NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Because our birthdays fall close together, my friends and I started a new tradition where we take annual trips together. This year, Ireland was a pipe dream. Colorado came up, too. Then, somehow, we settled on Tennessee.
Between you and me (and everyone else I told) I wasn’t sure how much fun we’d have, but it turned out to be a trip to remember.
Among the many gems we visited was the National Museum of African American Music in Nashville. (We also hiked mountain trails in Gatlinburg and watched a live radio broadcast in Knoxville.)
Situated on busy Broadway Street, the museum opened in 2021 and is the only museum of its kind with a focus on celebrating the influence of African American cultures, traditions and experiences on more than 50 genres and subgenres of music.
We had limited time to spend, so we dove headlong into the experience, paying special attention to the museum’s interactive options.
We began our journey in the Roots Theater, where we watched a film that offered a preview of what we were about to see and hear, going back from the present to the music traditions before the slave trade.
From there we moved on into the museum’s main exhibition, which is designed as a timeline — in the center is a long corridor lined with floor-to-ceiling screens and interactive tables.
The corridor branches off into various galleries, each examining one of five themes in Black music history:
- Wade in the Water: the evolution of indigenous African musical traditions that were transformed into spirituals, hymns and contemporary gospel;
- Crossroads: the stories and impact of Black migration, the blues, work songs and field hollers in the 19th century that influenced rock and roll;
- A Love Supreme: the influence and survival of indigenous African music traditions through jazz and its sub-genres, like swing and bebop;
- One Nation Under a Groove: how after World War II the combination of jazz, gospel and blues gave birth to rhythm and blues and its many sub-genres, like hip hop, techno and funk;
- The Message: about the emergence of hip hop and its influence on popular culture.
The museum explores the evolution of Black music, using a combination of wall text, videos, participatory experiences and interactive tables that allow visitors to trace spheres of influence in the development of artists, styles and songs.
The interactive tables in the central corridor explore key moments in Black music history, from its indigenous roots to today, and offer a variety of decades and connections to investigate.
Picture it: It’s homecoming at Mission College. You see that some of the male protagonists of “School Daze” have shed their clothes and are heading for the stage. You hear a drum intro and then that iconic beat as the camera pans down below a string of disco balls to show the group E.U. kicking off a performance of “Da Butt.”
I was surprised to learn that the song is an example of the passage of musical traditions that have morphed and traveled around the country and the globe. The rhythm in “Da Butt” is a synthesized version of the kplanlogo bell pattern. This technique originated in sub-Saharan Africa and has a similar sound to patterns heard in Cuban music and salsa, as well as to the “Bo Diddley” beat.
The tables inside the various galleries allow visitors to map out and visualize who has influenced whom. The screens show what looks like a solar system of spheres, each sphere an artist to select.
In one gallery, I selected T.L.C. I knew they were producing music at the same time as En Vogue, Mary J. Blige and Mariah Carey, but I hadn’t connected the dots to consider how they influenced Nicki Minaj, Rihanna, Beyonce, and Alicia Keys, or how they themselves were influenced by Janet Jackson, The Supremes, Salt-N-Pepa and Whitney Houston.
As a big fan of instrumental and classical music, I was excited to see William Grant Still, “the dean of Black American composers,” and I learned that his peers included Ethel Waters and Lena Horne, that he influenced Duke Ellington, and that he was influenced by Paul Robeson, Scott Joplin and W.C. Handy.
Makin’ Moves and Hot Tunes
One of my favorite interactive moments was from One Nation Under a Groove. I was a music producer during the social and political changes that occurred during the 1960s and ’70s. Taking into account the emergence of Black pop, the popularity of the jukebox and radio, and the introduction of music-dance television programs like “Soul Train,” my job was to experiment with new sounds in rhythm, arrangement of instruments, vocals and percussion to create a hit record.
Apparently, I make songs with “attitude,” similar to the Hitmen, the producers behind Sean “Puffy” Combs’ Bad Boy Records and 90s hits for Mariah Carey, Faith Evans and Mary J. Blige.
Even though my friends and I each experimented with the same basic options and variations, each of our songs was different and stayed true to our individual styles.
The museum’s participatory experiences include opportunities to groove to a dance challenge, create a hip hop beat, sing with the Nashville Super choir and more. If you can, I recommend that you visit the museum with others to participate in a shared and memorable experience.
Being on a budget, the price of general admission for adults ($24.95) felt a little high to me, but I would still recommend that you purchase a wristband for an additional dollar. By tapping your wristband on icons throughout the galleries, you can save your experience and walk away with curated Spotify playlists featuring the music you’ve explored and the videos or beats you’ve created.
We were bar hopping the night before on Broadway, a stretch of blocks packed with bars, each with open windows and spaces vibrating to the sounds of live bands and musicians essentially playing right next to one another.
The first bar we visited featured a band performing a mix of raspy country, blues and Michael Jackson favorites. The second, across the street, stopped us in our tracks with a high-energy performance of Gavin DeGraw’s soulful “I Don’t Want to Be” and lured us in with emo (a descendant of punk rock) hits that tugged at our everlasting emo/middle school heartstrings.
To hear so many genres of music being played simultaneously, each born of or touched by the Black experience in America, highlights the need of cultural sites like the National Museum of African American Music to serve as community archives that inspire, welcome and keep this history alive. To have the museum be an integral part of this bustling and popular street, bursting with tourists, music lovers and performers, only reinforces the importance of the museum itself and the stories it celebrates.