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A Look Inside Nashville’s National Museum of African American Music

“What I hope people take away from the museum is a sense of common humanity."

By Teree Caruthers on March 16, 2021

Photo by 353 Media Group

More than a decade in the making, the National Museum of African American Music (NMAAM) is the newest gem in Music City’s crown. Located in the heart of downtown Nashville across from the historic Ryman Auditorium, the NMAAM celebrates the dozens of genres of music created or influenced by African Americans, from gospel and blues to soul and hip-hop. Read on for 10 things you don’t want to miss at Tennessee’s new museum celebrating African American music history.

Press Play

Warm and inviting, the museum’s main lobby is the first stop on your musical journey. From the 3D instruments carved into one of the main walls to the soft blue lighting that acts as a guide throughout the museum to the live musicians serenading visitors in the Dr. & Mrs. T.B. Boyd III & Family Feature Gallery, the lobby is itself a work of art.

“My favorite place in the museum is actually the lobby,” says H. Beecher Hicks III, president and CEO of the NMAAM. “It really has been fascinating to me to see the joy people experience when they come in and see the museum for the first time.”

Digital Display

Each visitor receives a RFID wristband that allows you to download playlists, videos and even your own recordings to a digital account attached to your personal email address. A link to your self-curated online gallery is emailed for you to enjoy long after your visit.

“We worked with Spotify and Gallagher & Associates, who designed the exhibits for the wristband technology,” Hicks says. “We wanted ways that people could take the experiences of the museum with them.”

Photo by 353 Media Group

Times Tables

The heart of the museum is the Rivers of Rhythm Pathways. Beginning with the slave journey from Africa to the Americas, the gallery’s interactive touch tables weave the history of African Americans with the music that defined each era. Choose an era from the menu and then with headphones can explore songs, sounds and speeches from that time period – for example, the Harlem Renaissance reveals a live recording of Duke Ellington at the Cotton Club, a poem by Langston Hughes and a sampling of hits from Black Swan Records.

Photo by 353 Media Group

Walls That Sing

The Rivers of Rhythm gallery walls, which are covered with the names of hundreds of notable African American musicians and recording artists, double as giant video screens. Watch a showstopper by James Brown or a larger-than-life Super Bowl halftime performance by Prince that will take your breath away. In fact, each gallery features a viewing room where visitors can watch live performances and hear the stories of the artists who influenced the genre.

Photo by 353 Media Group

Genre Benders

The hands-on touch tables in each gallery allow visitors to sample songs from artists of a particular genre. You can read a short bio of the artist and listen to songs from their catalog, then, with a few finger taps can discover the music of the artist’s influencers, peers and musical protégés across other genres. Use your wristband to download the new music you discover.

“The concept behind the museum overall is the interconnectedness of music,” Hicks says. “How one genre is not so dissimilar from another, and how the way we live our lives and the way that we experience music is not strictly by genre.

Oh Happy Day

In the Wade in the Water gallery that focuses on African American religious music, you can slip on a choir robe and sing along karaoke-style with Grammy Award-winning gospel singer Dr. Bobby Jones and the Nashville Super Choir. The exhibit video records your performance, which you can save to your wristband.

Photo by 353 Media Group

Music Makers

Other gallery exhibits encourage visitors to create your own masterpiece while learning the history of the type of music you’re making. In the Crossroads gallery, you can build and record your own blues song by choosing different lyrical situations. In other galleries, you can improvise with a jazz band; lace melodies, rhythms and vocals to produce a hit record; or even perfect your pop and lock in the breakdancing studio.

A Treasure Chest

In addition to the interactive exhibits, the NMAAM is home to hundreds of photos, artifacts, and memorabilia from throughout African American music history. Marvel at a trumpet owned by Louis Armstrong, a pantsuit worn by Whitney Houston or a jacket from the Purple Rain tour.

Photo by 353 Media Group

Shop Til You Bop

While the RDF wristband gives you access to much of the museum’s digital music collection, the museum gift shop gives you the chance to take home a physical reminder of your visit. You’ll find just about everything – from books, vinyl albums and CDs to instruments, hats and hoodies – all created or inspired by African American musicians.

Photo by 353 Media Group

One Museum Under a Groove

Perhaps the most enjoyable feature of the NMAAM is the sense of community the music creates.

“What I hope people take away [from the museum] is a sense of common humanity. As you’re standing at the touch table, for example, I hope that you’re standing next to someone you don’t know, maybe someone that looks a little different than you do or has a different life experience than yours, but you can still enjoy and bop your head to the same song,” Hicks says.

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