Black History Month

12 Essential Ways to Experience Nashville’s National Museum of African American Music

What to see, listen to, and do when you visit.

National Museum of African American Music
Photo courtesy of National Museum of African American Music

The legendary, 150-year-old Fisk Jubilee Singers gospel choir was just nominated for a Grammy in November 2020. A few months later, a Frito Lay Super Bowl commercial starring NFL vets Jerry Rice and Peyton Manning featured the music of Tim Gent, AB Eastwood, and Bryant Taylorr—three pillars of Nashville’s thriving hip-hop scene.

From the past to the present, the city’s Black music scene has been getting its due lately, and nowhere is that on greater display than the newly opened National Museum of African American Music in downtown Nashville. 

“Really, American music was born in the South,”  says Henry Beecher Hicks, the museum’s president and CEO. “At the end of slavery and the beginning of The Great Migration, when our grandparents began to migrate north, they very possibly went through Tennessee. Tennessee really, in so many ways, is the crucible of American music. We’re just bringing it back home.”

“Home” is now at the corner of 5th and Broadway, just steps from the famed Ryman Auditorium and right in the heart of a honky-tonk haven. At first glance, the museum may seem out of place, what with country music piping into the streets from giant outdoor speakers. But Hicks believes that the location in Nashville’s famed tourist district is the best-case scenario—for foot traffic as well as the effort of connecting past to present.

“Although Nashville is famously known for its ties to country music, the museum’s downtown location will attract a new audience of travelers who are interested in the history of many American music genres,” Hicks says.

Some might ask (and they have) why the museum isn’t located in other prominent Black music cities like Memphis, Detroit, or Chicago. As it turns out, a former board member of the Nashville Convention & Visitors Bureau first came up with the idea in 2001 and, after all these years, the state found funding. City officials required that the museum be included in a $450-million development deal for the site of Nashville’s former downtown convention center. Initial plans called for an opening of Labor Day 2020, but due to pandemic delays, the long-awaited museum didn’t debut until, fittingly, Martin Luther King Day in 2021.

Despite the roving opening date and current limited hours, museum reps are hopeful that traffic will rise as cases and restrictions fall. After all, the museum houses 1,600 pretty incredible artifacts—from Ella Fitzgerald’s Grammy Awards to a guitar owned by B.B. King. What’s more, there are tons of interactive elements where visitors can make their own music and take it home on a wristband. When you are ready to make your first trip to the central repository for all things Black musical innovation, here’s more of what you can expect to find.

National Museum of African American Music
Photo courtesy of National Museum of African American Music

Watch films in the Roots Theater

The first pages of the story of Black music in America began in Africa, where men and women were captured and brought to the country against their will. They may have come empty-handed, but in their hearts they carried the music and the rhythms of their homeland. The introductory film shown in the Roots Theater depicts this musical journey, highlighting how, once the enslaved disembarked in this new land, African traditions merged with American circumstance to produce new sounds and customs that evolved and transformed, again and again, into the styles and sonics that have shaped our culture. Film subjects range time periods, from Reconstruction, Jim Crow, the Great Migration, World Wars I and II, and the Harmen Renaissance.

National Museum of African American Music
Photo courtesy of National Museum of African American Music

Experience concert footage in the Rivers of Rhythm

The entire NMAAM exhibit is divided into five musical galleries that represent the larger musical branches from which all American musical genres ultimately sprout. Arranged chronologically, they also reveal the timeline of Black musical exploration and expression. But before you can make your way through these galleries, you must pass over the Rivers of Rhythm. On screens lining the walls of the corridor that provides entry into each of the galleries, concert footage of Prince, James Brown, and others showcases the power of Black music.

Below, an interactive table walks you through the songs that made Black—and American—history one era at a time. Interested in hearing the music that provided the soundtrack to the Black experience of the 1930s and 40s, when segregation still reigned but Black folk were beginning to make a name for themselves in the world of sports and entertainment? There’s a playlist for that, featuring Count Basie’s “King Joe,” a tribute to Black boxing champion Joe Louis, sung by college football All-American and former NFL player Paul Robeson.

National Museum of African American Music
Photo courtesy of National Museum of African American Music

Discover plantation-based spirituals and modern choirs

To survive and thrive as a Black person in America, particularly during the period of enslavement and immediately after, is to be imbued with a faith that surpasses logic and rationality. And this faith, coupled with a natural inclination to make joyful noise, lead to what would eventually become known as gospel music. The Wade in the Water gallery beautifully tracks this progression, from plantation-birthed spirituals to the modern sounds of Kirk Franklin, Anthony Brown, Yolanda Adams, and others. It also features an interactive feature that lets visitors try their hand at singing along with a choir led by the great Bobby Jones.

“This interactive exhibition is powerful because it lets the visitor experience the joy of participating in music-making,” says the museum’s curator, Dr. Steven Lewis. “The visitor gets a hands-on introduction to the gospel choir tradition.”

National Museum of African American Music
Photo courtesy of National Museum of African American Music

Get an introduction to the blues

Emancipation didn’t bring liberation for African Americans living in the south, and many of the formerly enslaved still found themselves chained to the land and exploited for their labor. The music never stopped, though, and the songs of heartbreak and distress that rang out from mouths of sharecroppers and railroad workers alike became the basis for the blues. Later, as Black folk traveled north in search of true freedom, they carried their blues with them, ultimately swapping acoustic guitars for electric and adding piano and other instruments. In the Crossroads gallery, visitors learn the stories of blues pioneers including Robert Johnson and Bessie Smith; they’ll also see how the music of the Black rural south became the stylistic foundation for country and rock and roll.

National Museum of African American Music
Photo courtesy of National Museum of African American Music

Improvise your own jazz song

If the blues is the unvarnished depiction of what was and what is, jazz is the expression of what could be, a sonic fantasy composed by some of the greatest musical geniuses of all time. In the A Love Supreme gallery, visitors are reacquainted with well-known artists including Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, and Ella Fitzgerald, even as they are introduced to more obscure figures like the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, the first integrated, all-female jazz band. There’s also plenty of attention paid to the racial dynamics that underscored the burgeoning genre, as Black artists like Billie Holliday faced discrimination even at their career peaks, while white artists began carving out their own space in the traditionally Black genre. The interactive experience in the gallery gives visitors the chance to live out their own Cotton Club fantasies, as they press a table embedded with notes to improvise on their own jazz song in real time.

National Museum of African American Music
Photo courtesy of National Museum of African American Music

Learn about Motown, Sun, and Stax

As World War II gave way to American desegregation, the sounds of Black musical tradition coalesced and evolved once again into rhythm and blues, a slick, commercial sound that would soon take the country—and the world—by storm. And as Black pop music grew in popularity, so, too, did the number of enterprising Black folk who wanted to assume financial and creative control of the new genre. The One Nation Under a Groove gallery reveals the stories of Black-owned Motown and Philadelphia International Records, along with companies like Sun Records and Stax, that were run by white owners looking to capitalize on the hot new sound. It also maps the ways in which R&B itself morphed into sub-genres including disco, house, and, ultimately, hip-hop.

National Museum of African American Music
Photo courtesy of National Museum of African American Music

Immerse yourself in hip-hop culture

There is no denying the culture-shaping impact of hip-hop, and The Message gallery tracks the growth of the genre from niche New York art form to global phenomenon. The music is there, of course. There are journeys of male artists from Grandmaster Flash to Kendrick Lamar, and influential women like Queen Latifah and Lil Kim. But the non-musical impact of the genre is there, too—from the fashion to the language to the ability of the art form to make gods out of mortals once relegated to the margins of society. In The Message, Jay-Z, Tupac, and so many others stand as the manifestation of their ancestors wildest dreams, the proof that music—Black music—can change lives and the world.

Make a day of it outside the museum

After a day taking in the sights and sounds at the museum, here are some ways to round out your trip to downtown Nashville and soak in even more Black culture.

For food, head down to Fifth + Broadway, a new mixed-use development opening March 4, and grab a pizza from Black-owned Slim + Husky’s. Beginning with its first location in historically Black North Nashville, Slim + Husky’s has been mixing music and food while serving up handcrafted pies like the P.R.E.A.M., made with white sauce with pepperoni, sausage, and veggies, and the three-pepperoni-blend Rony, Roni, Rone.

Just a short walk from the museum is the South Shack location of Prince’s Hot Chicken, the true originator of the city’s signature spicy dish, around since the 1930s. The heat levels range from mild to XXXhot and the chicken is served on two slices of plain white bread with a few pickles on the side. Be cautious and kind with yourself.

For more on the city’s Black history, visit the main branch of the Nashville Public Library and make your way to the Civil Rights room on the second floor. Overlooking the intersection of Church Street and 7th Avenue North, the room is where non-violent protests against lunch counter segregation took place in the 1960s. Today, it's where visitors can sit at a symbolic lunch counter to honor those efforts, view photographs of children desegregating Nashville schools, and read first-hand accounts from other participants in Nashville’s Civil Rights Movement. 

Of course, check out the Country Music Hall of Fame. Country music hasn’t done a great job of acknowledging its roots in the Black musical tradition, but the connection is undeniable. From the African banjo to the Black gospel songs that served as templates for some of the earliest recorded “hillbilly” music, those who tour the Country Music Hall of Fame after visiting the National Museum of African American Music will easily find the oft-hidden links. 

Andrea Williams is a writer and editor based in Nashville, Tennessee. Follow her @AndreaWillWrite.
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