After touring the National Museum of African American Music during a pre-opening press day, I stopped Henry Beecher Hicks III, the museum’s president and CEO, on my way out the door. I smiled and told him that I loved it — that the museum exceeded every one of my expectations.
As someone who fashions words into sentences and paragraphs for a living, I winced at my pitiful use of language, though it was the best I could offer at the time. When I ran into Hicks, my heart was still so full, my breath caught in my chest like a mother hearing her child say “I love you” for the very first time. I was speechless at the care taken to present this all-important history so thoroughly; my heartbeat quickened at the potential for a more equitable music industry.
Living in a town like Nashville — this music mecca washed white as the newest developments on Jefferson Street — has a way of making you forget. Spend enough time here, at the honky-tonks, the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum or even the Ryman, and you really will believe that Ralph Peer is Jesus, that Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family are his most faithful disciples, cataloging their version of the gospel for modern evangelists like Hank, Loretta and Willie on down.
The altars are everywhere here. Born-and-bred country fans and new converts alike flock to town in droves. So your memory fogs and your better judgment fails, and you start to question the skeptics. They are blasphemous, you believe, as they poke holes in your truth and question your idol worship. But now, on the corner of Fifth Avenue and Broadway, there is a most brilliant testament to the truth that has been suppressed for so long.
For this piece, I considered writing a virtual tour guide, an inevitably biased start-here-and-don’t-miss-this blueprint of sorts. But I don’t have enough space, nor do I want to print a slew of spoilers that would most certainly diminish that first-time feeling of walking into such a sacred space.
Instead, I will use text taken from three different displays in the exhibit to present the TL;DR version of what that guide would have been.
Slaves are generally expected to sing as well as work. A silent slave is not liked by masters or overseers.
—Quote attributed to Frederick Douglass, found in the Wade in the Water gallery.
(If you don’t want to serve negroes in your place of business, then do not have negro records on your juke box or listen to negro records on the radio.)
The screaming, idiotic words, and savage music of these records are undermining the morals of our white youth in America.
Call the advertisers of the radio stations that play this type of music and complain to them!
—Poster from the Citizen’s Council of Greater New Orleans, serving notice that white people should stop buying and listening to Black music if they want to “help save the youth of America.”
If I could find a white man who had a Negro sound and a Negro feel, I could make a million dollars.
—Quote from Sam Phillips, owner in the ’50s and ’60s of Memphis’ Sun Records.
Without question, these three passages illuminate the Black experience in both America and American music. They are the through line that connects every artifact displayed and every story told in each of the museum’s five permanent galleries.
If you use your imagination, I’m sure you can fill in at least some of the blanks I’m intentionally leaving here. Yes, the NMAAM pays fitting tribute to the some of the best to ever do it, regardless of genre, blasting the images of Black icons like Prince and James Brown on giant screens so that their majesty may be justly beheld. It’s amazing to see their greatness, to be both awed and inspired. But it’s not the reason to visit the museum.
For me, the lives and legacies of Prince and Brown — along with Ella Fitzgerald, Sam Cooke, Grandmaster Flash and so many others — are only amplified when juxtaposed against the realities of being Black in America. Their ancestors carried the music of their homeland in their spirits as they sailed, shackled, across angry seas. Back then, Black musical expression was both an instrument of rebellion and a tool of oppression. Today, Black creativity is still demanded and exploited for the benefit of others.
Indeed, while the artists displayed in the museum are pioneers and masters of their craft, they are also victims of a society that only ever viewed them through the lens of capitalistic greed. These innovators set the tone and took the stage to share their most precious gifts with the world. Yet even amid the thundering applause, their sounds were hijacked and co-opted, their technique studied like a 1000-level music theory textbook and replicated with the clarity of a short-circuiting 1970s-era Xerox.
Learning this history — a history that has repeated itself ad nauseum since the commercialization of music in this country — is the reason to visit NMAAM. It’s the most important reason, in my opinion, whether your personal musical tastes veer toward gospel or hip-hop, jazz or funk. But it is especially true for fans of country music.
When we think back on Jan. 20, 2021, to the inauguration of Joe Biden as the 46th president of the United States, we will all remember different things. Some of us will reflect on the swearing in of Kamala Harris as this country’s first Black female vice president, and some will remember “The Hill We Climb,” the stirring poem delivered by Amanda Gorman, the youngest inaugural poet in U.S. history. Others still will think back on that day, which came on the heels of one of the most challenging years this country has seen, and they will remember it as a moment of change, a hopeful transition from darkness to light.
This, after all, was the idea packaged and sold in bulk by the Biden campaign, the lingering sentiment they want us all to carry for the next four years. It was seen in the fist bump between Biden and Obama and the multicultural sea of faces that looked on. It was in the words spoken by Biden, his pledge of renewal and resolve. And it was in the musical performances, too.
When I think back on Inauguration Day, to the soundtrack chosen to kickstart this “Presidency for All Americans,” I will mostly remember Tim McGraw and Florida Georgia Line’s Tyler Hubbard at the post-inauguration concert. I will not think of unity, despite the premise of their country duet “Undivided.” I will instead remember that two white men stood before hundreds of millions, representing one of the whitest industries in all of America, and asked, “Why’s it gotta be all white or all Black?” Even 10 or 20 years from now, I’m sure, I will think about this. And I will never not be bewildered.
A Jan. 14 article from the Associated Press noted that, before writing the song, Hubbard “felt weighed down with emotion about the division in America in 2020.” This is understandable, of course. While the killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor rocked the Black community and triggered nationwide protests, it was a period of heightened political discord for many in the country music community. When coupled with the racial unrest, it helped bring America’s ever-present division to its zenith.
No longer able to hide in a bubble of relative comfort, the country industry was thrust into the fires where the rest of us remain, forced to view our society’s inequities up close. And this, I understand, is how you get a country song like “Undivided.” More importantly, this is how you get that song from two men who’ve sold millions of records in a genre that was built on the creative backs of Black folk and that continues to support the mining and mimicking of Black culture — even as it snubs actual Black people.
In this industry, people don’t understand that, while Black people took to the streets because of Floyd, Arbery and Taylor, it was never, ever just about Floyd, Arbery and Taylor. Their deaths were simply the most egregious examples of the violence heaved against Black bodies in this country on a daily basis. Their deaths were the beheading that rendered millions and millions of tiny paper cuts irrelevant.
This oversight is actually quite remarkable, because like all of sports and entertainment, the country music industry has always been an ideal microcosm of American society. And in understanding country music — with its deep, dark roots and the twisted branches that bear its bitter fruit — we can not only understand the divisions of our world. We can also, finally, begin to address them.
I don’t imagine that the National Museum of African American Music was built for the sole purpose of educating those who’ve spent their lives in and around country music, whether as artists or execs, songwriters or fans. I would like to believe, however, that it could be — that it should be — a welcome byproduct.
I want to believe that the people who support country music’s current form do so because they just don’t recognize that they are being used as tools. Perhaps they don’t know that when the history books are written on this era, their names will go down as co-conspirators in the ongoing oppression of Black and brown people in this space. Maybe they don’t recognize that every time they walk into a studio surrounded by only white people trained to program hip-hop drum loops and sing in a rap-style cadence, they are part of the problem. Maybe they don’t see that they are Sam Phillips’ wildest dreams come true. I want to believe that.
I also want to believe that they just don’t understand that when they sign to a label that has no Black or brown artists on its roster, or go on radio tours and perform for program directors who flat-out refuse to play artists who aren’t white, they are upholding the mission of the Citizen’s Council of Greater New Orleans, even today.
And I want to believe that, as they cheer for up-and-coming Black artists, praising their style and talent but never helping tear down the walls they will surely face, they don’t see that they are contributing to the modern interpretation of Frederick Douglass’ ominous words.
Still, despite the ignorance and related complicity that has crept into every crack and crevice of this industry, I also believe there is the potential for change. And I know — just as sure as I know that the spirit of Black folk sings from the pocket of every genre of American music — visiting the National Museum of African American Music, right here in Music City, can begin to create that change.