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New Museum Of African American Music Spans Four Centuries And A Nation’s Soul

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The Ryman Auditorium reflected in the facade of the new National Museum of African American Music in downtown Nashville.

America is roiling, and one of the central conflicts is over how we tell our national story. Cutting-edge race theorists propose the slavery-centric 1619 Project. Conservative Christian nationalists counter with the 1776 Project. Our school-book histories focus on leaders in politics and capitalism, protests and reform, legislation and warfare. But there's another version on the table. Maybe one story to unite them all and to unite us more meaningfully is the story of Black American Music.

There have been multi-artist box sets, documentaries about key artists and genres and much scholarship on the subject, but there are some things only a well-designed museum can do, with its immersive command on our attention and its cross-generational appeal. And now, after almost twenty years of talking, imagining, fund-raising, construction and research, the National Museum of African American Music is open in the heart of downtown Music City. It’s a first-of-its-kind experience, a $60 million investment in the city’s cultural life and a kind of challenge to the country music tourism frenzy just out the museum’s doors on Lower Broadway.

As we reported in the summer of 2018, when the curation team had assembled and the footing of the massive 5th and Broadway multi-use complex that holds NMAAM was just being dug and poured, the museum has been a dream and a goal for some since as early as 2002. With time, its planned location moved, and its scope broadened. As the nation reckoned with systemic racial injustice in police forces around the country from 2014 through the Black Lives Matter summer of 2020, the mission of NMAAM grew ever more pressing and, per remarks from its leader last month, more provocative. “This is a radical, disruptive approach to social justice that refused to die,” CEO Henry Hicks said at the Jan. 18 official ribbon cutting. The museum “ever so slowly blossomed into this divinely guided miracle of human vision, tenacity and intellect.”

Rivers of Rhythm is the name and spirit of NMAAM’s central gallery and hallway, an organizing and centering space with a timeline projected kinetically on curvaceous walls and a long stretch of interactive table displays. While our musical nomenclature often deploys roots and branches metaphors, the flow of water depicted here is more evocative of the music’s nourishing qualities and the mixing of genres through time. The water is tempestuous, as with the ocean traffic bringing enslaved Africans to American soil and purifying when it references river baptisms.

This architectural spine of the 56,000 square foot museum is heavy on spectacle and context. Every half hour, the projections fade to one of three “Transporting Moments” that envelop the visitor with the sights and sounds of significant performances: Prince at the 2007 Super Bowl, James Brown in 1964, and young blues man Christone “Kingfish” Ingram at a Mississippi club in 2019. When the Transporting Moments are over, visitors can go back to investigating the timeline at their leisure on the interactives. Here, moments in Black Music are graphically associated with events and trends in American history, something this museum does as a core mission. The roaring 20s, for example, look quite a bit different from the vantage of Black America than our consensus narrative of runaway wealth, speakeasies and flappers. The decade was marked by Jim Crow terror and the advent of the Great Migration, the Harlem Renaissance and the birth of commercial blues. And we see cultural heroes inspire music directly, as when Memphis Minnie celebrates Black America’s pride in champion prizefighter Joe Lewis with her song “He’s In The Ring (Doin’ That Same Old Thing).” This kind of dot-connecting is apparent throughout the museum’s galleries.

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Crossroads, the blues gallery at NMAAM.

I was led on a preview tour last week by the museum’s curatorial director Dr. Dina Bennett, whom I first met on my first reporting visit to the museum development team two and a half years ago. She was elated to be within a few days of the doors opening to the public. “To see it come to life, to come off the paper and to actually be fabricated, and everything we’ve gone through to get all of the clips and to get the script just right – to see it on the walls is stupendous, just stupendous,” she says. “And I’m very proud of it and the curatorial team. Good things come to those who wait and who actually cross the finish line.”

From the Rivers hallway, one can enter any of the five genre/era galleries, but for the chronologically correct trip, Bennett ushers me into Wade In The Water, where slavery and its aftermath begets the all-important spiritual and gospel traditions. “Religious music is such a foundational part of African American music that this is where we begin,” Bennett says, as she points out the gallery’s core esthetic of whitewashed planking and stained glass. Interactives here include projected tabletop displays with everyday gospel and church representatives speaking about songs they’ve found particularly important to them over the years. In a more high-tech space nearby, video cameras superimpose visitors into a choir as they (we) sing “Oh Happy Day.”

One’s next steps are onto rough-hewn floors amid surroundings of timber and corrugated metal reminiscent of rural Mississippi. Crossroads is the blues gallery, covering the rise of America’s seminal popular music. Next to an exhibit of African antecedents to the banjo is a replica for touching and playing of the makeshift one-string slide guitars that were part of most blues artists’ childhood. “You take a cigar box, a handle off an old broom, some wire and maybe a piece of metal for a slide and you have a diddley bow,” Bennett says. “It illustrates how people, particularly African Americans, took just anything they had to make something. From nothing to something.” The gallery, as they all are, is festooned floor to ceiling with still photos, inviting the gaze to linger on figures from the famous to the humble. There’s a rare Bessie Smith image, a lantern from the Illinois Central Railroad that lit the way for thousands of southern blacks making their difficult way north in the Great Migration and more contemporary artifacts – a B.B. King electric guitar and a wildly-decorated, one-of-a-kind keyboard made and played by 81-year-old Carolina musician Ironing Board Sam.

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The jazz gallery A Love Supreme

The Jazz gallery A Love Supreme is one of the rare exhibit spaces in the nation dedicated to the story of Black America’s most refined and artistically searching music. Highlights include a trumpet from Louis Armstrong, a yellow sweater donned by Nat King Cole and an interactive that helps people understand the concept of improvising within the layers of a band. Women are given space here too, not only via the famous vocalists like Billie Holiday but a trombone belonging to big band musician Helen Jones Woods (who is apparently still living at 96 years old). The Harlem Renaissance is one of the key cultural context stories told here, as its soundtrack included the budding genius of Duke Ellington.

Large photos of Michael Jackson, Chuck Berry and Beyonce mark the threshold of One Nation Under A Groove, the most musically diverse genre gallery in the museum, covering rock and roll, R&B, soul, funk, Motown and disco. A wall display here observes, without editorial comment, the widespread phenomenon of white pop artists like Pat Boone covering black originals with far more DJ support and commercial success. More grin-inducing is a hand-painted spaceship robe from George Clinton and a kimono worn by Alicia Keys. A dance studio in the gallery allowing one’s moves to be recorded via a motion capture system and translated into abstract video on a wall has reportedly proven extra popular in the early days of opening.

The final gallery The Message may draw some younger visitors first, but its story of social commentary and political activism feels more impactful after walking through a couple centuries of struggle and sound. The narrated mini-film introductions to all the galleries are concise and well-written, and this one packs in more than the others, explaining a hip-hop movement that has been about social reform, multi-media creativity, civic agitation and modern self-expression. Special in this space are six panels of original graffiti art by East Nashville’s Troy Duff. On the technology side, one interactive invites patrons to make layered beats while a soundproof studio lets visitors rap freestyle or battle and then keep their recordings after they leave.

As we emerge back into the Rivers of Rhythm corridor, Bennett points to a keynote quote on the wall from the late musicologist Eileen Southern that acts as a benediction: “The enduring feature of black music is neither protest nor self-expression. It is communication. And one cannot imagine a time when black musicians will have nothing to say, either to others or to God.”

Through February, NMAAM will be open on Saturdays and Sundays, with limited access and Covid restrictions. Full information to plan a visit can be found here.

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