The National Museum of African American Music centers Black art in Nashville Nashville has long been associated with country music. But a museum devoted to African-American music, which opened earlier this year, sets the record straight about the city's diversity

A new museum in Nashville centers the artistry of Black musicians

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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

To Nashville now, where the city's best-known attractions like country music, bachelorette parties, honky-tonks on Lower Broadway - they attract mostly white visitors to the city. But Ambriehl Crutchfield of member station WPLN reports that a new attraction aims to serenade more diverse tourists.

AMBRIEHL CRUTCHFIELD, BYLINE: At the National Museum of African American Music, Black artists across all genres are on the main stage. The museum covers the history and milestones of everything from spirituals to blues and hip-hop. Plus, you can hop in on the action and do things like dress up and play choir in the "Wade In The Water" exhibit.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Laughter).

CRUTCHFIELD: The walls are lined with national and local history, including a focus on the pioneering Fisk Jubilee Singers.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AIN'T THAT A WITNESS")

FISK JUBILEE SINGERS: (Singing) Now, Methuselah was a witness for my Lord. Oh, Methuselah was a witness for my Lord. Oh, Methuselah...

CRUTCHFIELD: The local HBCU students were direct descendants of enslaved people who went on tour and made Negro spirituals popular around the world. While in the museum, I talked with Frisco, Texas, tourist Quiana Young about this history.

When they were going around and singing, that's how we got the Music City name, is because of them.

QUIANA YOUNG: Wow, that's pretty cool. I guess that I've always thought Nashville, country music. I mean, that's - kind of seems how it's presented on, like, television and movies. I would have never known this.

CRUTCHFIELD: For at least a decade, city leaders have been working to expand the Music City brand to include people of color. Museum CEO Henry Beecher Hicks has been in on those conversations.

HENRY HICKS: So instead of it being the country music capital of the world, it would include country music, but it would be the music capital of the country.

CRUTCHFIELD: But this wasn't the original idea for the museum. In the '90s, two Black men pitched the Museum of African American Music, Arts and Culture. It was going to focus on all things Black Nashville. Here's Hicks again to break it all down.

HICKS: Whether it's fine arts or sports or the HBCU legacies or the civil rights legacy, political achievement.

CRUTCHFIELD: For years, the idea was being refined in boardrooms and around the city. While that was simmering on the back burner, the city was trying to change its national brand.

BUTCH SPYRIDON: The hillbilly - do you wear shoes? Do you have tall buildings? Do you have restaurants?

CRUTCHFIELD: Butch Spyridon is the president and CEO of the Nashville Visitors Bureau. He's been on the 20-year rodeo of revamping the city's image.

SPYRIDON: We're already pretty diverse. We just have kept it hidden.

CRUTCHFIELD: Spyridon saw the museum as a piece of the larger picture he was working to create.

SPYRIDON: I immediately went to music. There's something here, and I knew it was going to be a tough sell to shift the original thought process.

CRUTCHFIELD: Spyridon was thinking about the tight market for Black civil rights museums since the Lorraine Motel is to the west of us and the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute is deeper south.

SPYRIDON: Being one of 10 is not near as cool as being one of one.

CRUTCHFIELD: Folks started to realize the theme of all of their conversations was music. So everyone decided music would be the beat that local history and other cultural elements would play to.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CRUTCHFIELD: Hicks, the CEO of the museum, says you can really see the intersection in the "Crossroads" gallery, where the focus is on the Great Migration and the creation of blues music.

HICKS: Jimi Hendrix says, I had to learn how to play the guitar with my teeth 'cause in Nashville, if you don't play good, then they'll kill you - an artist of national and international acclaim, but really making the point of how critical Nashville was to the development of his music and his musical styles.

CRUTCHFIELD: Hendrix, just like Little Richard and Etta James, cut their teeth on Jefferson Street, which is in the historically Black part of town. It's an area where many thought the museum should end up. But after two decades of stops and starts, it ended up downtown. Nashville native and hip-hop artist Brian Brown says it would have been nice for it to land on Jefferson Street.

BRIAN BROWN: For the change that needs to be seen in his world and for people to understand the type of, you know, impact we've made, put it right there smack dab inside of the country wack honky-tonks, man.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CRUTCHFIELD: When you step out of the National Museum of African American Music, you're thrusted back into the sounds of honky-tonks blaring music with the country twang. Hicks says the location allows tourists and natives to learn about Black people's impact on the city and the overall music industry. Plus, being in the center allows more foot traffic for the museum to thrive financially.

HICKS: While the museum is not in the historically Black community of the city, it is now in the center of the city. And hasn't that always been the point? - to center this African American story in the narrative of what Nashville is.

CRUTCHFIELD: For NPR News, I'm Ambriehl Crutchfield in Nashville.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "VOODOO CHILD")

JIMI HENDRIX: (Singing) Well, I stand up next to a mountain, and I chop it down with the edge of my hand.

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