New Nashville museum celebrates African-American music

By KATE COIL

TML Communications Specialist

The doors of Music City’s newest landmark, The National Museum of African American Music, are now officially open.

Located at Fifth Avenue and Broadway in downtown Nashville, the museum officially opened to the public on Jan. 30, 2021. The museum’s original opening was delayed from fall 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, just part of a more than 20-year journey that moved the museum from concept to creation.

“We have been preparing for this day for more than 20 years, but this museum has actually been more than 400 years in the making,” said NMAAM President and CEO H. Beecher Hicks III. “We look forward to welcoming music lovers from around the world to this magnificent cultural experience. We also want to thank the thousands of people who have supported us along the way, as we prepare to celebrate the history of African-American music, which truly is the soundtrack of our nation.”

NMAAM is the only museum in the world dedicated to preserving and celebrating more than 50 music genres and styles that were created, influenced, or inspired by African Americans, including spirituals, blues, jazz, gospel, R&B, and hip hop.

The original idea for the museum was conceived in 1998 when Nashville community leaders Francis Guess and Dr. T.B. Boyd were inspired to start a Nashville museum honoring African American cultural contributions. The concept grew into a national museum and eventually one focused on African-American music and its impact on American society and culture.

Ian Dinkins, a spokesperson with the museum, said Boyd and Guess began with a feasibility study for the museum in 2001. Initially, the museum was to be called the Museum of African American Music, Art and Culture (MAAMAC) and would have included achievements in not only music and arts, but culture to include sports and civil rights, and Nashville black excellence. Initial meetings of the museum board took place at Boyd’s home.

“In 2010, H. Beecher Hicks joined the museum board. He observed during a meeting that much of the talk was about architectural designs, ‘deciding on the marble,’ and that the artifacts are music-related,” Dinkins said. “He raised the idea of fundraising for the museum and that, since so there was so much focus on music, why not call it a museum of music, especially since Nashville was known as ‘Music City.’ A board member suggested that Hicks should become board chair, which he agreed to on three conditions: that they conduct a study on the museum’s name change, they reshape the board, and if there is no progress, shut down the museum.”

By 2011, it had been determined the music should be devoted to African-American music and by 2014, plans were made by developers Spectrum Emery Oliver McMillan to build a 56,000-square-foot museum at the new Fifth and Broadway development. In 2017, the museum’s budget was increased to $48 million due to both increased construction costs and the desire to make museum exhibits more interactive.

While many cities all over the country have strong ties to African-American musical styles, Dinkins said Nashville proved a natural fit for the museum.

“Nashville really is America’s Music City,” he said. “If you look at it from a little bit of a historical presence, Nashville and Tennessee are the crossroads of American music. Really, it was born in the South and then at the end of slavery and the beginning of The Great Migration, when our grandparents began to migrate north, whether they were going to Detroit or New York or Los Angeles, they very possibly went through Tennessee. So they left breadcrumbs in Memphis, left breadcrumbs in Nashville, and breadcrumbs in Johnson City. Tennessee really, in so many ways, is kind of the crucible center of American music, even though in more modern times it’s been more prominent in other cities. We’re just bringing it back home.”

Several artists with connections to Tennessee are highlighted by the museum.

“One artist is that is prominently featured in the museum is gospel legend Bobby Jones,” Dinkins said. “One of the museum’s interactive displays allows guests to sing and virtually be a part of Bobby Jones legendary choir. Other artists include the Fisk Jubilee Singers and Aretha Franklin.”

When the museum opened to the public this year, Dinkins said it already had a wealth of artifacts for display.

“Our curatorial team has collected more than 1,500 artifacts thus far, with additional artifacts still being added to the collection almost weekly,” he said. “The collection process has spanned close to a decade, from the very early stages to now. Artifacts are acquired through a myriad of ways including donations from artists. While we’ll have rotating exhibits and artifacts, the majority of our exhibits will contain pieces that we own. That means these pieces are not sitting in someone’s private home or for sale online. They’re preserved for future generations right here.”

While the museum focuses on African-American contributions to music, Dinkins said it really tells an American story.

“Music is the catalyst for inclusion, where people of different colors play each other’s songs,” he said. “This is a foundation of the untold story of how our music came to be. That’s the story we want to tell. We’re developing more than 25 interactive touch points and seven galleries that chronicle the history of African-American music from the 1600s to the present day. Our galleries will take visitors on a chronological path through the history of American music.”

The museum features five permanent galleries each examining a different time period:

Wade in The Water: A gallery documenting the African- American religious experience from the early 1600s to the present and the styles that emerged from these experiences.

Crossroads: Focusing on the history and influence of the blues starting in the early 1900s.

A Love Supreme: Focusing on the Harlem Renaissance and the emergence of jazz music and its dominance in the mid-20th century.

One Nation Under A Groove: Documenting the history and influence of R&B, which emerged following World War II.

The Message: Exploring the origins of hip hop and rap in the urban decay of New York’s South Bronx inner city from the 1970s to the present.

Visitors to the museum will get an experience that immerses them in the music.

“Each tour at the museum will start off at the museum’s Roots Theater, which will show an introductory film,” he said. “Then, while touring through the exhibits, guests will go through the Rivers of Rhythm Corridor, the central spine of the museum’s experience, which features touch panel interactives and an animated timeline that links historical events with American music history. With a high-definition sound system and wall-length panoramic screens, the corridor will also periodically showcase immersive-film experiences that place visitors in the midst of iconic music moments, like famous concerts of the past.”

For more information on the museum, visit https://nmaam.org.