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Why all American music is rooted in African American expression, a new museum shows

As more people are starting to learn about the history of African Americans, there is one component that’s particularly integral to understanding the national culture: music.

African American artists created and influenced genres from the blues, jazz and hip-hop to rock and roll. Bluesmen Muddy Waters and B.B. King electrified that genre and galvanized rock guitarists, and trumpeter and composer Louis Armstrong changed the jazz landscape — all building on traditions brought to American soil by enslaved people.

Educating the world on the central role African Americans have played in “creating the American soundtrack” and preserving that legacy are the missions of the National Museum of African American Music, which debuted in Nashville on Martin Luther King Jr. Day on January 18. The museum opens to the public on Saturday.

On display here are interactive exhibits as well as artifacts including a Gibson guitar, “Lucille,” played by B.B. King, a Grammy won by jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald, a gold-plated trumpet owned by Armstrong and a kimono worn by singer-songerwriter and pianist Alicia Keys.

In development since 2002, the museum seeks to deepen visitors’ appreciation of American music by showing that there is more to the stories of more than 50 music genres and subgenres — details that have been obscured by factors such as racism, cultural appropriation and industry labeling, said NMAAM President and CEO Henry Beecher Hicks and Dina Bennett, an ethnomusicologist and NMAAM’s curatorial director.

“Often the story lines of music and of these songs deal with social justice, the quest for freedom and the social quest for equality, for a better life,” Hicks said. “Those kinds of messages are nothing new. And they really are a core element of the story that we tell.”

While other museums have focused on different genres of African American music, this is the first comprehensive museum that “has actually laid out the experience of African Americans in the creation of these musical traditions that spanned from the 1600s, when the first Africans were brought to the US as enslaved peoples, to the present day,” Bennett said.

Lessons on the roots

A film overview of traditions in West and Central African cultures that predated enslavement is where guests begin. This takes place in the Roots Theater, which is both the figurative and literal nucleus of the museum experience.

“As enslaved people, they brought their music traditions,” Bennett said. “Many times their instruments were taken away from them, because their instruments were used to communicate with each other. But they still had their voice or they had their body.”

The film chronicles the “evolution of becoming African American.” Spirituals, blues, jazz, gospel, rhythm and blues and hip-hop were forms of expression created during slavery, the Reconstruction era, Jim Crow, the Great Migration, the world wars, the Harlem Renaissance and more.

While African spirituals were a sacred experience, Bennett added, the later genres were largely methods of coping with the harsh realities freed people faced.

“The root of American music is African American expression,” Hicks said.

Charting the ties between music and history

Maybe you remember what music was popular when the Twin Towers fell, or when former US President Barack Obama was elected. Those aren’t only memories, but also cultural snapshots of the political and musical zeitgeists of those times.

This concept of mirroring eras lines the Rivers of Rhythm Pathways, the “central spine of the museum experience (that) features touch panel interactives and an animated time-line that links American history and American music history,” says the museum’s website.

“From 1600 to present day, we have 13 different eras. So, there’s an era that covers the civil rights period, and when you click on it, you’ll begin to read about the March on Washington,” Bennett said. You’ll also “hear about the music that was going on … and read about different artists that were present.”

Musical hope

The Wade in the Water gallery connects the religious music of African cultures and later African American spirituals and hymns.

Those led to gospel. Photos of artists including Mahalia Jackson, interactives and artifacts depict how gospel groups influenced secular R&B, doo-wop and soul music.

For the “Sing With the Choir” interactive, the staff enlisted gospel singer and television host Bobby Jones, the leader of The Nashville Super Choir. Jones and his choir filmed a segment teaching visitors the gospel song “Oh Happy Day.”

Visitors “go into a space and stand up against the green screen and they take their directives from Dr. Jones,” Bennett said. “The film is played back with the visitor superimposed in with the choir.” With the RFID bracelet you receive when purchasing your ticket, you can download that experience to your mobile device.

Background on the blues

As formerly enslaved Africans worked in Southern US fields, some sang to accompany their work or communicate. These “field hollers” produced the blues, and the Crossroads gallery details “how the blues influenced White country music and the rock and roll sound of the 1950s,” according to a news release.

“Roots and Streams” interactives allow visitors to click on the biographies of artists, revealing who their influences and peers were, and who those artists inspired.

“If you click on the Rolling Stones, you’re gonna find out that they were influenced by Muddy Waters. They actually took their name, Rolling Stones, from a Muddy Waters song,” Bennett said. “You get to see all those little interconnections.”

The jazz explosion

A Love Supreme is the gallery that explores jazz, which emerged from African musical traditions retained in New Orleans in the 1900s. Once jazz traveled with musicians to the North, it became nationally popular.

Also highlighted are the resulting styles, and legends who made huge contributions to jazz.

Known as the Queen of Jazz, singer Ella Fitzgerald’s Grammy award is displayed here along with a fur coat she wore.

Groovy products of change

The background of R&B — a combination of blues, gospel and jazz that emerged post-World War II — is outlined in the One Nation Under a Groove gallery.

The era was not only politically transformative but culturally, too, as the music industry grew and new technologies changed how music was made and distributed.

The exhibit covers the stories of influential forces such as Motown Records, music-dance TV program “Soul Train” (1970s) and MTV (1981).

In the pattern of tracing from origin to influence, the gallery chronicles how R&B yielded genres including soul, funk, disco, techno and hip-hop. R&B’s popularity was a positive, but it was also vulnerable to cultural appropriation.

“We talk about songs recorded by African Americans that were then recorded by White Americans, and the White American version went on to get the most play and the most success,” Bennett said.

“A really great example is (‘Hound Dog’), which was a song by Willie Mae Thornton, and Elvis recorded it and the rest is history. When you peel back the layers, you understand that Willie Mae Thornton was the one who recorded it.”

Expressing a centuries-old refrain

The grit of hip-hop and rap that originated from New York’s South Bronx in the 1970s is captured in The Message exhibit. These genres were pivotal for art, street style and music production technology, which the gallery shows.

Speaking truth to power and honesty about the ongoing struggles for equality are the concepts connecting 1970s and modern hip-hop and rap.

As visitors peruse the museum’s interactives, they can create a playlist that they can download to their RFID bracelet, Hicks said. Afterward, they can go to a website to download to their device the playlist that documents the experience they had at the museum.

What Hicks also hopes that people leave with is a realization that “we’ve got more that unites us than divides us.”

“For non-African Americans,” he added, “I hope that they would realize that African Americans are at the center of American culture in a way that they maybe never considered.”

If you go

The museum, located at the intersection of 5th Avenue and Broadway in Downtown Nashville, opened to museum board members, staff, elected officials and community leaders on January 18. The museum opens to the public on January 30.

Through February, tours will be offered from 11 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays.

Admission costs $24.95 for adults 18 and older, $13.50 for children ages 7 to 17, and $18.75 for adults 65 and up, students, teachers and military. Children age 6 and younger receive free admission. You can find out about the museum’s Covid-19 plans here.

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