The National Museum of African American Music in Nashville, Tennessee, hosts its dedication ceremony Monday, January 18, Martin Luther King Jr. Day More than a collection of interesting artifacts, the museum traces the rise of African-American music and its influence on American culture.
Each of the museum’s seven galleries highlights a different side of the African-American experience. For example, the Wade in the Water space focuses on religious music, from indigenous African music to spiritual music and hymns of slavery to gospel music from the 1940s to 1960s.
The museum also follows the roundabout route of black music across the racial divide. As white listeners became fans, their relationship with Blackness was slowly disrupted, says Shana Redmond, musicologist at UCLA. Later, well-known black musicians took a stand for civil rights. This fusion of political and cultural power has pushed the needle far farther than ever, says Redmond.
“We can proudly say that African Americans are at the center of American culture,” says H. Beecher Hicks III, the museum’s president, “without turning anyone away, without condemning anyone, but instead, welcoming everyone. world and say: American music and we all have a place at the table. ”
When Marquita Reed-Wright was hired to run a new museum of black music, she began amassing a unique catalog of artifacts. Among them: Ella Fitzgerald’s fur coat, Louis Armstrong’s trumpet and an accordion that belonged to zydeco icon “Queen Ida” Guillory. She even visited funk musician George Clinton in the “middle of nowhere” of North Florida so he could give her his stage costumes – including his rainbow wig.
The 1,500 objects that Dr. Reed-Wright has collected will be on display at the National Museum of African-American Music in Nashville. The dedication ceremony for the $ 60 million museum takes place on Jan. 18, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, with the doors officially opening to the public on Jan. 30.
What sets this collection apart the most is the story it tells. The museum tells the story of the rise of African-American music and, by extension, the history of black culture and identity. More than that, it reveals how Central African American music has been to American culture. As such, the museum sees itself as a unifier, where all visitors can appreciate a shared humanity through a common love of music.
“I don’t think the significance or importance of this type of museum can be overstated,” says Shana Redmond, music, race, and politics specialist at UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music. “There is actually a really urgent need to establish a location and a concerted effort of experts to explore and document these stories for the public. Black music is truly a place of incredible creation, incredible reflection.
A journey through history
The museum, located across from the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, measures 56,000 square feet and includes a 200-seat theater. It represents more than 50 genres and subgenres, including gospel, blues, jazz, R&B, soul, disco and hip-hop. (If music had a periodic table of the elements, they would form a large block under the recurring properties of rhythm and groove.) Various interactive stations throughout the museum encourage visitors to click on the names of individual artists to learn more about them, their influences and their impact. These stations also generate playlists for later exploration.
“Some of the interactive elements that we have, you can download and share with people after you leave the museum,” says Dr Reed-Wright, museum collections manager. “The concept of community is to be able to share that.”
Each of the museum’s seven galleries highlights a different side of the African-American experience. For example, the Wade in the Water space focuses on religious music, from indigenous African music to the spirituals and hymns of the era of slavery to gospel music from the 1940s to the 1960s. The Crossroads Gallery narrates the story. The history of the blues – including its influence on country music and rock and roll – and how the Great Migration of Black Workers from the South of the 1940s brought the blues to northern cities. In another gallery called The Message, visitors can engage in rap battles while learning about urban hip-hop culture.
A fusion of political and cultural power
Today, hip-hop dominates popular culture. But it took lifetimes of progressive steps for black music to achieve wide recognition. In the 1800s, many white people first heard traditional songs composed by slaves when blackface minstrels performed them. Later, “We Shall Overcome” was popularized by folk singer Pete Seeger, but it was originally a 19th century spiritual that took off as a rallying song for a black women’s union in Charleston, Carolina. from South. The beginnings of jazz and blues music were divided between black and white artists. It wasn’t until after the 1930s that Nat King Cole, Marian Anderson, Billie Holliday, Duke Ellington and Count Basie crossed the racial divide.
As white listeners became fans of these musicians, their relationship with Blackness was slowly disrupted, says Ms. Redmond, the musicologist. This does not mean that the white public has embraced integration accordingly. Attitudes have been slow to change. But, later, black musicians, including Nina Simone, Aretha Franklin and Harry Belafonte, made an impact by taking a stand for civil rights. They were not only stars, but also political figures. As Mrs. Redmond puts it, “It’s not just, ‘I’m a black musician’. So if you love me, you must have a different feeling of Blackness. You have to fight with me all, not just with me as a movie star. It is also me as a person who is fighting for a better future for all of us.
This fusion of political and cultural power has pushed the needle far farther than ever, says Redmond, who is not affiliated with the museum.
“We all have a seat at the table”
The museum’s One Nation Under a Groove gallery, devoted to the struggle for civil rights from the 1940s to the present day, includes a section on the influence of African Americans as CEOs and producers behind music. It traces the empowerment of blacks in the music industry. In 1982, Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”, produced by Quincy Jones, became the world’s best-selling album. Over the past few decades, some of the world’s biggest superstars have been Black – think Prince, Whitney Houston, Rihanna, Jay-Z, Beyoncé, and many more.
The museum’s mission is to educate, preserve and celebrate this heritage, says President and CEO H. Beecher Hicks III. But, he adds, the death of George Floyd last year was a vivid reminder of racial disparities in America. This inspired his team to work with a newfound vigor because they believe in the museum’s message – a message that has special resonance, he says, in the wake of the recent insurgency on Capitol Hill.
“We are able to say with pride that African Americans are at the center of American culture without turning anyone away, without condemning anyone, but rather by welcoming everyone and saying, ‘This is music. American and we’re all sitting at the table, ”Mr. Hicks said. “As we prepare to open Martin Luther King Day, we must learn to live together as brothers rather than perish together like fools, as MLK would say. And we don’t need to get mad at each other to celebrate. We can celebrate together. ”