Updated: Sep 20, 2022
Alive with sights, sounds and history, the National Museum of African American Music shines a light on the often-overlooked influence of Black music in America.
The museum opened Jan. 17, 2021 — Martin Luther King Jr. Day — at Fifth and Broadway, the center of Nashville’s bustling downtown.
Through six highly interactive galleries, NMAAM educates visitors about about different music genres originated by Black artists, lifting up African American history and art in the heart of Nashville.
“The fact that it’s located in the downtown area is even more of an asset of the city because a lot of people … who might be coming in here to hear country music can visit this museum and get a real appreciation for Black history,” said Romeli Wallace, an NMAAM volunteer.
Neisha Alexander, another NMAAM volunteer, agreed. Though Nashville is famous for its country tunes, she hopes museum visitors will come away understanding that Black music is an undeniable part of the music scene in Music City.
“It’s so much needed in this city because people are just one-sided and think of the type of music that Nashville is about,” she said.
From gospel, jazz and blues to R&B, hip-hop and rap, the influence of African American musical traditions cannot be ignored. The museum takes visitors on a journey through music history and drives home the truth that music in America, even modern genres like pop and rock, could not exist not in their current form without centuries of contributions from Black musicians.
When visitors step into the museum, they are greeted by the “Wade in the Water” gospel exhibit, directly funded by former Belmont president Bob Fisher and his wife, Judy. Fisher also sits on the board of directors of the museum.
Alexander thinks the “Wade in the Water” is the perfect place to start the tour, she said.
The exhibit features music industry artifacts, like clothing worn by famous gospel artists in the mid-20th century, as well as hymnal books. Visitors can even don a gospel choir robe and sing along with “Oh, Happy Day,” a gospel hit from the 1960s.
“It’s a great foundation of learning how our music came about, why it came about and what was going on with African Americans because we needed that music as an outlet from what was being experienced during the enslaved times,” Alexander said.
Within the gospel music exhibit, viewers are taken through the legacy of the indigenous African music brought to America by enslaved Black people. Spirituals, born of hardship and used for worship and the practice of oral traditions, were the first form of Black musical expression in the U.S. and served as the foundation of contemporary gospel music.
Inside the “Wade in the Water” gospel exhibit. Belmont Vision / Melody Scott.
Visitors learn about music as a force for freedom. The “A Love Supreme” gallery showcases the Harlem Renaissance and Jazz Age of the 1920s, and explores how these styles of music were used as an outlet from injustice. From swing to bebop, the museum breaks down different styles of music that helped African Americans express themselves fully in a time of Jim Crow and segregation.
At its heart, NMAAM highlights the impact of diversity in the music industry, and the museum attracts visitors from far and wide, including celebrities like Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis.
It is a learning experience for everyone, said Alexander.
“When people come through here of all nationalities, of all colors, of all religions, of all races, they are thrilled,” she said.
As part of the university’s inauguration of President Greg Jones, Belmont students had the opportunity to visit the museum for free during the Wednesday festivities, spending the afternoon taking in history.
“I’m looking forward to looking at other cultures and exposing myself to new things,” said freshman Ben Greene while boarding the shuttle bound for downtown.
Freshman Andrea Argueta agreed and was excited to see the museum for the first time.
“I’ve heard a lot of good things about it, so I’m also excited to learn about the culture and see everything that’s there,” said Argueta.
In addition to learning about the evolution of music genres rooted deeply in Black history, visitors have the chance to create their own hip-hop beats, compete in rap battles and curate their own playlists in the museum’s interactive exhibits.
But no matter which exhibits they choose to explore and connect with, all visitors to NMAAM can come together in the spirit of music appreciation.
“I think it unites us a whole lot,” said Alexander. “It gives me so much joy, and it’s humbling at the same time to know what so many people did to bring all this great music to us.”
For more from students and museum staff, check out the Vision’s video story of the relationship between NMAAM and Belmont.
Visitors at an interactive exhibit in the museum. Belmont Vision / Melody Scott.
This article is part of the Vision’s continued coverage of the inauguration of President Greg Jones.
PHOTO: The entrance to the “Wade in the Water” exhibit at the National Museum of African American Music. Belmont Vision / Melody Scott.
This article was written by Melody Scott and Chloe Collins. Contributory writing by Anna Jackson.