Black Music Month is a year-round affair at the National Museum of African American Music in Nashville (NMAAM). Two decades in the making, NMAAM, pronounced Nay Ma’am, opened its doors earlier this year on January 18, the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday. But June, Black Music Month, was its real coming out party.
Over the Juneteenth weekend, the museum officially celebrated its arrival by kicking off its seventh Celebration of Legends Benefit Concert by presenting its own Rhapsody & Rhythm Awards to musical titans Quincy Jones, Lionel Richie, Chaka Khan, and the Fisk Jubilee Singers. Artists celebrating the legends included Eric Roberson, who served as the evening’s creative production director, Avery Sunshine, Raheem DaVaughn, Major, jazz trumpeter Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah, gospel artist Brian Courtney Wilson, Syleena Johnson, singer/actress Sheléa Frazier from the Lifetime movie The Clark Sisters: First Ladies of Gospel, Tweet and more. Angela Yee hosted the evening, with presentations by Bobby Brown, rapper Yo-Yo, as well as sponsors including Nissan, Amazon, AARP and Hallmark Mahogany.
For many, NMAAM’s Juneteenth Black Music Month activities, which also included its inaugural State of Black Music Summit, Juneteenth Block Party and official dedication ceremony, was their first major outside outing since the pandemic hit. NMAAM’s President/CEO H. Beecher Hicks III and his staff were more than elated to welcome them. Prior to the celebration, the Morehouse alum with a rich business background educated EBONY on the museum’s history and the importance of Black music overall. “This project was more than 20 years in the making and really started with Francis Guess and T.B. Boyd, two civic leaders here in Nashville,” Hicks shared. “As Nashville looked into the feasibility of having a museum focused on music, art, sports, civil rights and more, it became clear that one theme kept coming up—music. The thread that tied all of these pieces together was music, so we had to make sure that the art and culture weren’t lost. When I joined the board in 2009, we took a closer look at making the museum solely focused on that and came up with the name “National Museum of African American Music.” Now we’re open right in the heart of downtown Nashville.”
For some, Tennessee, especially Nashville, which is today known for country music, a genre that has only recently welcomed multiple Black artists into its ranks, seems like an odd location. But the city has a rich history, Hicks schooled, befitting of such a legacy. “Historically, Tennessee was the center of the Great Migration, when approximately 6 million African Americans left the South—with their musical traditions in tow—to relocate to large cities and other areas of the Northeast, Midwest and Western states,” he explained.
“With Nashville known as Music City, the museum will be the final jewel in the city’s crown. We’re preserving the history of America’s soundtrack in a place where music is celebrated on a daily basis. As the only museum in the nation with a dedicated focus on the impact of African American music, NMAAM strengthens and diversifies the “Music City” brand with compelling connections to both local and national musical distinctions. Additionally, Nashville is a place where significant African American music events and artists thrived. The Fisk Jubilee Singers, Jimi Hendrix, Ray Charles, and Little Richard are just a few of the pioneering artists who were a part of the Nashville music scene in the early stages of their careers.”
The museum takes on the gargantuan task of condensing more than 50 music genres and styles across seven galleries, providing a one-of-a-kind experience exploring the history and impact of Black music through videos, song snippets, artifacts and more that is aesthetically pleasing and immersive, even allowing visitors to create their own beats and songs that they can email to themselves. The self-guided tours, which typically span 90 minutes, begin in the Roots Theater, at the center of the museum.
“Visitors begin their journey with an introductory film presentation that gives an overview of West and Central African cultures and the institution of slavery. This is where the story of “American music” truly begins,” Hicks said, detailing the typical guest experience. “Born out of African musical traditions telling Christian narratives, spirituals were the first kind of distinctly American music. As you move through the gallery, you’ll explore how these spirituals go from the cotton and tobacco fields of the South to Black churches of the Great Migration, eventually becoming gospel music.”
Even though Black music has its origins in Africa, its contributions to the music of this country are all encompassing. “American music is Black music. It is intertwined with our history; the music that we love comes out of that context,” Hicks stressed.
As NMAAM’s leader, Hicks said “one of the things I most enjoy seeing is that so many of our guests feel at home when they come to the museum. Home is an intangible feeling that you get when you go to a place where you are welcome, accepted and understood; no one has to tell you that you are home. So, I don’t think it’s obvious, or stated explicitly, but I do think that people get that feeling at NMAAM because their experience is centered, their history is told. Not only is NMAAM the home for Black music, but it is also home for all of us who live it and for whom it is the soundtrack of our lives.”