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New Nashville museum memorializes Black music's 'origin story'

Nearly 20 years in the making, the National Museum of African American Music in Nashville, Tennessee, has opened its doors.
The galleries in the National Museum of African American Music in Nashville opened publicly over the weekend, chronicling Black musical traditions starting in the 1600s.
The galleries in the National Museum of African American Music in Nashville opened publicly over the weekend, chronicling Black musical traditions starting in the 1600s.NMAAM/353 Media Group

Take in Louis Armstrong’s trumpet. Or legendary jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald’s Grammy. Or an outfit that the late TLC member Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes once performed in.

The history of Black music and its influence on the world are brought to life through seven galleries at the new National Museum of African American Music in Nashville, Tennessee.

The galleries opened publicly over the weekend, chronicling Black musical traditions starting in the 1600s.

“We’re not focusing on one genre of music or one type of artist, we’re really taking a look at what was the impact on African Americans once they entered the country, and how did that birth what we know now as Black music,” museum spokeswoman Tuwisha Rogers-Simpson said.

A 30-minute film presentation in the “Roots Theatre” gallery gives audiences an overview of west and central African cultures and the institution of slavery.

It shows the evolution of spirituals, blues, jazz and navigates through historical periods, such as the Reconstruction, Jim Crow, the Great Migration and the Harlem Renaissance.

Walking through the museum, visitors will learn about the relationship between Prince and R&B singer Chaka Khan, for instance, or facts about music legend Stevie Wonder’s influence on gospel artist Kirk Franklin.

Inside the museum, each gallery is named after prominent songs by Black artists, and is designed to have a specific theme.

In one example, the “Wade in the Water” gallery documents the history and influence of religious music from indigenous African music that survived during slavery to the golden era of gospel music.

The “A Love Supreme,” gallery, named after jazz great John Coltrane’s masterpiece album, exhibits the survival of African indigenous musical traditions in New Orleans’ Congo Square that gave way to a new form of music emerging from the city in the 1900s that became known as jazz.

The “Rivers of Rhythm Pathways” exhibit is the core of the 56,000-square-foot museum connecting all the galleries together. It features touch panel interactives and an animated timeline linking American history and music.

Each gallery is named after prominent songs by Black artists, and is designed to have a specific theme.NMAAM/353 Media Group

“We’re really telling the origin story of Black music,” Rogers-Simpson said.

Nashville itself is musically rich. The heartbeat of country music is there.

Many say the town’s nickname “City of Music” came after Queen Victoria watched a performance by Jubilee singers from Fisk University, one of the city’s historically Black college or universities.

“It means a whole lot to have Black music being shared,” Thomas Spann Jr., director of Fisk’s marching band, said of the museum opening. “Music reflects what you’ve been through, stories, way of life, family, survival, relationships, love and hustling.”

Black music plays a large role in shaping society, culture and fashion trends, he added.

“Attitude goes a long way with the music you listen to. Music affects everyday life,” Spann said.

“We’re not focusing on one genre of music or one type of artist, we’re really taking a look at what was the impact on African Americans once they entered the country, and how did that birth what we know now as Black music,” museum spokeswoman Tuwisha Rogers-Simpson said.NMAAM/353 Media Group

The museum, which was nearly 20 years in the making, has many highlights such as watching past performances by crooner Usher and singer Rihanna.

Behind a glass case is a platinum record once belonging to soul legend Marvin Gaye, a gold album from icon Whitney Houston and photos of Mahalia Jackson, the queen of gospel.

In all, more than 1,500 artifacts, objects, memorabilia and clothing tied to more than 50 genres and subgenres of music are on display.

“We’re preserving the history of America’s soundtrack in a place where music is truly celebrated on a daily basis,” according to the museum website. “The museum will be the final jewel in the city’s crown.”

The downtown museum had many backers, including a $1 million donation from Amazon to sponsor local school field trips to the museum among other initiatives.

“Once again,” Nashville Mayor John Cooper said in a statement, “the music that has united so many people in joy has also made our city the center of the world.”

This story first appeared on NBCNews.com.

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