African American music, like African American culture, or really any culture for that matter, is a broad and multi-faceted thing. No one song, or group of songs, or even genre can fully describe or encapsulate all of the history, influence, stories and societal changes that have been touched by African American music over the last almost four centuries. Which is why the new National Museum of African American Music in Nashville has seven galleries dedicated to the art form.
Museum President and CEO Henry Beecher Hicks III told me back in 2018 that the original idea for the museum was to focus on African American culture in general. The idea to make it a national museum with a focus on music was hatched in 2011.
"We changed it to the National Museum of African American Music," he said then. "'National' because we want tourism. We want to attract people to Nashville — and to focus on the music piece. That is the city's brand."
He said music tells the history and the history influenced the music, and not just for African Americans.
"This is the story of American music. I like to say we cover everything from slave music to hip-hop," he told me.
In the works for almost 20 years and originally set to open in 2019, the 56,000-square-foot facility just opened on Church Street in a town known as the country music capital of the world. It is currently only open Thursday through Sunday, but will begin adding days in the coming weeks if and when COVID-19 restrictions are lifted.
Within its seven galleries, the museum focuses on more than 50 genres and styles that were created or influenced by African Americans. These include spirituals, blues, jazz, gospel, R&B and hip-hop. The displays feature artifacts and memorabilia where applicable, and technology helps people immerse themselves in the music and its importance in society.
The Roots Theater, for example, uses film to tell the story of music during such historical periods as Reconstruction, the Jim Crow era, the Great Migration, World Wars I and II and the Harlem Renaissance. The hall will also be used for performances and lectures in the future.
Touch-panels and an interactive timeline in the Rivers of Rhythm Pathways gallery takes patrons through the full history, from Southern religious and blues music to current R&B and hip-hop. Other galleries are Wade in the Water/The African American Religious Experience: Early 1600s to Present; Crossroads/The Great Migration and the Emergence of Blues: Early 1900s; One Nation Under a Groove/Civil Rights Movement: 1940s to Present; A Love Supreme/Harlem Renaissance and the Emergence of Jazz; and The Message/Urban Renewal: 1970s to Present.
The self-guided museum takes about 90 minutes to tour and is currently open from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Thursday-Sunday, though entry times are only every half hour from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Central. You must book in advance. As of press time, limited capacity, masks and distancing were still enforced.
Tickets cost $24.95 for adults and $13.50 for children ages 7-17 (free for those 6 and younger), with discounts available for students, educators, military personnel and seniors.
While you're in town
The new Fifth + Broadway development opened in early March and travelers looking for new places to eat and shop might want to check it out after visiting the National Museum of African American Music, which shares the huge two-story space with more than 30 shops and restaurants.
Among the retailers:
The Dry House
Veseo Swimwear and Lingerie
State & Liberty
Hollie Ray Boutique
The Studio 208 art showroom
An Apple store is planned to open some time in the future in the space.
Restaurants in the space are:
Hattie B’s Hot Chicken
Slim & Huskey’s pizzeria
Jeni’s Splendid Ice Cream
The Twelve Thirty Club
Blanco Tacos + Tequila