Dr. Steven Lewis

By Ashley Benkarski

NASHVILLE, TN —  Dr. Steven Lewis, himself a lifelong musician, is the founding curator of the National Museum of African American Music.

He studied jazz sax at Florida State University and comparative studies in music at the University of Virginia before spending two years at the Smithsonian African American Museum.

“Nobody has ever built a museum like this before,” he said. “It’s the first in the world to provide a thorough and comprehensive history of African American music.”

NMAAM allows visitors to gain a deeper understanding of the impact African Americans have on music and American culture at large through an immersive and interactive experience. 

While specifically celebrating African American music and culture, “this music we’re celebrating is one of the defining components of music itself,” he said. 

“We have been really thrilled at the response from the public and the support we’ve gotten with our patrons,” Lewis said. “To get to tell the story finally after years of hard work, it’s kind of surreal to be able to welcome people in.”

NMAAM takes a comprehensive approach to emphasizing the presence of social justice in music. “The use of music in activism in African American culture really goes back to the earliest days of the African American experience.”

Music is political and functional, Lewis remarked, and that’s evident in African American music’s  accompaniment to dance and facilitation of the rhythm of work. The Fisk Jubilee Singers cemented Nashville’s reputation as Music City when they performed a capella Negro spirituals for Queen Victoria.

“Music is an integral part of everyday life. At the same time you have music’s continuing role as accompaniment to protest,” Lewis explained.

For example, Nina Simone employed a blend of styles in the service of an activist mission, Lewis remarked. A 1939 edition of “Strange Fruit” is on display in NMAAM’s gallery. 

“If you follow that thread you’ll find a tradition of music as an amplification of protest that is almost as old as the African American culture itself,” he said. “There’s a lot of music that comes out explicitly as a commentary on recent events and then history.”

“[We] see the effects of the protests happening today reverberating in the music,” Lewis continued. “The fabric of everyday life as well as movements throughout the years are reflected in the music, an artistic accompaniment to protest.”

From the music borne of the suffering of the enslaved to the righteous cries for justice of the Civil Rights Movement and now to the Black Lives Matter Movement, American history is at the heart and the lifeblood of music flows in and out, he remarked.

The art of young jazz saxophonist Immanuel Wilkins embodies those cries for justice, he continued, by synthesizing that history into interesting and powerful works such as “Mary Turner” and “Ferguson,” two tracks in his American Tradition suite on his debut album.

“None of this stuff is new,” Lewis said. “We may be talking about it more, but the more you learn about the history the more you can see that the music has served its purpose. The more you learn about African American music history and its connection with American identity, you see we are much more alike than we are different. We can see just how far back our shared culture roots go … and that we share many of the same cultural traditions.”

For now, work on the Fisk Jubilee Singers temporary exhibition, NMAAM’s first, continues along with the museum’s commitment to representing the history that starts here and travels the world.

“Within the Nashville context we broke a barrier and increased the representation in the most tourist-centered part of town,” Lewis said. “I hope when someone comes to Nashville they will not be able to leave without having a celebration of African American music, culture, and American history.”