Take a Beat at These Museums Exploring Black Music History
Nashville's futuristic National Museum of African American Music sets the tone for Black History Month and beyond.
“Are you having fun?” The attendant at the National Museum of African American Music (NMAAM) swooped by, genuine concern in his voice. I was admittedly concentrating—hard—at the “Let’s Make a Hit” interactive booth. “You be the producer!” said the directions underneath. “What’s your style?”
I picked a funk-heavy beat, then layered female vocals. “Your production style is Philly Soul!” it declared, spitting out my tune, which I could then save to the RFID bracelet given to me at the entrance, allowing me to listen to my muddy creation over and over at home. “Others in the genre include Benny Sigler and Gamble and Huff.” Generous comparisons—these were the producers that laid the groundwork for disco, after all—but informative.
Opened on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in 2021, the 56,000-square-foot NMAAM trades on one very important tenet: You can’t just read about music, it has to be experienced. The producing booth is one of several. There’s also a sound booth where you can rap along to artists like Kendrick Lamar and Nicki Minaj, and challenge a buddy to a rap battle, and one to create a hip-hop beat.
In a room with a green screen, guests perform gospel with Nashville’s own Dr. Bobby Jones and the Nashville Super Choir. And among artifacts like Whitney Houston’s mink-trimmed jacket, Trina’s jewel-studded boots, and BB King’s Lucille guitar are digital “Roots and Streams'' tables to map out musical family trees. Choose an artist like Jay-Z and see his peers (Nas), his influences (Eric B. & Rakim), and who he’s influenced (Ye). Slide your RFID bracelet up to the table, add those to your playlists, and re-live the experience at home.
But it’s not all high tech. Pluck a single-stringed diddley bow to get a feel for the instrument that greatly influenced the sound of the blues. There are expositions on people and milestones you may not be as familiar with, like Brenda Andrews, the first African American woman to become a partner in a major worldwide music publishing group, and a record from the first Black record company, the jazz- and blues-centric Black Swan, which paved the way for today's Black-owned labels.
And there's a whole dance studio, perhaps the first for a museum, where you can follow along with choreography for songs by artists like Motown pioneers The Contours (“Do You Love Me”) and Montell Jordan (“This is How We Do It”). So, yes, I was having fun. Even if my own song kind of sucked.
Contrary to conventional knowledge, Music City was not nicknamed for country music. As the story goes, when the Fisk Jubilee Singers—the legendary globetrotting HBCU singing group composed of descendants of the enslaved—performed spirituals for Queen Victoria, she was enamored, declaring that they must be from a “city of music.” And that, they were. The choral group is still going strong, celebrating their 150th anniversary in 2021 and sporting a full schedule of upcoming shows, including one at a Lakers game. The Fisk Jubilee Singers alone make Nashville a wholly appropriate home for a museum spotlighting the history, reach, and cultural significance of African American music.
But there’s more: In the 1920s, Nashville venues hosted blues acts like Bessie Smith and Ethel Waters. The city’s Jefferson Street was in proximity to three HBCUs, and fostered a thriving Black community, with clubs like Club Baron bringing in acts like Little Richard, Tina Turner, Otis Redding, and Jimi Hendrix. Elsewhere, the Grand Ole Opry's stage has been visited by James Brown (at the invitation of country star Porter Wagoner), as well as the Pointer Sisters.
While other cities like Memphis and Detroit may seem more poised for a museum focusing on Black music, Nashville is one place where it all intersected. Which is why the mission of NMAAM— situated right across the street from the Ryman Auditorium and blocks away from honky tonk row—is to “educate the world, preserve the legacy, and celebrate the central role African Americans play in creating the American soundtrack.”
Five galleries link 50 genres and 1,500 artifacts throughout history, from Wade in the Water, which dates back to the 1600s, to Crossroads, documenting the emergence of blues, A Love Supreme, focusing on the Harlem Renaissance and jazz, the post-WWII R&B and Civil Rights of One Nation Under a Groove, and the lively exhibits of The Message, following hip-hop and rap to the present. The Rivers of Rhythm interactive table in the center links them all via a timeline. Occasionally an in-room performance will pop up—if you’ve ever wanted to be steps from a larger than life Prince performing "Purple Rain," this is where it can happen.
Along with Stax Museum in Memphis, NMAAM was added to the Civil Rights Trail in 2022, bringing the number of stops in Tennessee up to 14 and cementing their place in history. Plus, the future: On weekends, an emerging artists stage in the lobby hosts up-and-coming acts, with sounds piped out to the street. And who knows, with the recent founding of the Black Opry—currently featuring a revue of BIPOC artists on tour—you may just see a Country Music section added soon.
Other Museums to Explore Black Music History
National Jazz Museum in Harlem
Harlem, New York
This Smithsonian affiliate makes it a priority to preserve and to expose diverse audiences to jazz music, producing 100 free shows in New York annually. It’s also home to the Savory Collection, which spans over 100 hours of live recordings of jazz legends made from New York City radio broadcasts aired between 1935 and 1941.
The New Orleans Jazz Museum
New Orleans, Louisiana
Stationed in the Old US Mint, The New Orleans Jazz Museum celebrates jazz in the city widely recognized as the genre's birthplace. So much so, that near the French Quarter lies New Orleans Jazz National Historic Park, the site of free outdoor concerts plus tours by rangers who often are musicians themselves.
American Jazz Museum
Kansas City, Missouri
Kansas City’s historic 18th and Vine District was created in the early 20th century when Black Missourians weren’t allowed to move below 27th Street. Hundreds of businesses thrived, and a new style of jazz was pioneered. Learn all about it inside this museum before visiting area clubs like the Mutual Musicians Foundation, which has run popular weekend jam sessions since the 1930s. Make it a two-fer—the Jazz Museum is right next door to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, which was also added to the Civil Rights Trail just last year.
Trap Music Museum
Southern trap, named after the slang for drug peddling establishments, has since become one of the most popular forms of rap music. It’s only fitting that its namesake museum—co-founded by Atlanta rapper T.I.—pays homage to its beginnings. You’ll find a collection of Atlanta hip hop memorabilia tracing the genre and its practitioners, including the pink Chevy owned by 2 Chainz that once sat in front of the celebrated Pink Trap House. All this plus a bar and an interactive Escape Room, with the ultimate goal of escaping the trap.
Delta Blues Museum
Home to musicians like John Lee Hooker and Muddy Waters, Clarksdale and the surrounding areas are thought to be where blues began, probably most known as the location of “The Devil’s Crossroads,” the junction where Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil (supposedly), marked by a trio of electric guitars. The Delta Blues Museum, in a former train depot, explores the birth of the genre.
B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center
The man who would become the legend B.B. King was born Riley B. King on a plantation near the small town of Indianola, Mississippi. He would play on street corners for change, before hitchhiking to Memphis in 1947 and kickstarting an extraordinary career earning him everything from a Grammy lifetime achievement award to honorary doctorates to Kennedy Center Honors to his own Google Doodle. This museum tells the story of King’s rise to fame in the context of the Delta, race relations and civil justice. It’s also the site of the annual BB King Homecoming festival every summer.
Stax Museum of American Soul Music
As the story goes, Otis Redding first pulled up to Stax Records as a chaffeur for a band who had come to record at the studio. Their session bombed, he was allowed to take the mic, and that was the beginning of him eventually becoming the jewel of the label. This 17,000-square-foot museum sits on the site of the old recording studio, a.k.a. Soulsville, USA, which produced 167 hits with artists like Redding and Booker T. Step back in time with memorabilia like Isaac Hayes' custom gold Cadillac, plus vintage recording equipment. And don’t forget to bring your dancing shoes for the Soul Train disco floor.
The Universal Hip Hop Museum
Bronx, New York
After the 50th anniversary hip hop retrospective at the Grammys this year, the Universal Hip Hop Museum knows you're eager to delve deep into the genre. And when this two-story, $80 million museum in the birthplace of hip hop opens in the end of 2024 it will be a repository for over 30,000 pieces of memorabilia, plus a very cool-sounding 1970s subway car that will double as a bridge. Until then there's pop-ups at the nearby Bronx Terminal Market. There will also be a full-on virtual experience with performances—what they're calling a metaverse—so keep a lookout for that. For now you can explore digital spaces like an interactive timeline and interviews relating to items in the collection.
Hitsville, USA is the original headquarters and recording studio of Berry Gordy’s Motown Records, today housing artifacts, photographs, and memorabilia, and a restored upstairs flat where Gordy lived with his family during the early days of the label. It’s currently closed until the end of February 2023 for a $50 million expansion, to open as a mind-blowing 50,000-square-foot complex of entertainment. Until then, there’s the Motortown Revue, a virtual exhibit also experienced on what they've dubbed the "Motown Mile," eight interactive kiosks along the Detroit waterfront.
The Colored Musicians Club & Jazz Museum
Buffalo, New York
The Colored Musicians Club & Jazz Museum began as a union meeting place for the African American musicians excluded from the whites-only Buffalo musicians union, Local 43. In 1917 they formed their own union, Buffalo Local 533, with a social club component for musicians to socialize and drink cheap beer after gigs. After purchasing their permanent space on Broadway it became a thoroughfare for performers like Duke Ellington, Nat King Cole, and Dinah Washington, and in 1999 was deemed a historical preservation site. Last year an expansion was announced, to further cement its place and future in African American history.