New museum in Nashville tells history of American music "through an African American prism"

CBS News is recognizing people who are trying to right injustices and bring communities together in a new series, Unifying America. As part of the launch of the series, "CBS This Morning" got a first look at the National Museum of African American Music.


The queen of hip-hop, Missy Elliott; the prince of soul, Marvin Gaye; and the first lady of song, Ella Fitzgerald, have all influenced artists across genres for decades. Now, their careers are on display at the new National Museum of African American Music in downtown Nashville.

The museum, which opens Monday, "walks through the history of American music ... told through an African American prism," president and CEO H. Beecher Hicks told "CBS This Morning" co-host Anthony Mason. 

"Everything from slave songs to hip-hop and everything in between," Hicks said. "And so, really all of that is American music, and that's what we celebrate in the museum."

That theme is woven through the museum's seven galleries, including One Nation Under a Groove that documents the emergence of rhythm and blues after World War II amid the Civil Rights Movement.

"I think Black music always represents culture and what's happening," said Grammy winning R&B artist H.E.R., who contributed to the gallery's history of R&B video. "Where were people's minds and hearts, what were they feeling, what were we focused on, what was the overall culture, what was the racial tension? ... Music is the place that you go to better understand that. Music is the language everybody speaks."

Curator Dina Bennett said more than 1,600 artifacts and memorabilia help tell the story of Black trailblazers and innovators, including a sweater that was owned by Nat King Cole and the bass guitar of A Taste of Honey's Janice-Marie Johnson.

"She played this bass on her hit ("Boogie Oogie Oogie"), which went on to sell 10 million copies," Bennett said.

There are also some custom diamond-studded boots "worn by Trina, one of the most influential rappers from Miami," Bennett said. "She actually wore these boots to the 2002 BET Awards where she was nominated for Best Female Rapper."

As country star Darius Rucker, a national chair of the museum and three-time Grammy winner, toured the exhibits for the first time, he stopped at a display for Al Green.

"He's the reason I'm sitting here talking and walking around here. Al Green's the reason I wanted to sing music," Rucker said.

Exploring the exhibits further, Rucker reflected on the stories of early African American musicians. "These guys and ladies playing in juke joints and traveling the Chitlin' Circuit and all this stuff like that. And for them to do that and for us to now be playing Madison Square Garden with music that they basically started — really makes you sit back and go, 'wow,'" he said.

"In this museum, you're gonna see your influences' influences. You're gonna see who inspired the people that inspired you," H.E.R. said.

The museum highlights some of those lesser known artists, like the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, an integrated all-female jazz orchestra, popular in the 40s, and Ironing Board Sam.

"He got his stage name from strapping his legless keyboard to an ironing board," Bennett said. "Lest we forget these artists who have been so inventive, so creative, who have come before and paved the way."

The museum also shows how African Americans have influenced White artists and traditionally White-dominated genres, often without credit — like country music. 

"The guys who were really starting country music were so influenced by those blues singers — those Black blues singers," Rucker said. "Anything you want to talk about, you know, our influence is there."

"There would be no Elvis without Chuck Berry. There would be no Led Zeppelin ... no Beatles ... no country music without the blues, without the pain that we even felt in the blues," H.E.R. said. "It's important to recognize that everything comes from somewhere and Black music has made such an impact on popular music." 

That impact is now being recognized in the heart of Music City.

Asked what he hopes children take from the museum, Hicks said, "that kids of color, Black and Brown kids, will really see that this is a place that celebrates them and their culture and their contribution to America, realizing that they too are a part of really what built and has made America what it is."