Rivers of Rhythm

Rivers of Rhythm

A Visit to the National Museum of African American Music

Words by Javacia Harris Bowser
Photos by 353 Media/NMAAM

Music City. Nashville has boasted this nickname for decades, and many assume the title refers to the city’s strong ties to country music. But that’s only part of the story. A trip to Nashville’s National Museum of African American Music (NMAAM) will show you that much of Nashville’s music history traces back to African-American influences. More importantly, the museum highlights the impact that Black artists have had on music and culture worldwide. 

After nearly two decades of planning and three years of construction, the NMAAM opened its doors in January of 2021. Nestled in downtown Nashville just a few blocks from the Country Music Hall of Fame, the 56,000 square-foot facility was worth the wait, and currently is the only museum in the nation dedicated to showcasing the many musical genres created and inspired by African Americans. 

When you enter the Museum, you’re given a radio frequency bracelet that you can use to create playlists as you move through the exhibits, playlists that you can enjoy after you leave. Your visit will begin in the 200-seat Roots Theater where you will watch a short film on the evolution of Black music, from the musical traditions of Central and West Africa to the international influence of hip-hop and R&B. After the film, museum guides will recommend that you devote about 90 minutes to exploring the galleries and exhibits, but you could spend an entire day soaking in all the sounds and stories. 

As you meander through the Museum’s main corridor, called Rivers of Rhythm, you will see that the waters of Black music run deep. This area features touchscreen displays that offer a crash course in American history through the lens of Black music and culture. Revolution and Slavery, the Great Migration, the Harlem Renaissance, Civil Rights, and Hip-Hop Nation are just a few of the eras you can explore through images and song.

The wavy white walls around you will soon display video of legendary performances by icons such as Prince. If you visit the Museum at the right time, with the right people, you’ll find yourself surrounded by music lovers lost in the moment—singing along, swaying from side to side, with their cell phone flashlights waving in the air.

Visitors of all ages will appreciate the Museum’s interactive exhibits. You can slip on a choir robe and belt out your best version of “Oh Happy Day.” In the hip-hop gallery, you can head to the booth and drop 16 bars as you try to keep up with your favorite rapper. Or you can try your hand at composing a beat. In another area, you can impress guests with your dance moves. 

The Museum’s five major galleries are organized by era and genre and feature video, images, interactive stations, and more than 1,600 artifacts. A gold-plated trumpet once owned by Louis Armstrong, a handmade glass mirror gown worn by Queen Latifah, a dress that belonged to Whitney Houston, and a host of other pieces worn by the greats of gospel, hip-hop, and R&B can be seen.

Covering the 1600s to present-day, the gallery titled Wade in the Water explores the impact of religion on Black music from spirituals to contemporary gospel artists such as Kirk Franklin. Placards commemorating Mahalia Jackson’s performance at the March on Washington help to highlight the tie between religious music and the civil rights movement. The gallery also brings the history back to Nashville with a spotlight on the Fisk Jubilee Singers.

Some credit the Fisk Jubilee Singers with earning Nashville its “Music City” moniker. The choral group from the historically Black university Fisk University formed in 1871 and soon started traveling the world performing Negro spirituals before famous audiences—including Queen Victoria. The Queen was so impressed by the group that she said they must be from a “city of music.” 

The nickname got more traction in the 1920s when radio station WSM’s Grand Ole Opry, which also featured performances by the Fisk Jubilee Singers, grew in popularity. The launch of its “Music City” radio program in the early 1950s helped solidify Nashville’s reputation.

The gallery Crossroads explores the emergence of the blues in the early 1900s. A Love Supreme will transport jazz fans to the days of the Harlem Renaissance. One Nation Under a Groove chronicles the evolution of R&B. And the gallery called The Message examines the birth and global impact of hip-hop, including its connection to social justice. 

From slavery to civil rights to the Black Lives Matter movement, Black people have always used music as a tool of protest, and this is underscored at NMAAM  where the intersection of politics and pop culture takes center stage. But the Museum recognizes that this is only one facet of the impact of Black music. 

Black music is a river of rhythm winding through nearly every genre of music. In an interview with CBS about the Museum, Grammy award-winning singer H.E.R.—who’s featured in an exhibit video—declared: "There would be no Elvis without Chuck Berry. There would be no Led Zeppelin, no Beatles, no country music without the blues, without the pain that we even felt in the blues. It's important to recognize that everything comes from somewhere and Black music has made such an impact on popular music.”

Black music doesn’t just shape the world, it unites it.

The Museum’s nod to the emergence of “Hip-Hop Pop” and artists such as the Black Eyed Peas celebrates the diversity of hip-hop and is just one example of Black music inspiring performers of different races and cultures to come together to create.

In spite of slavery, Jim Crow, and injustice, Black artists have created music that shapes our nation and even our world. No matter the era or genre, Black music shows the resiliency of people who live in a land that has tried to silence them again and again, yet they persist in 

lifting their voices. Before leaving the Museum, you’ll see a quote by the late musicologist Eileen Southern that captures this sentiment perfectly: “The enduring feature of Black music is neither protest nor self-expression; it is communication, and one cannot imagine a time when Black musicians will have nothing to say, either to others or to God.”