One of the essential stories that will be told inside the new National Museum of African American Music, set to open in downtown Nashville this Fall, is the pivotal role of music in the Civil Rights Movement of the 60s. Yet the exterior of the building became part of that story in the present day as well. Early in Black Music Month for 2020, June 4 to be exact, one of the largest protest marches in the history of Nashville rolled past the front door of NMAAM, and its director Henry Beecher Hicks III tells WMOT that felt like a proud moment.
“While some were concerned, we were actually flattered that the organizers of the march would think that our museum was a fitting place to represent the significance of African-American contribution to the culture, not just locally but around the country and the world,” Hicks says in the interview posted here.
The march, he noted, was organized by teen girls and grew in scope beyond their expectations. “It was a moving experience to see the young ladies who dreamt up the idea and put it together to be so serious about their business and then get tens of thousands of us to come out and join them and follow them in a peaceful protest and demonstration for their rights. The Bible tells us that a child shall lead them, and that certainly is the case in this instance.”
Black music and social justice are dominating the thoughts of Henry Hicks as he and his staff work toward Nashville’s most ambitious and expensive museum amid a historic movement for Black Lives and the Covid-19 pandemic. The grand opening set for Labor Day weekend has been downsized in vision to keep people safe and pushed back, but only by “a few weeks” he says. “So we will have some delay but it won’t be very long,” Hicks said. “I think we’ll still get it in in 2020 and hopefully in the next two to three weeks or so we’ll have some specific dates and calendars of events that we can announce.”
Hicks, a career banker and private equity investor, has been involved with NMAAM since joining its board in 2010 and subsequently being named CEO in 2013. He’s the son of a prominent Baptist preacher who spent much of his career in Washington, DC and was active in civil rights. With an MBA from UNC Chapel Hill and a love of music fueled by his upbringing in the church, Henry Hicks has overseen the final stages of fund-raising and construction of the 56,000 square foot museum at the corner of 5th Ave. North and Broadway.
In our conversation, Hicks describes why this June’s outpouring of multi-racial people on behalf of Black Lives Matter feels different than past demonstrations. He also considers the movement to foreground the story of black music and artists in roots, country and bluegrass. While those genres have long been portrayed as made by white artists for white audiences, Hicks says “That narrative all along has been false. You don’t have America without Africans who came to build it. You don’t have American music without African Americans who created it. And whether it’s the forms we call Americana all the way up through hip-hop, African Americans have been at the center of it and at the beginning of the innovation that created those forms. That’s just a part of the story that really hasn’t been told and highlighted.”