James Brown, the Godfather of Soul, looms larger than life in the Rivers of Rhythm Pathways, the central gallery at Nashville’s new National Museum of African American Music (615-301-8724, nmaam.org). His glitzy, perfectly pompadoured image is projected onto a panorama of screens as he belts out his ’60s hit “Out of Sight” and performs his trademark smooth-gliding footwork.
The 1964 footage is one of several highlights of the 56,000-square-foot museum that opened in January in the heart of the tourist district. An orientation film in the Roots Theater chronicles the 400-year evolution of Black music in America and documents how it branched off into dozens of genres that include jazz, blues, hip-hop, rap, and more.
Seven galleries of exhibits shuffle between super-fun and serious. Gospel lovers can don a choir robe and join the Nashville Super Choir in the uplifting gospel classic “Oh Happy Day,” then see their image projected onto a screen that integrates them into the choir. Think you could be the next big record producer in the music biz? Try mixing your own beats in the One Nation Under a Groove gallery. The Wade in the Water gallery examines African-American religious music, much of it rooted in slavery. The Message gallery, with its graffiti and streetwear fashion, re-creates the South Bronx of the 1970s, the birthplace of hip-hop and rap, when Black kids from the blighted borough used music to rail against social injustices. More than 1,500 artifacts include Louis Armstrong’s trumpet and Ella Fitzgerald’s Grammy.
NMAAM may be new, but it has an old soul. The music that rose from centuries of African-American struggle, oppression, joy, and triumph is now the soundtrack of the nation. Turn it up.