While it is more than 300 miles away, the new National Museum of African American Music (NMAAM) has a local connection. Yellow Springs-based John E. Fleming is the director in residence for the state-of-the-art facility, which opened in Nashville in late January.
With its strong association with country music, Nashville seems an unlikely city for NMAAM. According to Fleming, the driving factor was money.
“The City of Nashville provided space for the museum and the initial funding,” he said. “The bottom line is, they stepped up with a financial commitment.”
The idea for the museum was first proposed by members of the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce in 2002. The mission of NMAAM is to not only “celebrate and preserve the influence African Americans have had on music” but to also “provide Music City residents and visitors with diverse cultural offerings.”
That idea was supported by a task force study that determined, “Nashville needed to incorporate a site that attracted more African American conventions and visitors. Moreover, it would entice people of all socioeconomic backgrounds to learn and experience a unique musical and cultural perspective that only Nashville can offer.”
With about 670,000 residents, Nashville is the 24th most populated city in the U.S. As the nerve center for the country music industry, the city is a tourist destination that, pre-pandemic, generated billions of dollars annually.
“Nashville was getting about 14 million people visiting per year,” Fleming said. “A lot of them were Europeans and Japanese, who are also very much interested in African American music. I think people are going to be really astounded at the experience. It begins with the intro film in the theater, which captures the history of African American music in 15 minutes. It starts with its African origins and goes to the present. The galleries are interactive and full of interesting content that really reinforces the exhibit.”
Fleming, who received his B.A. from Berea College and M.A. and Ph.D. from Howard University, brings decades of experience to the new facility. He was a Peace Corps volunteer in Malawi, East Africa in the late 1960s. He served as a senior fellow in the Institute for the Study of Educational Policy at Howard University before relocating to Yellow Springs in the late 1980s to become the director for the National African American Museum in Wilberforce.
President George W. Bush appointed Fleming to the planning commission for the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. He also served as director for the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center and senior historian for the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum.
“When I was at Berea, we organized a trip to participate in the Selma-to-Montgomery March,” Fleming said. “When I came back from Africa, I worked for the U.S. Civil Rights Commission. A lot of my research and interests has been in the area of civil rights and the struggle for freedom. That has stayed with me throughout my career. I just wrote a blog for the museum on our music and our struggle for freedom.”
NMAAM celebrates the artists who created powerful songs about freedom, struggle and the possibility of brighter days ahead, from the Fisk Jubilee Singers and Billie Holiday to Sam Cooke and Marvin Gaye to KRS-1 and Kendrick Lamar. As Fleming wrote in that Feb. 5 blog entry, “African American musicians have established a long tradition of creating music that addresses complex social and political issues such as slavery, Jim Crow, systemic racism, and police brutality. Through personal social activism as well as their art, these musicians have inspired hope and unity, and rallied people to action. This tradition of resistance through song began during the earliest days of slavery and has continued to the present day.”
People get ready
Shirley Murdock knows the power of a song. The former Zapp vocalist has touched countless people during her decades-long career. After years of singing gospel, the Dayton-based artist returned to secular music with the new R&B single, “People Get Ready.” The digital track, released to all major streaming platforms on Feb. 19, is a cover of the 1960s song by the Impressions.
“We recorded ‘People Get Ready’ around the time the protests were happening over the summer,” Murdock said. “People were praying for answers and I needed to say something to encourage people and give hope. I thought about writing something, but that was really the perfect song to speak to what’s going on. With the dark cloud of everything going on, not only in America but in the world, we really need something to hold onto that says there are better days coming.”
Murdock has donated a dress to the museum, where it will be displayed alongside cultural artifacts such as instruments, concert posters, sheet music and stage outfits, including shirts worn by members of Zapp.
“I like the idea of the museum because it can create a bridge between country and African American music,” she said. “To me, R&B and country are the same thing because they’re telling great stories from their perspective. We have to respect where each other is coming from and celebrate what we share in common. As long as we stay closed off, there is no coming together.”
Fleming agrees. He believes with the support of the Nashville establishment, the museum can open up a dialogue on racial issues and help drive social change.
“Some people feel like we’re trying to take away the country music identity of Nashville,” he said. “We look at the role African Americans have played in country music, but we also want to explore how the museum might be a vehicle for bringing about racial understanding. We have a wonderful relationship with the Country Music Hall of Fame and I think they would be inclined to participate in exploring programming that might help bring about racial reconciliation. A lot people in Nashville would be open to that, too.”
Contact this contributing writer at 937-287-6139 or e-mail at email@example.com.
HOW TO GO
What: National Museum of African American Music
Where: 510 Broadway, Nashville
When: Open Thursdays through Sundays beginning March 4. Call for hours
Cost: $24.95 adults (18 and older), $18.75 students, teachers, military with valid ID and seniors (65 and older), $13.50 (ages 7-16), free (6 and younger). Group prices available for 15 visitors and more
More info: 615-301-8724 or www.nmaam.org