National Museum of African American Music opens in Nashville

‘The soundtrack of our lives is an African American innovation.’

NASHVILLE ― Augusta’s favorite son James Brown is a larger-than-life presence on the Rivers of Rhythm Path, an animated, interactive timeline of American music history at the National Museum of African American Music in Nashville. Projected onto a panoramic installation of 13-foot-tall screens, Brown’s perfectly pompadoured image can be seen belting out his hit “Out of Sight” and performing that smooth, gliding footwork that inspired Michael Jackson. The footage from Brown’s first televised performance in 1964 is one of several highlights of the 56,000-square-foot museum that opened last month at Fifth + Broadway, the city’s new mixed-use development in the heart of the tourist district.

The museum’s location ― near Ryman Auditorium, former home to the Grand Ole Opry radio show, and steps from the Honky Tonk Highway, a strip of iconic country music bars on Lower Broad ― was not without controversy. Originally slated for the corner of Rosa Parks Boulevard and Jefferson Street in a predominantly Black neighborhood, it was relocated downtown before ground was broken, “where the opportunities for engagement are greatest, where millions already come on pilgrimages to sacred sites of musical engagement and learning,” museum board member Lucius T. Outlaw stated in an editorial for the Tennessee Tribune.

“It’s a museum that celebrates African American excellence and culture in the heart of downtown Nashville, and for some, that seems odd,” said Henry Beecher Hicks III, the museum’s president and CEO. “I think we are a perfect fit. The American music that is the soundtrack of our lives is an African American innovation.”

Funded in part by the city of Nashville and the state of Tennessee, as well as private donors including Amazon and Vanderbilt University, the $60 million museum encompasses the 200-seat Roots Theater and six galleries. Museum-goers start their visit with a 15-minute orientation film that chronicles the 400-year evolution of Black music in America and documents how it branched off into dozens of genres, including jazz, blues, bebop, rhythm and blues, hip hop, rap and more. From there, the galleries are organized by era and detail historical events, such as the Great Migration and the Harlem Renaissance.

“The museum showcases all genres of African American music and how it became American music,” said John Fleming, a historian and the museum’s director in residence who has been instrumental in opening six African American-themed museums around the country. “For instance, in the R&B gallery, you see how Elvis Presley was influenced by African American singers. One thing I’ve always emphasized is that African American history is American history, and the same can be said of music.”

Deeply rooted in historical research, the museum is educational, but it’s also big on fun and interactive exhibits that appeal to everybody from grade schoolers to grandparents.

In the One Nation Under a Groove, the R&B gallery, visitors can mix their own beats and download it to their phone so they can share it with friends. There’s also a replica of “Hitsville U.S.A.,” Motown’s first headquarters in Detroit. And if it’s been a minute since you busted a move, the dance studio offers a digital refresher course. A timeline of popular dances starting from the 1950s allows you to choose your decade. Those who came of age in the ’90s can relive their club days with Montell Jordan’s “This is How We Do It.”

The church traditionally has been the cornerstone of African American communities, especially in the South. Some of the most beautiful music was born out of the ugliness of inequality and oppression. The Wade in the Water gallery examines African American religious music and its roots in the civil rights movement.

“Gospel music is fundamental to African American music,” Fleming said. “It came out of the slave experience — from field hollers, call and response and spirituals, or sorrow songs, that were all part of the Black musical tradition.”

Gospel lovers can don choir robes and join the Nashville Super Choir in the uplifting gospel classic “Oh Happy Day,” then watch a video that integrates them into the choir.

The exhibit also illustrates how protest songs of the civil rights movement were often adapted from old hymns.

“‘I’ll Overcome Someday’ was revised by cigar factory workers in Charleston, South Carolina, in the 1940s,” Fleming said. “It was revised again in the 1960s and retitled ‘We Shall Overcome.’”

The Message gallery recreates the South Bronx of the 1970s, birthplace of hip hop and rap, with iconic graffiti, streetwear fashion and breakdancing. Here Black kids used music to rail against social injustices, speaking truth to power long before these genres were commercialized. Fast forward half a century, and hip hop music makes its Broadway debut in the groundbreaking musical, “Hamilton.”

More than 1,500 artifacts and memorabilia are on view. Crossroads, the blues gallery, exhibits a “Lucille” guitar owned by B.B. King, one of Billie Holiday’s performance contracts and a stage outfit worn by Bobby “Blue” Bland.

The emergence of jazz in the early 1900s is documented in the A Love Supreme gallery. Gems on display include a Grammy awarded to the scat-singing Queen of Jazz, Ella Fitzgerald, and a trumpet owned by Louis Armstrong.

Collections manager Marquita Reed-Wright is preparing a fall exhibition to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Fisk Jubilee Singers, a student choral group based at Nashville’s Fisk University. The choir, which consisted mostly of former slaves when it was formed in 1871, embarked on a series of international tours that introduced the world to the power of negro spirituals.

“It’s still in the works, but we have a general storyline for it,” Reed-Wright said of the exhibit. “We will be collecting things from when the group first started all the way to current members to illustrate their journey.” The exhibit opens on Jubilee Day, October 6.

Back in the Rivers of Rhythm Path corridor, James Brown relinquishes the stage to Prince, who croons his haunting ballad, “Purple Rain,” during a downpour at the Super Bowl XLI halftime show in 2007. The transition illustrates the influence of one artist on the other. And that is what the National Museum of African American History does best. It captures the spirit of artists whose music is so powerful it defined an era, provided a soundtrack for generations and continues to inspire the music of future generations.

IF YOU GO

National Museum of African American Music. $24.95. Pre-purchased, timed-access ticket required. Open Saturday and Sunday only in February. 510 Broadway, Nashville. 615-301-8724, www.nmaam.org.

In Other News