Amplifying the Story of African Americans in Music with Tamar Smithers
Tamar Smithers, senior director of education and exhibitions at the National Museum of African American Music, explains how sharing Black history can help us build a more equitable future.
Tamar Smithers wants Black and Brown students to know there’s a space for them in the music industry. As senior director of education and exhibitions at Nashville’s new National Museum of African American Music, Smithers has noticed the way students’ perspective shifts when they hear about the contributions of people who look like them.
“I can imagine, growing up, myself as an aspiring musician and artist, being able to have people to look up to, people who look like me doing the things that I would want to do,” Smithers shared. “It is very affirming and really just goes to show, ‘This is something that I can do, and this is a space for me.’”
In this episode of Speak Up for Equity, Tennessee Diversity Consortium Executive Director Robert Lawrence Wilson talks with Smithers about how NMAAM came to be, and she discusses her team’s efforts to amplify Black voices to audiences around the world.
A Museum without Walls
NMAAM officially opened its doors in January of 2021, but it really began as an idea almost 20 years earlier.
“Back in 2002, community members and elected officials all came together and said, ‘If we are going to truly be Music City, then we need an institution that will reflect the musical diversity, not only of the city, but of our nation,’” Smithers shared.
Even before the museum opened, the NMAAM team launched its seminal Museum Without Walls program in 2013. This includes a variety of programming, from conversations with artists to teaching students to make instruments out of everyday items. During the pandemic, Smithers and her team also created virtual programming that people can engage with from around the world.
“We will always have some form of programming for Museum Without Walls,” Smithers shared. “It really is an honor to work in this space and be a part of sharing the narrative.”
The Role of African Americans in Music City’s History
Throughout her time at NMAAM, Smithers has gotten very used to answering the question, “Why Nashville?” Nashville doesn’t often come to mind as a leader in African American music, but in fact, the city has a long and deep connection to the work of Black artists.
“When we think of Nashville, the national perception is that Nashville is just country music, right? We love country music, we definitely engage with it, we love it, we consume it, but Nashville is not just country music,” Smithers shared.
Most notably, Jefferson Street was an important hub for Black musicians, with a variety of clubs and venues where some of the biggest artists of the day performed.
“If you were a Black performer back in the day and you came to Nashville to perform, I guarantee you that they would have been performing in one of the clubs on Jefferson Street,” Smithers explained. “When we think of the rich history of Nashville from that perspective, how could we not have the museum?”
While NMAAM certainly talks about Nashville’s history, it's also committed to telling the entire story of African American music chronologically.
“Our tagline is ‘one nation under groove,’ which comes from the legendary Parliament Funkadelic Song ‘One Nation Under Groove.’” Smithers shared. “We have people who come from all over the world, and they come in here and they are experiencing this amazing history and this art form. And to a certain degree, it doesn’t matter where you’re from. It doesn’t matter what your cultural background is. We’re all coming together to experience this one particular moment in time.”
Creating Space for Black Expression
In addition to NMAAM’s efforts to educate people from around the world, Smithers also believes the museum has a unique opportunity to support Nashville’s Black residents, especially artists.
“We serve as a home for Black artistic expression through history in music. And I think it’s important to have an institution that continues to promote equity by amplifying the voices of all musicians... but especially those Black and Brown artists and musicians and people in the music industry,” she explained.
She also doesn’t want people to underestimate the value of having a space that’s specifically dedicated to Black history and culture.
“Being really one of the only Black cultural institutions in Nashville, it really is important to have a space where people who are in that community can go to, and they feel like it’s a space for them,” she shared. “But not only that, it’s a space for everyone to come together and learn about the contributions that Black people have made to American music. Because Black music is American music.”
To learn more about the ways you can get involved with the Tennessee Diversity Consortium, visit tennesseediversityconsortium.org/join-tdc. And be sure to subscribe to Speak Up for Equity wherever you listen to podcasts so you never miss an episode.