By Elaine Hegwood Bowen, M.S.J.
June 2020 marks the 41st anniversary of Black Music Month. Originally decreed as a national celebration under the administration of President Jimmy Carter in 1979, the month-long celebration commemorates the achievements and contributions that African Americans have made to the American soundtrack. Today, with the anticipated opening of the National Museum of African American Music (NMAAM), Black Music Month has officially found a new home in Music City—Nashville, Tennessee. Music lovers from around the world can celebrate along with NMAAM as the museum executes digital programming all month highlighting Black LGBTQ musicians and artists with the appropriately named campaign ‘Black & Proud’ celebrated in conjunction with LGBTQ Pride month.
Black Music Month’s new home
NMAAM, which is scheduled to open its doors Labor Day weekend of this year, has become the new home of Black Music Month for two distinct reasons. NMAAM is the only museum in the country dedicated to celebrating, educating, and preserving the legacy of more than 50 genres and subgenres of Black music.
Additionally, although Black Music Month is celebrated across the globe, it was originally established by the now defunct Black Music Association (BMA) under the leadership of legendary music producer Kenny Gamble, broadcaster Ed Wright and celebrity strategist and NMAAM board member Dyana Williams. Williams, who is dubbed the “Mother of Black Music Month,” has officially brought the observance home to NMAAM, as she serves as chairperson of the museum’s Music Industry Relations (MIR) committee.
On a press junket about 15 years ago, I was able to represent the Crusader on a trip to Philadelphia. While there, the group visited Philly International Records, which was founded in 1971 by Gamble and Leon Huff and Thom Bell. We saw where Teddy Pendergrass recorded. The group was also able to sing in a studio where the O’Jays had recorded “Love Train.” That building was full of rich history, but it’s no longer there, after having been demolished to make way for a condo tower to be erected in its place.
“For many years, Black Music Month has been celebrated across the country at a variety of different festivals and venues including the White House, but I’m honored to bring it home to the National Museum of African American Music in Nashville,” said Williams.
“This month is about celebrating everyone who is passionate about Black music across all genres. From the people who make the music, to all of the individuals behind the scenes in the industry, as well as the consumers who buy and stream it in their homes. I could not think of a more fitting place to bring this celebration than a museum whose mission is to preserve the legacy of this rich art form. This was the goal that my co-founders and I sought to do more than four decades ago, and I’m delighted that this vision will live on at NMAAM for generations to come.”
Black & Proud 2020
As NMAAM continues to operate as a ‘museum without walls’ prior to the museum’s opening in September, it is also observing the month in a unique way across social and digital platforms and giving recognition to previously marginalized voices within Black music’s LGBTQ community. “Black & Proud” is this year’s Black Music Month theme in conjunction with Pride Month, which is also observed in June.
“Black & Proud” represents NMAAM’s attempt to highlight the historic and ongoing contributions of Black LGBTQ music artists. From pioneers like Ma Rainey, Billie Holiday and Sylvester to contemporary trailblazers like Big Freedia, Janelle Monáe and Frank Ocean; the choice to not conform to societal expectations has allowed these artists and several others to create a body of work that is expansive, innovative and culturally significant.
These three artists just happen to be some whose work that I really admire. Billie Holiday was a great “soulful” singer with such talent but so many demons. I enjoy just sitting back and listening to her music. I was able to see Janelle Monáe at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra when Aretha Franklin bowed out from a corporate gala. I love her performances; she is so energetic and affable, and she had that black-tie crowd rocking in their seats. And Big Freedia, although I have never seen her perform, is—as this release indicates—is so spirited and, as well, does not adhere to societal norms. Her music will have your feet stomping, and I have even noticed her voice on a commercial or two.
“During this time when Black voices that were previously muted by society are being thrust into the national spotlight, we felt it was important to leverage our platform as a museum to highlight Black artists from the LGBTQ community and LGBTQ allies who boldly and authentically have used music as a tool of self-expression,” said Tamar Smithers, NMAAM Director of Education and Public Programs.
“NMAAM is committed to sharing the stories of individuals within Black music who have played a central role in shaping American music. These include the stories of many artists who may not have openly identified as queer at the height of their careers and also many modern artists who unashamedly represent for the community and carry the torch for those who did not have the chance due to unfair societal pressure. Our goal is to help right those wrongs and give these artists their due glory.”
“Black & Proud” comes alive via NMAAM’s social media channels (@TheNMAAM), with virtual programming including dedicated artist profile posts and the “My Music Matters” interview series, which will air on Facebook Live every Wednesday in June at 5:00 p.m. CT. The “My Music Matters” interviews will feature artists and icons as they have a lively discussion about their work and the power of Black music. Fans can follow NMAAM on all social channels to find a schedule of upcoming interviews.
For more information about the museum’s Black Music Month campaign and to stay connected to details surrounding NMAAM’s upcoming opening celebration, including how to purchase tickets, visit BlackMusicMuseum.org.