NASHVILLE — Thanks to Tina Turner, our museum strategy fell apart like a bargain-basement evening gown. Our plan was to explore the National Museum of African American Music in chronological order, starting with the music from pre-Colonial West and Central Africa and winding up in 2018 with Childish Gambino. You know, like serious, museum-going adult persons.
Hah! As soon as we heard Tina belting out “What’s Love Got to Do With It,” we followed that magnificent voice through the galleries and into a theater where a larger-than-life Anna Mae Bullock (her real name, as true fans know) was doing her thing in a concert film — all legs, choppy shag, and unmistakable husky contralto. Then came Whitney, who just wanted to dance with somebody, followed by Usher and Alicia Keys crooning “My Boo,” and, just when we were getting out of our seats, Rihanna launched into “Umbrella.” We couldn’t leave then.
Like a toddler who only rides the teacups at Walt Disney World, were we destined to spend our entire visit to the 56,000 square-foot, $60 million NMAAM in one small room?
That’s the way this museum grabs you. Although the gorgeous space has a design theme — wave-like, sinuous lines that flow through the museum like music — it’s a sure bet you will sprint to your favorite artist, game plan be damned. “Most people hustle right over to the genre they love,” says museum curator Dr. Steven Lewis. And they bring someone in their party along for the ride. “I’ve seen grandparents introduce their grandchildren to The Temptations,” one of the perks of the job, he notes. The emotion that connects us to music runs deep.
Opened on Martin Luther King Day in 2021, NMAAM starts the narrative with the music brought to the New World by the slave trade and traces how those traditions melded with European music to create African American music, Dr. Lewis explains. One of the oldest pieces on display is an early African fiddle. “It’s important to keep the roots of this music alive for generations,” he adds.
The displays behind glass are definitely eye-catching, especially the clothing — Whitney Houston’s gown! George Clinton’s funky suit! Duke Ellington’s tuxedo jacket. A preppy 1950s sweater that you can tell at a glance was worn by Nat King Cole. Altogether, the collection includes 1,500 pieces (not all are on display). Each gallery incorporates design elements that reflect the character of the music featured within; church pews in the gospel music gallery, graffiti panels in the hip-hop gallery, and a juke-joint look for the blues gallery, for example. “One Nation Under Groove,” featuring the history of R & B, Soul, Funk, and Techno, is the largest gallery. Each gallery has a short film that explores the history of that genre, plus three different concert films play two times an hour in the museum’s Rivers of Rhythm corridor. It’s worth the price of admission to see Prince, the size of Shrek thanks to the magic of video, filling the hall with his powerful voice and towering presence. Even teenagers stopped playing with their phones to pay homage.
The traditional elements of the museum are engaging, but it is the interactive part that really captivates (and entices some guests to spend several hours here). Visitors receive an RFID bracelet enabling them to download and save content from interactive exhibits, so that everyone who visits gets a musical souvenir.
Among the things you can do: Bust some moves on an interactive dance floor, following the choreography or free-styling (wildly popular); and sing along with a gospel choir. With the latter, your recorded image is superimposed on the choir and you can download a video of yourself. There’s a booth where you can rap, join a rap battle, or freestyle rap, and a fun experience called “Let’s Make a Hit,” where you play producer to create a song that reveals your musical style (Philly soul and Motown for us). “You get to be creative but also learn something about the music,” Lewis said of that one. Another experience, “Storytelling the Blues,” engages you in building your own blues song.
Warning: You could spend hours on the touch tables in each gallery, navigating between profiles of artists, the folks who inspired them, and the folks they inspired, wearing headphones and grooving to the music.
It’s all pretty snazzy, for sure. But behind the tech-wizardry is a message: This music is an important part of American history. Back in 1998, local business leaders recognized that Nashville was lacking a place like this. Although there are museums devoted to genres like Motown and soul, “This is the first museum in America to focus on the breadth of the African American music experience,” Dr. Lewis explains. “We want people to come away with an understanding of the depth and variety of African American music and its traditions — and a deeper understanding of the music they love.
“It’s important to consider the roots of the music we enjoy and how it connects to Black history in general,” he continues. “We as a museum have a major role to play in that conversation.”
Music City has embraced this year-old museum. Benefit concerts honoring guests including Lionel Richie, the Fisk Jubilee Singers, and Chaka Khan have added to the buzz. But anyone who visits will leave with a happier spirit and some spring in their step — maybe even dancing out the door and onto Broadway. In Nashville, dancing in the street isn’t merely allowed, it’s required.
If you go: The National Museum of African American Music is open daily 9 a.m.-5 p.m. (closed Tuesday). Adults, $24.95; ages 7-17, $13.50; under age 7, free. 501 Broadway, Nashville; 615-301-8724; www.nmaam.org.
Diane Bair and Pamela Wright can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org