National Museum of African American Music Opens in Nashville

SBO Staff • FeatureJanuary/February 2021 • February 12, 2021

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In celebrating Black History Month in 2021, we had the opportunity to shine a light on the first-of-its-kind museum, Nashville’s new National Museum of African American Music, which had a “soft opening” on MLK Day last month. As a local, I have been eagerly watching its progress from the outside the past two years as construction was underway across from the Nashville Arena. 

The museum is “dedicated to preserving and celebrating the many music genres created, influenced, and inspired by African Americans. The museum’s expertly curated collections share the story of the American soundtrack by integrating history and interactive technology to bring the musical heroes of the past into the present.”

Nearly all genres of American music can trace their roots to influences by Black musicians. Many would not exist without them, from jazz, blues, rock and roll, to folk, bluegrass, country. All were impacted by Black musicians. And of course, there was a distinct impact on choral music, spirituals, their contributions are countless. The tree of American music has many Black roots.

When I was a young student musician, discovering the roots of my musical favorites was a quest, one that continues today. Having access to a museum with the curation standards of our local Country Music Hall of Fame and The Musicians Hall of Fame, but specifically focused on the rich history of musical contributions of Black Americans across all manner of genres is such an incredible teaching tool on so many levels, from music appreciation, to infinite applications for social and historical studies impacting society and cultural changes.

I had a great conversation with Tamar Smithers, director of education & public programs for the National Museum of African American Music, to get more details on this new museum, and its myriad educational programs and performance opportunities. It is going to be a must-see destination for your student groups when travel returns to music programs.

Why was Nashville was chosen as the location?

Nashville has such a rich cultural history around Black music that many people don’t even realize or know. Think back to Jefferson Street in the ‘60s and even earlier than that, you had musicians from all over coming, and when they would come to Nashville, they would frequent the clubs and the music venues on Jefferson Street. So, the project is really a project that has been 20 years in the making. There were elected officials and people that were invested in the project that came together and said, “We need a museum that really highlights the African-American music that is in Nashville,” but not only in Nashville but nationally as well. And so, originally, it was the Nashville African American Museum of History and Music Culture. Over the years, some things changed, people on the project changed. I probably would say within the last 10 years, it really picked a theme and it moved from a Nashville focus to a national focus and focusing on the contributions that African Americans have made to American music.

Why would a band director or jazz educator want to bring students to the museum?

One of the things that really is different about our museum is we tell the story of music chronologically. So, people may ask, how are you different from, you know, the Smithsonian or any other sort of music museums? And while other museums might focus on a specific genre or a specific artist, we really tell the story chronologically, so it’s more historical. The history, the foundation, and then really being able to show the students that there is representation, and they can see themselves in the music. We have a trumpet from Louis Armstrong. We have a fur coat from Ella Fitzgerald. We have a jumpsuit worn by Whitney Houston. We have over 1,500 artifacts throughout the museum, and so we have some great things, we have some sheet music. we cannot wait for everyone to see it.

One of the cool things about our museum is we have RFID bracelets. At each interactive, you’re able to capture what is done on this RFID bracelet. And everyone who purchases a ticket will be given an RFID bracelet to keep all of their information that they’ve obtained throughout the museum storyline on this RFID bracelet that can be uploaded to their smartphones or what have you later.

As a child I was told Elvis got “Hound Dog” from Big Mama Thornton, and it set me off on finding out other origins, like Led Zeppelin was copping Willie Dixon blues songs. This stuck with me. I needed to know.

And make those connections, right? So, we do definitely cover that within the narrative of the storyline. But even to take that further, there are students today that I have worked with, and they’ll be listening to a song that has been sampled over and over again. And it’s like, no, originally, that was done by this particular artist. And they actually like the original more than the song that they’re listening to. But it takes that information, and that push from music educators, lovers of music to really engage our young people and let them know, this is the foundation, this is sort of how it started, this is how it is today. I think that sparks discoveries and it really makes them think “Okay, well, what can I do? How can I see myself in the music?” I am so thrilled that we will be able to be sort of a hub for that sort of innovative thinking and creativity.

Frequent contributor to our magazines, Margaret Campbelle-Holman, is helping develop a curriculum for the museum, can you tell us more?

She is our education consultant building this magnificent curriculum that we have around all our permanent galleries and is a wealth of knowledge. I am thrilled and can’t wait to share with the world our Rivers of Rhythm curriculum which will highlight and touch on all six of our permanent galleries going from our Wade in The Water to the message, and then our Rivers of Rhythm Pathways gallery that we have. It’s geared towards students in grades three through six. It will adhere to state and federal standards. Originally, we had only wanted to focus on music in ELA standards. However, when we were doing focus groups in the initial building out of the curriculum, we had teachers around the table, parents around the table. One of the things that came out of those focus groups is that teachers really want a curriculum that is fully comprehensive that encompasses all of the core standards, right? So, not just the music teacher will be able to use the curriculum to teach their students but a science teacher, or a history teacher, a social studies teacher, or even a math teacher. We are making sure that we add those additional standards to the curriculum so that way it can be utilized for teachers of all subject areas.

You touched on something outside of interest to music teachers, and that is the social studies, the social aspect of this. African American music, its roots sprang from [the] conditions they experienced, particularly during times of enormous oppression.

Music has always been the great unifier, right? No matter what background you come from, no matter what you’re going through, everyone can connect to and relate to music. But music has also been, and I believe always will be, a vehicle for people who are dealing with the challenges of society. So, like you said, back in enslavement, music was used as inspiration and hope. But, also, there was also coding in music when, you know, there was escapes from slavery, and for civil rights and using it as activism.

And even today, I mean, music is just so important. I say this with great confidence, I don’t think there’s any other more powerful art form than music. And I love dance, but I really feel that music has the ability to take you to a particular moment in time, right?

And you know this, there are studies that show that music has the ability to scientifically bring a patient who is suffering from Alzheimer’s and dementia, it brings them back from whatever state they’re in, and they’re able to really engage. Music is just so, so powerful.

When you’re onstage and you’re performing and you close your eyes, all you hear is the music. And you can connect with people through the music, right?

The opening was delayed until this past month. COVID-19 is the unavoidable discussion now, especially for anything group or in-person. How has the museum impacted your opening and how will people safely visit?

We have been blessed during this season of COVID. We’ll definitely be making sure that we are following CDC guidelines, and having social distancing, and all of those measures in place to ensure the safety of anyone that visits the museum. I don’t imagine that we’ll have school groups or school tours coming to visit us until at least, I think, August, so we’re still prepping and preparing for that.

But what I will say is that, you know, before the pandemic hit, we had been doing all of our programs that we have in person in the community, partnering with other venues and organizations. And the pandemic really caused everyone to pause, take a moment, really think about what we wanted to do and how could we still engage our audience and pivot our programs to a virtual platform, and that’s what we did. We stopped our in-person programs mid-March, took the last two weeks to really re-envision what those programs would look like virtually, and we did come back with some virtual and digital programming.

Before the pandemic hit, we were able to reach 2,900 people through all of our programs of all different ages. To date, we have reached over 200,000 people with our programs, all over the world. I think that speaks to the power of these platforms that we can use. We’re really trying to create an educational footprint that will not only impact here in Nashville but will extend outside as well, so all over the nation and all over the world.

Recently, we have partnered with Quaver Music to partner on our “From Nothing 2 Something” program that is geared towards students in K-8 but can be for students of all ages. It really highlights the foundation of how innovative African Americans and enslaved Africans had to be when they came to this country to create music. So, they were forced here, right? They didn’t have their instruments. They only had what they could remember. “From Nothing 2 Something” is literally thinking of how can you be innovative and create music, create nothing from something? It’s usually a one-hour workshop that we do around seven units, and the spoons, harmonica, washtub bass, cigar-box guitar, lyrics, banjo, and rhythm and drums. We give the historical foundation of the instrument, the genre, the musical style. We have a well-known and prominent teaching artist or musician who will come in and teach the instrument and perform. Mr. Spoonman Talley who is well-known in Nashville and around the world for his spoon playing, he teaches our spoon unit. Mr. Carlos DeFord Bailey, who is the grandson of the legendary DeFord Bailey, teaches our harmonica unit.

We give out instruments to the students, whether it be spoons, harmonica, drumsticks, or we teach them what they need to build a washtub bass, and they actually perform [with] those instruments. And then when they’re done, they get to take that home. We partnered with Quaver to present our spoons and banjo units on their platform, and it is absolutely amazing.

We also have a Music, Legends, & Heroes program, which is geared towards high school students, and it’s an opportunity for high school students to connect with a well-known musician, a music industry heavy-hitter, and really get an intimate conversation going with them. It’s an opportunity for them to present some of the work that they’re doing artistically and get some feedback from that artist or a music industry leader, and it provides an opportunity for them to actually build those skills in doing a program themselves because this is a program that we work with them, but they really tailor it and really format how it will look themselves.

We also have our Sips & Stanzas, which is a monthly musical networking series where music lovers, musicians, artists, everyone can come together and really just talk about all things music. We also have our Emerging Artist Series where we give a platform to up-and-coming emerging artists to perform, and we do some showcases for them throughout the year as well.

And then another program that we have is our Fine Tuning program. And so, similar to our Music, Legends & Heroes program for high school students, this is a bit more focused on college-age students and up, for emerging artists who want to fine-tune their craft and learn financial literacy around being an artist. So, you love to write music, perform, want to be an artist, but what does that mean? Because although we’re focused on the artistic [process], what do you do after you write the song? This is how you market and brand yourself, this is what licensing is.

And even when we do go back to in-person programming…and I don’t have a specific date for that yet just because COVID is just very fluid. I do see some light at the end of the tunnel with the vaccine being out, but I don’t think that we’ll be having any in-person programming probably before April. We’re committed to this “museum without walls” model past opening. While we’ll have an ongoing schedule of programs, and events, and activities within the walls of the museum, we’re still gonna be out there in the community across Nashville and Middle Tennessee. We’re still gonna be doing these virtual programs, we’re still gonna provide digital resource materials for teachers, and parents, and homeschool students.

Are there going to be opportunities for a band or a choral group to perform at the museum?

I definitely see opportunities for a performance for student groups. I don’t think we could be an educational space around music education and not have those opportunities for our young people. We’re still working through what that looks like, but my vision is, you have this student group or this band that’s coming through and then there’s a culminating experience where they’re able to perform in our lobby area or on the stage if it is after-hours because we have our Roots Intro Theater that is our intro theater to the gallery.

What is the current projected open date?

The virtual ribbon cutting was on MLK Junior Day. I think that’s very apropos for our virtual ribbon cutting. We were fully open to the public on January 30, and we’ll be open Saturdays and Sundays throughout February from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. We’ll probably reassess mid-February to see if we can add some more operational hours in there, but it’s really all dependent on COVID right now.

I am hoping that we’ll be able to welcome school groups in by August, and that’ll be contingent upon the school districts and whether or not they’re allowing the students to travel outside of the school for field trips and things of that nature.

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