There are museums across the country that uplifts the contributions of Black artists, but there has yet to be an institution dedicated to the preservation of our musical heritage—until now. The National Museum of African American Music is being developed in Nashville, Tennessee to transform the way people envision music and showcase the extraordinary achievements of Black music legends worldwide.
EBONY sat down with museum chairman H. Beecher Hicks to discuss the origins of the idea and the present and future plans for the museum.
EBONY: When was the idea for The National Museum of African American Music first conceived?
H. Beecher Hicks: It was conceived by a group of city leaders in Nashville seven years ago. You may already know this, but Nashville is known as “Music City.” Most folks tend to think about that from a country music perspective, however, most folks don’t realize that the city got its nickname from the Fisk Jubilee Singers. When they toured Europe in the late 1800s to raise money for Fisk University, Queen Elizabeth made reference to how they must’ve been from a musical city. And that’s where Nashville got the name “Music City.” Nashville is very proud of the diversity in our musical heritage. Aside from the Fisk Jubilee singers and country music, Nashville is home to great R&B, soul, and gospel music. I think it was identified by the Chamber of Commerce, Convention and Visitors Bureau, and some well known African-American leaders here such as T.B. Boyd, whose family owns the oldest Black bank in the country. He said we really needed to do something to highlight the African-American contribution to music in our city. And that’s where it came from.
EBONY: The idea of a national museum for the sole purpose of honoring the vast artistic contributions of Black musicianship is a great one. Who were some of the key figures in making this grand project come to fruition?
HBH: Mike Curb from Curb Records, Butch Spyridon, the CEO of the Convention and Visitors Bureau here in Nashville, and at the top of the list is the city of Nashville. The city of Nashville has put up more than $10 million to support the effort. So – as a result, their interest is pretty high. We’re now at a point where we can engage the music industry a little bit more and we’re beginning to cultivate relationships with companies like BET and music labels around the country. Bobby Jones has joined our board. There have been many folks from the music industry, who have been involved from the beginning, but they’ve been working behind the scenes, and now we’re beginning to bring those folks out into the forefront.
EBONY: How did you become the leader for this project initiative?
HBH: Well, that’s a pretty interesting story. I’m a partner in a private equity firm called Red Clay Capital. It was based in Atlanta, GA and, then, four years ago my partner and I purchased a business in Nashville called the Gray Line of Tennessee. Nashville is a substantial tourist destination and the business we bought was a tour bus business. We handle all the sightseeing tours in the city. When I came to town and became involved with the community, it was pointed out to me that the city was very interested in building this museum and that I should consider getting involved. To make a long story short, I did, and over time, the effort has made more sense to me and it has become something I’m passionate about.
EBONY: Tennessee is a state with a diverse musical history. Stax Records was a huge recording label for Black artists through the 1960s to the mid 1970s. What is the main objective that you would like to achieve through this museum?
HBH: This museum’s objective is to tell the story of American music through an African-American prism. This includes everything from slave songs to hip-hop, gospel, jazz, blues, folk, and all the other genres in between. African-Americans have had a heavy influence on creating, modifying, and bringing those genres into the mainstream. So – that is what this museum seeks to do. It’s something that no one else has done in the country. There are some fabulous museums that recognize some artists, labels, and genres, but no place has chronicled the contributions of African-Americans to America through her music. This is a story that’s never been told and it needs to be told.
EBONY: What are some of the targeted programs for the museum?
HBH: A museum is far more than just taking artifacts and digital content and putting them in a building. If we’re going to do anything meaningful with this project, it is that we’re going to educate, enlighten, inform, and entertain. We’ve put together two campaigns called My Music Matters and Rhapsody-n-Rhythm. We’re also in the early stages of developing a curriculum that will go along with those two pieces. We want to make sure we’re educating the masses. Music is more than something that’s just fun. Music is a tool that can teach people about the history of our country. We’re in the process of working with educators, in particular, Tennessee, but around the country to develop a curriculum that will be complementary to the Common Core standards that have been adopted in most school districts nationwide. We’ll be able to assist teachers in delivering music education, history, science, technology, and math related coursework through their interaction with the museum. Whether they bring children into the museum or we export that content by sharing the curriculum to schools across the country through broadband technology.
EBONY: What is the projected date for the opening of the museum and what are some of the exhibits and memorabilia that people will be able to see?
HBH: We’re projecting an opening date for the museum to be in early 2015. Construction is scheduled to start in early next year. The museum will be very technology driven instead of being artifacts heavy. Although there will be some artifacts. There will be a fair amount of holographic technology, touch screen imagery, and it will be a very visual and multi-sensory experience. We just finished the storyline for the museum. It’s called the Rivers of Rhythm concept. We want to tell the story of African-American music through different veins or rivers if you will. We’ve developed an interpretive strategy for the museum. There will be themes based off religious music, blues, jazz, pop, hip-hop, and global music. The global music piece is going to be really interesting. We’re going to tell that story from the perspective of what has been the African-American influence on the world and its music. Our exhibits are still in the development stages, but they will be based on four themes: One, music is a cultural product. Two, music rooted in cultural legacy. Three, music as a social process and four, music as performance and innovation. This is a story of America and her music. We’re going to tell it in the most innovative and exciting way. We can’t wait.
Chris Williams is an internationally published writer. You can follow him on Twitter @CWmsWrites.