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For decades, Nashville tourism has drawn primarily white tourists for its country music, bachelorette parties, and low-Broadway honky-tonks. But with the opening earlier this year of the National Museum of African American Music, the city hopes to welcome more diverse tourists.
The walls are lined with national and local history, including an emphasis on the pioneer Fisk Jubilee Singers. Local HBCU students were direct descendants of slaves who went on tour and made Negro Spirituals popular around the world. The group is the reason why Nashville is considered Music City and recently won a Grammy.
Quiana Young, a resident of Frisco, Texas, had never heard of them when she visited the museum while in town for her son’s soccer game. âI always thought of Nashville, country music, I mean, that stuff is like the way it’s presented on TV and in movies,â she says.
At the museum, Young was greeted with a story about black artists and their impact on extending the genre. The museum also offers visitors the chance to join in on the action, as in the âWade in the Waterâ exhibit, where museum visitors dress up and play choir.
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For at least a decade, Nashville city leaders have strived to expand the Music City brand to include people of color. âSo instead of being the Country Music Capital of the World, it would include country music, but it would be the Music Capital of the country,â museum CEO Henry Beecher Hicks said.
But that was not the original idea of ââthe museum. In 1998, two community leaders, Francis Guess and Dr TB Boyd, established a museum of African-American music, arts and culture. He was going to focus on all things Black Nashville including fine art, sports, politics and our three HBCUs.
For years, the idea has been refined in boardrooms and in the city. While it was brewing, the city was trying to change its national brand: âThe hillbilly,â says Butch Spyridon, president and CEO of the Nashville Visitors Bureau. “Do you wear shoes? Do you have high rise buildings? Do you have restaurants? “
Spyridon participated in the 20-year rodeo of revamping the city’s image. “We are already quite diverse,” he said in a neutral tone. “We just kept it hidden.”
He saw the museum as part of the bigger picture he was working to create, but felt he should focus only on music. Spyridon thought of the tight market for civil rights museums, with the Motel Lorraine west of the city and the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute more to the south.
âBeing one of the 10 isn’t as cool as being one of the only,â he says.
People began to realize that the theme of all their conversations was music. Once everyone was on board, they decided the music would be the beat on which local history and other cultural elements would play.
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âJimi Hendrix says, I had to learn to play guitar with my teeth because in Nashville if you don’t play well they’ll kill you,â Hicks said, recounting a quote posted in the museum’s Crossroads gallery, which focuses on the Great Migration and blues music. âAn artist of national and international renown, but one who really emphasizes the importance of Nashville in the development of its music and musical styles,â he adds.
Hendrix, like Little Richard and Etta James, cut his teeth on Jefferson Street. This was before the government ran highways through the historically black part of town. This is an area where many thought the museum should end, but after two decades of stops and starts it ended up downtown.
Hip-hop artist and native of Nashville Brian brown said it would have been nice if he landed on Jefferson Street. “But for the change that needs to be seen in this world, and for people to understand the kind of impact we’ve had, put it there, hit it inside the honky-tonks country-wack, man “, did he declare. said.
Hicks says the location allows tourists and locals to learn about the impact black people have on Nashville and the music industry in general. In addition, being in the center allows more foot traffic for the museum to prosper financially.
âAlthough the museum is not in the city’s historically black community, it is now in the center of the city,â Hicks said. âAnd hasn’t that always been the point: to center this African-American story in the narrative of what Nashville is?