Hip-Hop

Nashville's National Museum of African American Music: An Inside Look

Courtesy of NMAAM

One Nation Under a Groove gallery recounts the history of R&B from WWII to present day.

Nashville’s long-anticipated National Museum of African American Music (NMAAM) is now open to the public on a limited schedule.

NMAAM, which recently received a $1 million donation from Amazon and established a music education partnership with Sony Music Group, vividly tells the story of Black culture’s contributions and influences throughout the history of American music.

Once inside the 56,000 square-foot space, patrons can interact with six permanent exhibits that span several centuries and 50 musical genres. The first gallery that visitors will encounter is Rivers of Rhythm, described by NMAAM curator Steven Lewis as the “central space that connects the more genre-focused galleries.” The name of the exhibit, which features an interactive timeline of African-American music, was inspired by the Langston Hughes poem,“The Negro Speaks of Rivers.”

The Wade in the Water exhibit chronicles the history of African-American religious music, starting with indigenous African spirituals and musical traditions. The Crossroads and A Love Supreme exhibits (the latter borrows its name from jazz pioneer John Coltrane's iconic album) focus on blues and jazz, respectively. One Nation Under a Groove (the title of the Funkadelic classic) recounts the history of R&B from WWII to its contemporary counterpart. Final exhibit The Message (Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five) traces the development of rap/hip-hop from its origins in the South Bronx to its global impact.

NMAAM also houses several mini-exhibits including The Business Behind the Music. Sponsored by Sony Music Group, the display spotlights trailblazing Black industry executives such as Logan H. Westbrooks (Capitol, Mercury, CBS and Source Records) in addition to record labels and publishers that have played important roles in music history.

Courtesy of NMAAM
The museum’s interactive technology includes this display allowing visitors to try their hand at beat-making.
Courtesy of NMAAM
Jazz exhibit A Love Supreme is one of six permanent NMAAM installations.

Lewis joined NMAAM in 2018 after serving as a research assistant to the curator of music and performing arts at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History. In collaboration with NMAAM president H. Beecher Hicks III, the museum’s advisory committee and two additional curators, Lewis has spent the last three years collecting more than 1,400 artifacts to display. Once a framework was set for what the museum could include, says Lewis, “we looked for items to illustrate and interpret the history we were trying to convey.”

For instance, museum visitors will see a trombone donated by Helen Jones Woods, a trombonist with the International Sweethearts of Rhythm -- the first interracial all-women’s band in the country. (Woods, the mother of Urban One founder/chairperson Cathy Hughes, died last August.) Other artifacts include a guitar on loan from the B.B. King Museum plus a cape and wig donated by Parliament-Funkadelic frontman George Clinton.

Of equal importance is the impact that African-American artists have had in NMAAM’s hometown. “The Nashville stories are woven throughout the space,” Lewis says. Among those prominently featured in those stories are Dr. Bobby Jones, host of BET’s longest-running series Bobby Jones Gospel and the Fisk Jubilee Singers. Lewis adds that a future temporary exhibit dedicated to the Fisk Jubilee Singers will further examine Nashville’s Black history.

NMAAM is currently open on Saturdays and Sundays; visitors must reserve tickets for appointed times. Visit nmaam.org for more information.