The NMAAM exhibitions and galleries themes are “Rivers of Rhythm.” They tell the story of the American music, its culture and the role African Americans have played. There is no institution or publication to-date that brings to life this connection between the people, the music, and the nation. The profound impact it has made over centuries of music is one that needs sharing.

The National Museum of African American Music consists of five galleries. Each one is designed to share a different narrative and a unique perspective on African American music.


The Wade In The Water  gallery documents the history and influence of gospel music. The music from the African American church which emerged in the early 1900s was a way to deliver messages of faith and conviction with an emotional intensity unique to the African American religious experience. The gallery highlights gospel music’s 1940s-1960s “Golden Age” and commercial growth. Exploration includes the influence of gospel vocal groups on secular singing in doo-wop, R&B, and soul music. Wade In The Water traverses the critical role music played during the Civil Rights movement. Gospel music has transcended racial and global lines. Guests of the exhibit will experience the profound impact it had throughout the final years of the 20th century and into the new millennium.


The Crossroads gallery focuses on the history and influence of the blues. The blues is a foundational cornerstone of virtually all African American and American music for more the one hundred years. The exhibit dives into the genre’s humble beginnings and follows the development from rural to urban areas during the Great Migration. Crossroads covers everything from the introduction of “Race Records” in the 1920’s to the influence on white country music in the 1950’s. The narrative ends with a further look into contemporary blues and its modern masters. Visitors will truly understand how blues music is deeply embedded into virtually all musical genres.


The Love Supreme gallery begins with the survival of African indigenous musical traditions in North America and explores the connections it had on the early development of a new form of music emerging in the 1920’s. This music, when combined with elements of ragtime, spirituals, blues, and minstrel, was ultimately dubbed “jazz.” Love Supreme follows the musicians from the Great Migration era as they move to urban centers and help establish jazz on a national level. The result is the soundtrack to the “Roaring ‘20s,” and a continued impact on other musicians during this period.

Later, the gallery turns to the post-War era, and the development of bebop and, later, the free jazz movements. These styles echo the battles against racism and equality during the civil rights era. Love Supreme concludes, with the journey and evolution of artistic growth in the modern 21st Century. It will look into the various styles and its impact on a global scale.


The One Nation Under A Groove gallery documents the history and influence of rhythm and blues, which emerged in the years following the end of World War II. Visitors will discover its impact on virtually all aspects of American popular music: including rock and roll, soul and funk, disco, house, techno, and hip-hop. The gallery examines how R&B was marketed to mainstream audiences under the umbrella term rock and roll. Eventually, R&B and its influence brought a sea of change in American pop-culture and music.

The origins and development of R&B-derived soul music of the 1960’s are detailed through the stories of Detroit’s Motown, Memphis’ Stax Records, and Philadelphia International Records labels. All of which were pivotal during the Civil Rights movement. Guests will walkthrough R&B throughout the decades starting with the rise of funk, disco, and the cultural marker Soul Train. Then they will move on to the emergence of MTV in the 80’s paying particular attention to the role it had in helping establish black pop as a dominant commercial genre. Finally, the gallery will delineate the expansion of Rhythm and Blues into contemporary times delving into varied styles like house, techno, new jack swing, and electronic dance music.


Over the last 40-years, hip-hop and rap have greatly influenced not only music but popular culture in both America and the world. The gallery covers the origins of both hip-hop and rap in inner cities during the 1970’s urban decay in New York’s South Bronx. It further looks into the era’s minority youth culture which incorporated DJ-driven music, breakdancing, graffiti art, and streetwear fashion into the amalgam of hip-hop.

The Message will outline the way in which technology helps drive hip-hop through the sampling, scratching and beatbox work of its early turntablist pioneers. It charts the metamorphosis that takes the music from 1970’s underground to Time Magazine declaring the U.S. a “Hip-Hop Nation” at the close of the 20th century. Over the years, activist rap and hip-hop artists have included messages on speaking truth to power. This exhibit explores this message and how it resonated with the unempowered and disenfranchised in both the U.S. and across the globe.

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