisk AVP Jonathan M. Frost named a finalist for 2013 NELA Awards
  142. Golf Outing with Fisk President H. James Williams
  143. Fisk Alumna Mary K. Bush featured on television program