The National Museum of African American Music is a must-see

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A year ago, the National Museum of African-American Music (NMAAM) opened in Nashville in conjunction with Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Initially, it was only open to the public on weekends due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

With 12 months of operation in its rearview, the museum is finally open for daily operation. Nestled in the heart of Music City’s famous Broadway thoroughfare, full of bars, restaurants and venues that all play live music, the presence of this institution offers the rich history of the city’s black musical roots before it become the country music capital of the world.

After being conceptualized in 1998, officially named in 2011, ground shattered in 2017, and a global pandemic delayed its opening by four months, the NMAAM took more than two decades to come to fruition. To say it was worth the wait would be an insult, let alone an understatement.

The NMAAM is a comprehensive exploration of the history of Black innovation, adaptation and improvisation. It not only excels at providing the proper historical backdrop for visitors to understand the origin and evolution of black music, but it also gives them perspective via first-hand experience. It does so with a miraculous and meticulous dedication to interactive interfaces.

An infamous quote from Sun Records founder Sam Phillips on display at the National Museum of African-American Music. Photo by Matthew Allen

Using breathtaking touchscreen technology, visitors can create their songs, improvise to be-bop tunes, create their own hip-hop beat, and even sing along with a virtual gospel choir.

NMAAM’s connecting line is “One Nation Under a Groove”. Derived from the 1978 hit Funkadelic song of the same name, it is a manifestation of how we are all connected by our rhythm, determined both by our internal genetic ancestry as well as our shared external experience of hardship, community and perseverance.

Logline of the National Museum of African American Music. Photo by Matthew Allen

As you enter the museum, you are greeted by the Rivers of Rhythm, the hallway that serves as an introductory conduit to the main museum experience. It traces the origins of African-American music from 15th-century Africa, through the transatlantic slave trade, Reconstruction, the Great Migration and the Civil Rights movement, into the 21st century.

In the Rivers of Rhythm, visitors can go to the LED display counter to read and listen to music from each of the aforementioned eras. On its walls are photos, videos and quotes from personalities from every era that describe American life at the time, from Amiri Baraka at Scott Joplin.

From the Rivers of Rhythm, the museum branches off into its rooms and sections; Jazz, Soul, Gospel, Crossroads and more.

The Rivers of Rhythm Room at the National Museum of African-American Music. Photo by Matthew Allen

One of the highlights is the Hip-Hop Nation room. It beautifully displays artifacts like the summer 1992 preview edition of Vibe-Magazine and an original vinyl pressing of Def Jam and a cover of LL Cool J’s first single, “I Need a Beat”.

Not only do we receive information about the formation of hip-hop, rap, graffiti, DJing and breakdancing, but also about the dark and political background of black American life before DJ Kool Herc’s after-school party in the Bronx on Sedgwick Avenue in 1973. She discusses how hip-hop has affected business, entrepreneurship and politics.

Before leaving the Hip-Hop Nation, you can make your own rap beat. An LED screen gives listeners the option to choose an ambience from a New York-style break-beat to the melodic slush of the Dirty South, adding elements of percussion, vocals and bass.

In the A Love Supreme room, where you are greeted with artifacts of American jazz music like by Louis Armstrong trumpet. Visitors can participate in the music of the greatest talents of the genre.

Trumpet belonging to Louis Armstrong, on display at the National Museum of African-American Music. Photo by Matthew Allen

In “Roots & Streams”, visitors will be able to “discover artists and their music through connections”. After putting on headphones, you can find an artist, like Herbie Hancock, for example, and play three of his songs. On the LED touchscreen, you’ll see Hancock surrounded by links to different artists in a diagram: His influencers — Miles Davis, Bud Powell, Horace Silver, Thelonious Monk, peers – Jimmy Smith, Keith Jarret, and even his supporters – Marcus-Robert and Robert Glasper.

From there you can choose any of the artists and the cycle continues. It’s an exquisite way to track how music has been passed down, while tracing not only the lasting legacy of our ancestors, but also the innovative ways each generation takes its teachings to the next level.

You can also play your own instrumental solo on a jazz record – sort of. You pick an instrument, like the trumpet or saxophone, and with a flick of your finger you can shape an improvisation to a jazz tune in your headphones.

In the Soul and R&B room, you can create your own hit. Just like making a hip-hop beat, you receive a song demo of a voice and piano and you can add elements layer by layer. You have over 250 combinations with which you can create a final product.

The museum provides a digital wristband that allows visitors to swipe and collect the music they hear and create.

The NMAAM is an essential experience for anyone who loves music, black or otherwise. “African American” may be in the title, but the NMAAM shines in proving that all American music derives from African American lineage. Take this journey and your life will be changed for the better.

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