New museum traces history of Black music across genres

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People walk to the entrance of the National Museum of African American Music, Saturday, Jan. 30, 2021, in Nashville, Tenn. Unlike other museums that focus on a genre or label, this new museum is the first to span multiple genres including gospel, blues, jazz, R&B and hip hop. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – A new museum two decades in the making is telling the interconnected story of Black musical genres through the lens of American history.

The National Museum of African American Music, which opened with a virtual ribbon-cutting on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, 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.

Even as Nashville has long celebrated its role in the history of music, the new museum fills a gap by telling an important and often overlooked story about the roots of American popular music, including gospel, blues, jazz, R&B and hip-hop.

“When we think of the history of African American music and the important part it has played in our country, it was long overdue to honor it in this type of way,” said gospel great CeCe Winans, who serves as a national chair for the museum.

The idea for the museum came from two Nashville business and civic leaders, Francis Guess and T.B. Boyd, back in 1998, who wanted a museum dedicated to Black arts and culture. And while there are museums around the country that focus on certain aspects of Black music, this museum bills itself as the first of its kind to be all encompassing.

“Most music museums deal with a label, a genre or an artist,” said H. Beecher Hicks III, the museum’s president and CEO. “So it’s one thing to say that I’m a hip hop fan or I’m a blues fan, but why? What was going on in our country and our lived experience and our political environment that made that music so moving, so inspirational, such the soundtrack for that part of our lives?”

The museum tells a chronological story of Black music starting in the 1600s through present day and framed around major cultural movements including the music and instruments brought by African slaves, the emergence of blues through the Great Migration, the Harlem Renaissance and the civil rights movement.

When Winans recently took a tour of the museum, she saw her own family of gospel singers, The Winans, represented in the museum’s exhibit on spiritual music alongside the artists that influenced her own musical career.