Rhythm & Roots: Taking A Trip To The National African-American Music Museum

In the fall of 2016, I was a wide-eyed college junior at American University running from the yard of Howard University to parties on U Street while somewhat taking time to figure out what I wanted to do after I graduated. At this time, the city of Washington, D.C. was brimming with excitement. In the midst of all that was going on, the Smithsonian Institution opened up the National Museum of African-American History and Culture. With the history of go-go music, Howard University and much more, it appeared to be a no-brainer that the museum would be centered in "Chocolate City."

Five years later, I am a hopeful journalist based in Nashville who occasionally enjoys a good night out, but spends most of his time inside. However, I made a plan to spend a Sunday afternoon at the recently opened National Museum of African-American Music. Unlike the National Museum of African-American History and Culture, there were a number of doubters who questioned why or how the National Museum of African-American Museum could land in an area that is less than 30% Black. While the percentage of Black residents in Nashville is relatively small, their impact is enormous. From the Fisk Jubilee Singers to James Brown's frequent performances at the Grand Ole Opry, the city of Nashville has always had an impact on America's music scene.

“When you think about Black music, what do you think about as roots? A lot of people would say New Orleans’ Congo Square or Memphis’ Beale Street. Then I would ask them who were the first people to bring that music to the mainstream, and most people wouldn’t know," Fisk Jubilee Singers Alumni Association Founder Geo Coper said about the importance of the greater Nashville area in Black music history.

"And that’s when I would tell them about Fisk Jubilee Singers, the first global superstars in America. The Negro spiritual is the mother of all the American musical genres. Fisk is the birthplace of African American music.”

Walking in the front door of the National Museum of African-American Museum, visitors are immediately thrust into the building's lush auditorium. In the auditorium, a recorded presentation provides an overview of how Black music has evolved from Gospel to Bluegrass to Jazz and beyond. After watching the welcome video, the museum is yours to explore. To the right of the auditorium, there is a playground for music lovers and historians. Each section of the main museum floor is divided by genre. As a kid born in 1995, I immediately gravitated toward the genres that made me who I am today, R&B, Hip-Hop and Rock.

The Hip-Hop and Rap exhibit at the National Museum of African-American Music stands out as the most interactive section of the museum. There are traditional displays that include artifacts, pictures and videos, but there are also spaces set aside for visitors to record their own music demo or make their own beat. It is in this section that the museum truly pulls in those who like to have fun and aren't afraid to make a fool of themselves while rapping the lyrics of their favorite songs.

Elsewhere, sections dedicated to R&B, Gospel and Jazz provide a more measured look at how persistent Black music has been throughout history. The origins of Gospel music can be found all the way back to the 1600s. Through the atrocities of the transatlantic slave trade, Jim Crow and Reconstruction, the genre has survived and maintained its place as a tool of salvation within the Black community. To a lesser degree, the same description can be applied to R&B and Jazz.

Every great museum trip ends with a stop at the gift shop. From Cash Money Records t-shirts to Michael Jackson vinyl, the NMAAM gift show was decked out with collectibles. Ultimately, I walked away with a book about the late, great Charlie Parker, but there is truly something there for everyone.

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Photo Credit(s): Getty Images

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