This Museum Is Fighting the Erasure of Black Music History
The National Museum of African American Music sets the music record straight when it comes to U.S. history
The official recordings of history are inherently a measure of value, a tapestry of researched stories deemed worthy of memory. But the truth is that entire religious belief systems were stripped from Africans entered into slavery, songs were stolen from Black lips to be immortalized by White faces, and some schools even allow parents to opt out of Black history even as a racial reckoning sweeps the country.
To that end, the National Museum of African American Music (NMAAM) in Nashville, Tennessee, is 56,000 square feet of corrective justice.
“Places like this fly in the face of — and resist—Black erasure, which I think is frankly futile,” Henry Beecher Hicks III, CEO and president of NMAAM, tells Momentum. “History tells us it is futile [to erase us,] because we ain’t going nowhere. But to the extent some would try to take us in that direction, a museum like this demonstrates people of goodwill can come together and fight back.”
That fighting back is encapsulated in the 1,500 or so items in the museum’s collection. This literal treasure trove of history spans gospel’s roots in 17th-century plantation fields to hip-hop’s cultural, urban dominance in the 21st century, making NMAAM the largest and most comprehensive repository of artifacts and education on the history of African Americans’ impact on and creation of American music. The museum was born as an idea in 1998 and went through numerous iterations before settling on showcasing Black music history. The museum raised $60 million in funding, including $1 million from Amazon, and donations of priceless artifacts belonging to Louis Armstrong, Macy Gray, Marvin Gaye, and a hall of fame list of others.
The massive museum is composed of six galleries, each focused on a specific genre. There’s gospel music born from the forced religious conversion of the enslaved, blues music that emerged from the mass migration of newly liberated Black people from the South, jazz music created from both blues and ragtime, and finally, the Black music—across all genres, from gospel to rock to R&B — that defined the civil rights era and the hip-hop culture that continues to be a voice for the disenfranchised. Each are properly canonized.
“These things are not taught unless you become a specialist or go to grad school for music. It’s been very gratifying with Black people coming through saying, ‘I didn’t know any of this. This is brand new to me,” NMAAM curator Steve Lewis, PhD, proudly tells Momentum. “That makes me feel good, because it makes me think I’m taking the kind of stuff I was taught in the academy and making it accessible to the public. That’s what museums are supposed to be about.”
Momentum traveled to Nashville to walk through this museum that is actively fighting the erasure of key aspects of American history in an era where such history is — as you are reading — being erased in real time
‘River of Rhythm Pathways’: An evolution of Black music experience
The first exhibit you interact with ensconces you in the inescapability of Black art and its interconnectivity with different eras of American history via four massive video walls cycling through quotes and music from different eras of Black history. One minute, you can read a quote about trailblazing entrepreneur Madam C.J. Walker making her own opportunities during the Great Migration, and the next minute, you can watch Prince’s epochal 2007 Super Bowl halftime performance.
The centerpiece attractions are three interactive table displays featuring 13 eras of American history, from as early as 1619 to as recent as 2016, floating down a digital river. When you touch the river, you unlock information and music from each era. Duke Ellington’s work at the Cotton Club during the Harlem Renaissance and Kendrick Lamar’s social activism of the past decade flow on the same timeline—a message the museum isn’t soon to let you forget.
‘Wade in the Water’: A religious music experience
This gallery showcases the evolution of gospel music, from the forced conversion of Black people to Christianity in the 18th century and the blending of African tradition with European hymns that created gospel music in the 20th century to the present day. There’s a signed program from Marian Anderson’s 1946 performance in Toronto, Canada, at the Eaton Auditorium. (Anderson was the first Black person to perform the Metropolitan Opera.)
To immerse you further in the history of gospel music, in one room in the gallery, called “Singing With the Gospel Choir,” you can put on a choir robe, hop in front of a green screen, and see yourself on screen singing with music legend Dr. Bobby Jones and the Nashville Gospel Superchoir.
“These things are not taught unless you become a specialist or go to grad school for music. It’s been very gratifying with Black people coming through saying, ‘I didn’t know any of this. This is brand new to me.’”
‘Crossroads’: A Great Migration and blues experience
A photo of President Barack Obama singing with the late B.B. King in the White House in 2012 is displayed under the Gibson guitar King played until the early 1980s. And that guitar is directly next to a quote from the Rolling Stones’ frontman Keith Richards explaining how the Stones borrowed from blues artists, making it beyond clear how blues music influenced everyone from rock legends to the president of the United States. But the most captivating exhibit in this gallery—and arguably the entire museum—is a reproduction of an 18th-century banjo placed alongside a West African string instrument known as a kora and an 18th-century West African one-string fiddle known as a goje.
“What we’re doing is illustrating the way the banjo is descended from these early African instruments,” Lewis says.
For many visitors, this might be the first tangible example of how an Appalachian and country music genre dominated by White performers has deep roots in African soil.
‘A Love Supreme’: A Harlem Renaissance and jazz experience
From reproductions of the legendary Cotton Club neon signs to Louis Armstrong’s golden trumpet, A Love Supreme digs deep to uncover lost stories. Helen Jones Woods, of the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, the first integrated all-female jazz orchestra, may not be the first person you think of when you think of the male-dominated jazz genre, but in this gallery, her trombone is canonized right next to a sweater owned by Nat King Cole.
One of the museum’s more sobering exhibits is here: a1905 photo of Charles “Buddy” Bolden’s band. Bolden is commonly referred to as the first jazz musician. The Black erasure is deafening in the silence of this aged photo of the six-man band, as there are no known recordings of Bolden or his band, making this gallery one of the rare moments when their forgotten history is put on display.
‘One Nation Under a Groove’: A civil rights movement and R&B experience
Upon entry to this gallery, H.E.R. praises R&B legends like Aretha Franklin in an introduction video. Majestically lining the walls are gold plaques from stars like Marvin Gaye, commemorating the success of canonical albums like Gaye’s 1982 Midnight Love, a shining emblem of Black excellence. But it’s how One Nation Under a Groove shows R&B’s survival despite overt historical erasure that makes this gallery stunning.
In one exhibit, you’re invited to pull a lever located under a classic R&B record to reveal the Black artists who were the song’s original composers, then pull the lever under the record to reveal the White artists who gained popularity by covering the song. Directly next to it is a flyer from the 1950s promoting the suppression of “negro records.” NMAAM clearly juxtaposes musical thievery by White artists with the demonization of the Black artists and Black culture that birthed popular White music.
‘The Message’: The urban renewal and hip-hop experience
There are few places in the world where you’ll see these objects displayed — as framed art — next to each other: the custom boots Trina wore at the 2002 BET Awards, a mosaic of reproduced and written hip-hop flyers from the 1970s and 1980s, and a jersey worn by MC Lyte. The Message gallery breaks down hip-hop from its elemental level, where master orators Muhammed Ali and Richard Pryor are celebrated as early inspirations to emceeing inches away from massive photos of the Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac. The historical connection is made in a visual and sonic manner.
But it’s the gallery’s “To Be an MC” interactive display that steals the show. Visitors enter a makeshift booth to sing karaoke and record themselves rapping along to a song, battle-rap against each other, or simply spit a verse they have in their head. After they’re done, they can tap their RFID bracelet and take their personal contribution to hip-hop history home.
Follow Momentum to read more stories that inform today’s understanding of systemic racism and the folks working to dismantle it.