Even as a child, music was a critical part of Matthew Kennedy’s life. At 4 he played his first piano piece and starred in his own radio program by 12 in Macon, Ga. His exceptional musical gifts brought Kennedy from the deeply segregated South to New York City, where he studied at the Julliard School and performed at the Apollo Theater and Carnegie Hall. But his ultimate music home was at Tennessee’s Fisk University, where he became director of the internationally acclaimed Fisk Jubilee Singers.

Matthew Kennedy: One Man’s Journey, is a documentary produced by the musician’s daughter, Nina Kennedy, that follows the life and death of a largely unheard of musical prodigy. After suffering racial discrimination, his father’s death and poverty, fate landed Matthew Kennedy at a Rachmaninoff concert that ultimately changed his life.

“I wanted to do this film for two reasons: First, because my father has been practicing the piano for [80] years preparing for his day in the sun, but it seemed he has been waiting for someone else to ‘come down from On High’ and hand him the recognition he felt he deserved. So after I had some success in the film world, I decided this was something I could do for him,” said Kennedy, also the director, in a statement.

“Secondly, American culture seems to tell young black boys that they can only hope to become ball-players, comedians, or gangsta’ rappers. I wanted to show them the life of a black American concert pianist – an image most of them haven’t seen – because I know the effect that a role model can have. Just look at the effect that Rachmaninoff had on my father’s life.”

The Augusta, Ga.-born musician mastered Rachmaninoff’s signature piano style, which helped him land a coveted spot at Julliard School of Music. But as Kennedy prepares to launch an international career, a Julliard professor urges him to return to the South and inspire people of his own race. That return brought Kennedy to Fisk University, a historically Black school founded at the end of the Civil War to educate freed slaves.

When the Klan repeatedly burned down the wooden houses – originally Union Army barracks – where classes took place, a stone structure was erected that was intended to be Klan-proof. The money for the construction of this building was raised from the proceeds of concerts – old slave songs or “spirituals” as they came to be known – given by a small choir of students that became internationally known as the Fisk Jubilee Singers and went on to perform for Queen Victoria of England.

“When he first came to Fisk University and started performing the spirituals with the Jubilee Singers, I doubt that he was aware at the time of the impact the spirituals would have on his life. I know some people have difficulty with the spirituals because the messages are … well, a bit heavy,” said Kennedy. “But one must remember that the people who originally sang these songs were people who had no human rights whatsoever, who were bought and sold like chattel, who were exploited to the point of collapse. These people had no choice but to believe in a God who would deliver them one day, and who would reward them in Heaven for their lives of toil and servitude.”

As fate would have it, the Fisk Jubilee Singers needed a pianist when Kennedy arrived in Nashville. Armed with his Juilliard training, Matthew added his classical repertoire to the programs of the singers. The group traveled and performed all over the world, before adoring fans, diplomats, and royalty. They were welcomed and embraced in the hallowed concert halls of Europe, the Middle East, the Caribbean and South America. In the middle of the realization of his dream of international success, the nation is suddenly at war, and Matthew is called to serve his country in a segregated U.S. Army.

The documentary continues with coverage of Kennedy’s draft, return to music and life legacy, all which culminate to create what the musician’s daughter calls “an amazing American story.”