Enter the main hall of the new National Museum of African American Music in the heart of downtown Nashville, and suddenly you’re floating on a river of song.
After watching an introductory film about the broad spectrum of Black music in America in the museum’s 200-seat theater, visitors walk beneath an arched hallway to find giant images projected onto the wall showing the timeline of American music—and America as we know it—from the 1600s to the 2000s.
“It’s a dream come true,” says Dina M. Bennett, the museum’s curatorial director. “It’s a phenomenal space. It’s beautiful. And then musically, it’s so rich.”
Throughout the museum, tables sprawl before guests like enormous digital tablets full of interactive songs and video clips. Find tunes you like—perhaps Sam Cooke’s classic “A Change is Gonna Come” from the civil rights era—and use the special bracelet on your wrist to download them for the journey ahead.
Every half-hour, the main hall transforms into a video-performance space: you might catch Prince’s unforgettable Super Bowl halftime show from 2007, a concert by James Brown from 1964 or a 2019 performance by blues musician Christone “Kingfish” Ingram at Club Ebony in B.B. King’s hometown of Indianola, Mississippi.
A crossroads of our collective culture
Opened to the public—masked-up and socially distanced—in late January 2021, the NMAAM is just over a mile northwest of Nashville’s famed Music Row, across the street from the Ryman Auditorium and blocks from the Country Music Hall of Fame. It’s also down the street from where the late congressman and civil rights leader John Lewis helped plan sit-ins in the 1960s at Woolworth’s to protest racial segregation.
“It is as much a history museum as it is a music museum,” says H. Beecher “Henry” Hicks, the museum’s CEO since 2013. “We deal with some tough subjects in the museum, but on the other side of that is a song.”
The museum’s five permanent galleries show specific chapters of African American music and how it all weaves together.
“It is as much a history museum as it is a music museum.”
In the “Wade in the Water” gallery, the walls appear to be wooden clapboards from a country church, showing digital images of greats who performed spirituals and gospel music.
Learn how Georgia Tom, a piano player for Ma Rainey in the 1920s, transformed himself into gospel master Thomas A. Dorsey, who wrote “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” and “Peace in the Valley.”
On digital displays, choose artists from each musical genre, listen to their songs and find connections. Choose Mahalia Jackson and you’ll see that Aretha Franklin sang Jackson’s “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” at the elder singer’s funeral.
With your wristband, download anything you like.
River of song
In the blues-themed “Crossroads” gallery, a film describes the Great Migration of the 20th century, when many Black Americans moved north to escape poverty and segregationist laws, taking their music with them—including the blues from the rural South all the way to Chicago.
Here you can pluck a one-stringed diddley bow, a primitive instrument that shows how people ingeniously made “something from nothing,” Bennett says, adding that the space also illustrates the musical transition “from the sacred to the secular.”
The history of jazz comes alive in “A Love Supreme.” The stunning gallery features a trumpet that belonged to Louis Armstrong and a trombone from Helen Jones Woods, who as a teenager in the 1930s left home to join the all-female International Sweethearts of Rhythm.
In “One Nation Under a Groove,” learn how soul and R&B music emerged after World War II, springing from a mix of blues and gospel. See hats and a dress from Whitney Houston, a suit worn by Ray Charles, and a bright-blue robe from George Clinton, the godfather of funk. There’s even a dancefloor with a digital choreographer to teach you some new moves.
In “The Message” gallery, explore the history and evolution of rap and hip-hop. A film shows how urban decay created the context for the music, and how emerging technology made turntables and boomboxes available to all. Get to know different regional styles and the moguls of rap from Run DMC to Missy Elliott, and learn how Hamilton brought hip-hop to Broadway.
Inside a booth, become an MC. Rap alone, freestyle or battle a friend, and experiment with hip-hop beat-making.
Nearly 20 years in the making, NMAAM's location changed three times in the planning phases and its construction survived a massive tornado and the pandemic.
Perhaps Hicks sums it up best when he says, “In these times… we could use some moments of healing, and music helps with that.”