The National Museum Of African American Music Opens

The wait is over! The National Museum Of African American Music (NMAAM), two decades in the making is telling the interconnected story of Black musical genres through the lens of American history.

The institution is a testament to the global influence of Black artists, highlighting the tremendous yet often unsung contributions of Black American musicians. A rich legacy spanning more than 400 years and upwards of 50 musical genres and subgenres.

A Brief Tour

The National Museum of African American Music is seated in the heart of Nashville’s musical tourism district, alongside honky-tonks and the famed Ryman Auditorium and blocks from the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. It opened with a virtual ribbon-cutting on Martin Luther King Jr Day.

The museum features a 200-seat theater, a research library, interactive exhibits, and six period-themed permanent galleries with more than 1,600 artifacts that bring the story of Black music—and American history—to life. From Blues legend B.B. King’s “Lucille” Gibson guitar to a bedazzled face mask worn by rapper Future at an awards performance.

The National Museum of African American Music‘s six interactive sections covers around 50 genres of music with a focus on gospel, blues, jazz, R&B and hip-hop.

History As It Should Be Told

Many historians, anthologies and exhibitions have traced the history of Black music before, but this is the first time an entire museum has been devoted to demonstrating and celebrating how Black artists fundamentally shaped American music, and the world, until now. 

Francis Guess, a civil rights advocate, proposed the idea first. Along with T.B. Boyd III, the then president and chief executive of the R.H. Boyd Publishing Co., gathered with local leaders for monthly meetings in their living rooms to raise enthusiasm and seed money.

The Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce conducted a feasibility study for a museum encompassing African-American culture in 2002. In 2011, its focus was narrowed to music. Backed by the city and community members, the 56,000 square feet was allotted to build the institution in downtown Nashville. 

The museum has 1,600 artifacts in its collection, including clothes and a Grammy Award belonging to Ella Fitzgerald, a guitar owned by B.B. King and a trumpet played by Louis Armstrong. To make the best use of the space, the exhibits are layered with interactive features, including 25 stations that allow visitors to virtually explore the music.

Visitors can learn choreographed dance moves with a virtual instructor, sing “Oh Happy Day” with a choir led by gospel legend Bobby Jones and make their own hip-hop beats. Visitors can take home their recordings to share via a personal RFID wristband.

After a year of racial reckoning through the movement of Black Lives Matter, H. Beecher Hicks III, the museum’s president and CEO, said the timing couldn’t be more perfect to highlight the contributions of Black music towards a shared American experience.

By: Anjana Sathyanarayan