A New Museum in Nashville Chronicles 400 Years of Black Music

The culmination of two decades of planning, the National Museum of African American Music opened its doors last month

Fisk Jubilee Singers
Featured in the museum's first temporary exhibition, the Fisk Jubilee Singers introduced spirituals to audiences around the world. dangoat via Flickr under CC BY 2.0

Much of the story of the United States can be told through black music, from the instruments brought to the country by enslaved Africans to the development of jazz and the blues in the Jim Crow era and the rock and hip-hop artists who continue to shape culture today. Now, a new cultural institution is dedicated to telling that 400-year story: the National Museum of African American Music, which opened in Nashville, Tennessee, on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

“Most music museums deal with a label, a genre or an artist,” H. Beecher Hicks III, the museum’s president and CEO, tells the Associated Press’ Kristin M. Hall. “So it’s one thing to say that I’m a hip hop fan or I’m a blues fan, but why? What was going on in our country and our lived experience and our political environment that made that music so moving, so inspirational, such the soundtrack for that part of our lives?”

Exhibitions will draw on a collection of 1,600 artifacts, including one of Ella Fitzgerald’s Grammy Awards and a guitar owned by B.B. King. Visitors can also take part in interactive activities like learning dance moves from a virtual instructor, singing “Oh Happy Day” with a gospel choir and making hip-hop beats. Guests receive wristbands that allow them to record and take home their creations.

As Kristen Rogers reports for CNN, the museum experience begins with a film that roots the black American musical tradition in West and Central African music.

Artist's rendering of Harlem Renaissance display at the museum
Artist's rendering of Harlem Renaissance display at the museum National Museum of African American Music

“As enslaved people, they brought their music traditions,” says the museum’s curatorial director, ethnomusicologist Dina Bennett, in the video. “Many times their instruments were taken away from them, because their instruments were used to communicate with each other. But they still had their voice.”

Visitors can walk through the museum along “Rivers of Rhythm” pathways tracing 13 historical eras. The pathways feature interactive panels that display information about the social and political situations connected to particular musical developments. One gallery looks at how field hollers, a type of music sung by enslaved people, evolved into the blues, which in turn influenced both country music and rock. Other interactive exhibits look at specific artists’ influences, including how many famous white musicians drew on black music. The Rolling Stones, for instance, drew inspiration—and their name—from blues singer Muddy Waters, while Elvis Presley’s hit “Hound Dog” was first recorded by Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton.

“For non-African Americans,” Hicks tells CNN, “I hope that they would realize that African Americans are at the center of American culture in a way that they maybe never considered.”

The museum has been in the works since 1998, when Nashville business leaders and civil rights advocates Francis Guess and T.B. Boyd conceived the idea of an institution dedicated to black arts and culture, according to a statement. Per Kelundra Smith of the New York Times, the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce conducted a feasibility study on the museum, and in 2011, organizers narrowed its focus to music. The museum now occupies 56,000 square feet of space in downtown Nashville.

Rivers of Rhythm
Artist's rendering of interactive displays at the museum National Museum of African American Music

Writing for Nashville Scene, Ron Wynn notes that when plans for the museum were just getting started, many observers questioned why the city made sense as its location. Some claimed that, in contrast with cities like Memphis, Nashville is “not a black music town.”

Despite the city’s reputation for a country music scene that hasn’t always been hospitable to black musicians, Nashville has a storied black music history, Wynn explains. The city’s Jefferson Street was a hub of R&B in the 1960s. And, years before “Soul Train,” Nashville television stations created syndicated shows that brought black musicians’ work to a broad audience.

The museum’s first temporary exhibition is dedicated to a particular piece of Nashville musical history: the Fisk Jubilee Singers. Students at Fisk University formed the a cappella group in 1871 to raise money for what was then a fledgling school for newly freed black Americans. The singers traveled around the U.S. and Europe, performing spirituals written by enslaved musicians for audiences that included Ulysses S. Grant, Mark Twain and Queen Victoria. Their performances not only secured Fisk’s continued existence and growth, but introduced spirituals as a musical form to a wide audience.

Vocalist Shemekia Copeland tells the Times she sees the museum filling a crucial role.

“The music is the people,” she says. “It’s how we’ve always expressed ourselves. If the world ended and somebody found records and they listened, it would tell the story of what happened to us culturally.”

The National Museum of African American Music is open on Saturdays and Sundays in February, with time-slotted tickets to allow for social distancing. Masks are required.

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