January 28, 2021
From the deeply soulful sounds of early slave spirituals and evolving blues traditions to the emergence of Motown and social messaging of contemporary urban styles, Nashville’s new National Museum of African American Music guides visitors along a journey spanning five centuries and more than 50 genres.
Taking its place among the country’s iconic cultural museums, NMAAM shares a story that’s never been told under one roof. Engaging and interactive (and suitable for the whole family), the 56,000-square-foot museum is a celebration of the vast influence of Black artists on the American soundtrack.
The journey begins in the Roots Theater with an overview of the impact of African culture on the creation and evolution of new music traditions. Flowing through the entire museum, the “Rivers of Rhythm Pathway” showcases the progression of musical styles through an animated timeline, and five galleries take a deeper dive into different sounds as artists began to innovate.
“Wade in the Water” focuses on the influence of religious music from spirituals to gospel. “Crossroads” chronicles the history of blues from the 1880s to modern day and looks at the genre’s influence on country and rock.
“A Love Supreme” celebrates a new musical form emanating from New Orleans that would come to be known as jazz and follows the sumptuous sounds and glamourous style to Harlem’s famed Cotton Club.
“One Nation Under A Groove” documents the rise of R&B and the Motown sound, along with the emergence of superstar artists that dominated the airwaves including Aretha Franklin, The Supremes, Michael Jackson and Prince. “The Message” looks at the origins of hip-hop and rap as these DJ-driven genres turned social messaging in a post-Civil Rights era into one of the nation’s most popular art forms.
With more than 1,500 artifacts from African instruments, Keb’ Mo’s guitar and Kirk Whalum’s saxophone to Alicia Key’s kimono, DJ Kool Herc’s designer Converse sneakers and a glamorous Dorothy Dandridge gown, the museum is visually exciting and informative.
It’s also a lot of fun as 25 augmented reality exhibits allow guests to become part of the experience. Moved by gospel great Bobby Jones? Join the choir. Love the lyrical quality of a W.C. Handy composition? Lay down a blues track.
Framed by societal context, the many immersive experiences, displays and video clips are designed to bring history to life and put visitors in the center of the story.
Located downtown at the exciting, new Fifth + Broadway development, Nashville was a natural choice to house this important collection. The community’s worldwide reputation as Music City was, of course, a good fit for a new venue celebrating creativity and artistry. But Nashville also has direct connections to a significant number of performers featured in the museum.
Music City’s very first touring group was the Fisk Jubilee Singers. Just months after the end of the Civil War, the Fisk School opened in Nashville as an educational institution open to all regardless of race with students ranging from age 7 to 70.
Just a couple of years later and now known as Fisk University, financial uncertainty threatened the school’s very existence. In dire need of funding, the university handed over what little was left in the treasury to a small choral group in the hopes a musical tour might raise enough money to keep the school going.
Setting out on Oct. 6, 1871, the Fisk Jubilee Singers were initially met with a mix of curiosity and mistrust, but their beautiful voices soon won over predominantly white audiences. Gradually, they began earning enough to restock the school’s coffers, and their fame began to grow.
By late 1872, President Ulysses S. Grant invited them to perform at the White House. The following year, the group embarked on a European tour, raising enough to build the first permanent structure on campus – Jubilee Hall, which contains a floor-to-ceiling portrait of the group commissioned by Queen Victoria as a gift to Fisk.
The musical connections continued in the early 1920s with the rise of the Fairfield Four, the famed gospel group that began at Fairfield Baptist Church in Nashville.
Early country music pioneer and harmonica wizard DeFord Bailey was among the first performers on the radio program that would come to be known as the Grand Ole Opry.
During that same era, a new twist on a traditional art form was coming from West Tennessee with the birth of the Memphis blues. From “Sleepy” John Estes to B.B. King, this new style of music flowed from Beale Street.
In the 1960s, Jimi Hendrix made Nashville his home while he honed his craft and began performing in the clubs on Jefferson Street. In the 1970s, Charley Pride found crossover success, becoming RCA’s best-selling artist since Elvis, and the “Queen of Rock ’n’ Roll” Tina Turner took her talents from Nutbush to a worldwide stage.
While there are many state ties, the museum tells the much broader story of African American music across time and two continents, celebrating the evolution of styles and innovative artistry that took root and flourished in cities from Nashville, Memphis and New Orleans to New York, Philadelphia and L.A.
The National Museum of African American Music has been two decades in the making from concept to ribbon-cutting. Now, the wait is finally over. Step through the doors to discover the rich history of the talented artists who have touched and transformed American music.
Plan your trip to Nashville to see the National Museum of African American Music and more in Music City.