National Museum of African American Music Centers Black Art in Nashville : NPR

The National Museum of African American Music in Nashville.

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The National Museum of African American Music in Nashville.

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For decades, Nashville’s tourism has attracted mostly white tourists for its country music, bachelorette parties and honky-tonks on lower Broadway. But with the opening earlier this year of the National Museum of African American Musicthe city hopes to serenade more diverse tourists.

The walls are lined with national and local history, including a focus on the pioneer Fisk Jubilee Singers. Local HBCU students were direct descendants of slaves who toured and made black spirituals popular around the world. The group is the reason Nashville is considered Music City and recently won a Grammy.

Frisco, Texas resident Quiana Young had never heard of it when she visited the museum while in town for her son’s football game. “I always thought about Nashville, country music, I mean, that’s how it looks on TV and in movies,” she says.

At the museum, Young was greeted by the history of black artists and their impact on the extension of the genre. The museum also offers visitors the chance to get in on the action, like in the “Wade in the Water” exhibit, where museum visitors dress up and play choir.

Exhibition “Wade in the Water” at the National Museum of African American Music.

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Exhibition “Wade in the Water” at the National Museum of African American Music.

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For at least a decade, Nashville city leaders have worked to expand the Music City brand to include people of color. “So instead of being the country music capital of the world, it would include country music, but it would be the music capital of the country,” said museum CEO Henry Beecher Hicks.

But that was not the original idea of ​​the museum. In 1998, two community leaders, Francis Guess and Dr. TB Boyd, started a museum of African American music, arts, and culture. He was going to focus on all things Black Nashville, including fine arts, sports, politics, and our three HBCUs.

For years, the idea was honed in boardrooms and across town. While this was simmering, the city was trying to change its national brand: “The hillbilly,” says Butch Spyridon, president and CEO of the Nashville Visitors Bureau. “Are you wearing shoes? Do you have tall buildings? Do you have restaurants? »

Spyridon took part in the 20-year rodeo of revamping the city’s image. “We’re already pretty diverse,” he says evenly. “We just kept it hidden.”

He saw the museum as part of the larger picture he was working to create, but felt he should focus solely on the music. Spyridon had in mind the tight market for civil rights museums, with the Lorraine Motel west of the city and the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute more to the south.

“Being one of the 10 isn’t as cool as being one of the only ones,” he says.

People started to realize that the subject of all their conversations was music. Once everyone was on board, they decided the music would be the beat for local history and other cultural elements.

“Crossroads” gallery at the National Museum of African American Music.

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“Crossroads” gallery at the National Museum of African American Music.

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“Jimi Hendrix says, I had to learn to play guitar with my teeth because in Nashville, if you don’t play well, they’ll kill you,” Hicks says, recounting a quote displayed in the museum’s Crossroads gallery, which focuses on the Great Migration and blues music. “An artist of national and international renown, but one that really brings out how critical Nashville was to the development of his music and his musical styles,” he adds.

Hendrix, like Little Richard and Etta James, cut his teeth on Jefferson Street. This was before the government drove highways through the historically black part of town. This is a neighborhood where many thought the museum should end, but after two decades of stops and starts, it ended up downtown.

Hip hop artist from Nashville Brian Brown says it would have been nice if he landed on Jefferson Street. “But for the change that needs to be seen in this world, and for people to understand the kind of impact we’ve had, put it right there, right in the country-wack honky-tonks, man,” he said.

Hicks says the location allows tourists and locals to learn about the impact of black people on Nashville and the music industry in general. Additionally, being central allows for more foot traffic for the museum to thrive financially.

“Although the museum is not in the city’s historically black community, it is now in the center of town,” Hicks said. “And hasn’t that always been the point: to center this African-American story in the narrative of what Nashville is?”

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