Charting a crossover hit

New National Museum of African American Music seeks broader audience – including country fans

Friday, April 9, 2021, Vol. 45, No. 15
By Joe Morris

Whenever proponents of the proposed National Museum of African American Music would hit a snag, they could take solace by looking south from their hoped-for home at Fifth Avenue and Broadway.

There they’d see the rippling contours of the Music City Center, another ambitious effort that took more than two decades to move from concept to reality. And then they’d go back to the business of fundraising, working with developers and other partners, working with the artifact collection and building local and national awareness on their march toward a museum.

Their efforts paid off in a $60 million attraction that opened earlier this year, and even with a pandemic’s guardrails around safety precautions, is pulling in visitors at a brisk clip and garnering glowing praise in national media.

The 56,000-square-foot facility has lofty goals, aiming to capture as much of the Black American musical experience as it can under one roof. That’s centuries of time and talent, not to mention multiple genres and subgenres, more than 50 of which are on interactive display across a 190-seat theater, research library, interactive exhibits and several period-themed permanent galleries containing thousands of artifacts.

The museum aims to write a new chapter in Music City’s story, provide a different voice.

Silver lining

Visitors start their experience by sitting in a theater to watch a short film that introduces them to the culture of African American music.

-- Photos By Michelle Morrow |The Ledger

In retrospect, the long road to opening day may have been a blessing in that it gave museum staff and supporters plenty of time to fan out and begin raising the facility’s profile. That footwork has paid off in a strong start despite a challenging travel and tourism environment, says Tuwisha Rogers-Simpson, vice president of brand and partnerships for NMAAM.

“Despite weather and COVID-19, we’ve gotten quite a few visitors, and there have been a lot of memberships purchased,” Rogers-Simpson says. “That’s what we love to see, because those are people who will continue to engage. Now we’re working on expanding the coverage we’ve gotten nationally and focusing on some target markets.”

Thus far, that’s been through a combination of press and VIP events for print, radio and online media, as well as groups and influencers such as the National Association of Black Journalists, and the Tennessee Black Caucus of State Legislators. It’s also hosting panels so it can build a reputation as an interesting and accessible local meeting spot. A promotional blitz for the important 250-mile drive tourism radius is now being rolled out.

It all ties into a broad strategy that has been drawn up to position the museum as a must-see destination for multiple groups. There’s abundant crossover between African American tourists, music and music history buffs, and museumgoers in general, Rogers-Simpson points out, noting that the Nashville Convention & Visitors Corporation has been working with the museum team to provide some additional marketing heft and capitalize on the city’s newest major attraction.

Instruments brought from Africa played a key role in the development of African American and other music genres, including country.

“Some of our media coverage has come from the relationships they have, and so we’re definitely going to leverage that partnership, as well as our work with the city itself, to get the news out,” she says.

“We’re part of a new commercial the city is producing around visitation, so we’re already baked into the Nashville brand. We’re putting out all that we have so that we can be seen and discovered, as well as working on our programs so that we have more to highlight through the spring, summer and beyond.”

The missing piece

“This is a national museum as much as it is a Nashville story,” adds Marie Sueing, vice president of multicultural community relations at the NCVC. “This music is certainly a part of the fabric of Music City, and it encompasses a much broader history. The museum is the piece that was missing; it presents a story that needs to be told, one that connects to all genres of music.”

The NCVC has folded the museum into its pitches for conventions and large events, as well as its more standard tourism efforts. Based on early responses, the facility will do a brisk business, especially when travel is easier and safer. It’s also seen as a very visible anchor for enhanced minority-tourism outreach.

Christy Daniels, left, and Kawanna Jones of Albany, Georgia, enjoy one of the interactive exhibits at the museum while on spring break.

“We’re talking about it locally, nationally and internationally, and it’s at the top of requests for groups who are looking to come into Nashville,” Sueing says. “For those groups who already wanted to see the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, the Frist Art Museum and our other cultural destinations, it was a definite addition.

“What the NMAAM does is help us attract more multicultural groups. People who come here to see, hear and experience Nashville’s music want the whole story, and this museum helps us tell it. Aside from it being a wonderful museum, it’s also a very compelling tool for us to use when we are talking to many different groups about coming to Nashville.”

Museum ‘without walls’

That line of thinking has led to outreach not just across the city, but across the region, to other museums to potentially forge partnerships. The hope is that the NMAAM will become a must-stop for those who seek out music-related collections and cultural centers.

For instance, jazz aficionados visiting Memphis could easily drive up I-40 to see the museum, while history-oriented tourists might come down from the Underground Railroad Museum in Flushing, Ohio.

The NMAAM galleries were designed to educate, preserve and celebrate 50-plus music genres.

“This is a brand-new perspective on Music City, in that it offers the cultural nuances of the story of American music from the perspective of African Americans, with all that texture and content,” Rogers-Simpson says. “People who may not have thought about coming here before now see that there is something here for them. We strongly believe that Nashville already has a lot to offer multicultural audiences, from our HBCUs to our civil rights history.

“The NMAAM can be a beacon of light to expose all that history.”

Nashville’s geographic location doesn’t hurt, either. Local tourism officials have long promoted the city as a weekend getaway for a large swath of the eastern United States. And the museum itself isn’t anchored to its geographic footprint; already smaller, traveling exhibits have made their way to local schools and community events, as well as some conventions.

“We can bring a breakout session to a convention or a collection of age-appropriate pieces to a school group,” Suing says. “We want to be without walls, so that we can get out in the community. We’re hoping that people will book after-hours tours and special events at the museum, and we are more than willing to go out and show they what we are all about as well.”

Finding the front door

Adanna Nwogbo, 6, Cherise Phillips and Adaeze Nwogbo, 13 of Smyrna enjoy the ‘Dance Experience’ exhibit at the museum.

No project this size gets built without some controversy along the way, and the museum is no different.

Back in 2016, when updated plans for it and the massive, $430 million Fifth + Broadway mixed-use development it anchors were revealed, the museum’s main entrance had been moved to Fifth Avenue instead of Broadway.

The optics of a less-visible side entrance got swift pushback from Metro Council members and other community leaders. Designers initially responded that the Fifth Avenue entrance was directly across from the Ryman Auditorium and along the Avenue of the Arts, and so was still prime real estate.

Many public and private conversations ensued, and by 2017 the plans featured a Broadway entrance as well as a façade on Fifth Avenue. Further, the Broadway entrance was named for the Fisk Jubilee Singers, who are also the subject of the museum’s first rotating exhibit this fall in tandem with that group’s 150th anniversary this year.

Neutral ground

Visitors enjoying a variety of exhibits at the National Museum of African American Music in downtown Nashville.

Getting that issue resolved without losing time or momentum set the museum’s team up for other confrontations that are not as primed for a quick resolution. Even as the museum was opening its doors, the country music industry was roiled by the backlash from artist Morgan Wallen’s now-infamous video in which he used racist language.

The predictable artist apologies and industry promises to do better ensued, but artists of color, particularly those in the country music sphere, also pointed to strong sales of Wallen’s music post-controversy as evidence of a very different reality.

What can the museum do in the face of that kind of cultural minefield? For starters, it can serve as neutral ground, Rogers-Simpson says.

“We are a community partner, and that means we can be a part of that dialogue as well as a space that educates,” she explains. “People can come and learn what we’re all about, and we can reach out to sponsor events like the ACM Awards.

“The museum is set up to not just be about Black music, but also tell the American story. That’s meant to help with the tougher conversations about what’s going on in all kinds of music. We want to have those in a safe space, but also to make them honest and unapologetic. That’s the whole mission of the museum.”

This kind of controversy – and the reaction to it – is hardly new to the African American community, Sueing adds, which also informs the approach the museum can take while also allowing it to serve as an invested arbitrator.

“We can play a role in fostering connectivity and communication,” she says. “African Americans have been hearing those kinds of comments since birth. What I love about this moment is that a lot of people are waking up. They are yearning for education, and that is a very good thing. We want to meet them where they are. We’ve seen what happens when we share resources, and all learn together.

“Now organizations, companies and conventions can bring their people to the museum, go through, see and hear all that is there. Then we can all sit down to talk about what is going on now. In that role, the museum will fostering a deeper understanding of our connection as a people. We have so much to learn, but music is a universal language and through it we believe the NMAAM can bring people together.”