Located across the street from the famed Ryman Auditorium in downtown Nashville, Tennessee is the National Museum of African American Music. The state-of-the-art facility finally highlights the significant role the Black community played in what we consider to be American music.
While the museum is in the Music City, known for its ties to country music, it actually spans all genres. The areas are broken down into these styles of music, including gospel, blues, jazz, soul, R&B, rap, and rock.
Interactive exhibits include the chance to sing with a gospel choir, mix a rap song, and connect artists with their influences. A bracelet saves your favorite songs and playlists for later listening. There’s also a 200-seat theater.
The first exhibit starts with the period of slavery when Indigenous customs were brought over and mixed with European hymns. The songs were often sung in churches, which became an important place for the Civil Rights Movement.
The historically black colleges and university choirs were especially influential, including Nashville‘s Fisk Jubilee Singers. Mahalia Jackson and Sister Rosetta Tharpe also became important figures in the movement as well as in music.
In the Jim Crow South, venues cropped up that were a place for Black performers to play. There were even African-American-owned labels like Black Swan. The Blues became a way of storytelling, especially with traveling performers and vaudeville shows.
The blues lead directly into the British Invasion when bands covered the songs from blues artists, adding in the use of the electric guitar. The Beatles in particular cite the genre as an influence, along with Mississippi’s own Elvis Presley.
During the Roaring 20s, jazz music was the style of choice in speakeasies and underground clubs that attracted patrons of all backgrounds. Chicago and St. Louis in particular were the breeding ground for the style but the Harlem Renaissance showcased the artists of New York City .
After World War II, the radio became cheaper and entered thousands of homes. This made music more accessible to more people. This saw a rise in Black artists in events like the Newport Folk Festival and in genres like country and bluegrass. Another exhibit focuses on New Orleans’ Congo Square, Storyville, and the second line parades.
The National Museum of African American Music is an incredible look at the history of American music through the lens of Black artists. It’s an important addition to the music history told at the spaces around Nashville.
If You Go
The National Museum of African American Music is located at 510 Broadway, Nashville, Tennessee 37203. It’s open 7 days a week from 9 am to 5 pm and until 7 pm on Thursdays. Admission is $25 for adults, $19 for seniors and students, $14 for youth, and free for children under 7.
Parking is not included with entry but there are a number of parking decks nearby including the one at Assembly Hall. Plan for at least an hour and a half but you’ll likely want to stay longer if you read every panel and participate in all the activities. Guided tours are also available.