Stories to Watch 2019: The National Museum of African American Music

MuseumRendering Courtesy of The National Museum of African American Music

Black music has played a major role in American culture since African people were first brought here as slaves in the 17th century. Nashville soon will be the home of a unique space for exploring that legacy in great depth. After nearly two decades of preparation and planning, the National Museum of African American Music is set to open near the end of 2019 on a date to be announced; a grand-opening ceremony will follow in 2020.

The museum is slated to occupy a 56,000-square-foot corner of the mixed-use Fifth + Broadway development, facing Bridgestone Arena on one side and the Ryman on the other. CEO Henry Beecher Hicks III and his team are focused on making the museum a place to look closely at the threads of black musicians’ influence and to follow them in the many directions they extend. 

“We’re doing something a little bit different, in the sense that most music museums deal with a genre, a label or an artist,” says Hicks. “We are not going to be as specific as that. Instead, we’re really going to look at the evolution of American history, so from probably the early 1800s through the present day. Then, as we take a walk through American history, we take a look at what genres popped up and became predominant.”

To serve that mission, the museum’s exhibits will be organized into five galleries. “Wade in the Water” tells the story of gospel music and its evolution into soul and other related genres, while “Crossroads” outlines the blues’ history and its effects on a huge variety of music. “A Love Supreme” traces the deep roots of jazz, while “One Nation Under a Groove” looks at R&B and its myriad offshoots, from funk to techno and beyond. “The Message” looks at how hip-hop became an integral part of the past four decades of popular music. 

Museum2Rendering Courtesy of The National Museum of African American Music

The story is massive, so patrons will have some navigational help from an app called Rivers of Rhythm (preview it at rofr.nmaam.org). It’s similar to a streaming music service — users can choose an artist, and the app will suggest other musicians to check out: those who influenced that artist, as well as others who were inspired by their work. 

The museum has about 1,000 artifacts in its collection now and expects to have some 1,400 by the time it opens. Items displayed at a media preview in August included movie posters, instruments and stage costumes. Standing next to a Dior gown worn by Whitney Houston emphasized the impact of physical artifacts: I was shocked to see that Houston’s immense voice and presence emanated from a person with such a small frame. In addition, some 25 technology-enhanced interactive features are planned, including one that will allow visitors to sing in a choir (with a little green-screen magic) under the direction of Nashville gospel legend Dr. Bobby Jones.

Museum3Rendering Courtesy of The National Museum of African American Music

The concept of unity that informs the One Nation Under a Groove gallery — named after Funkadelic’s 1978 album — is something that Hicks sees as a crucial function for the museum in our time of social crisis.

“I think that however we’ve gotten here, whether it’s property-tax shortfalls or challenges with policing,” he says, “taking the opportunity to think about how civically we are able to be united — to trust one another, and to use music as a tool to have fun together and to be one nation or one city — is a great, great, great thing. This museum should be able to help us do that, so we’re excited to be a part of it.”

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