Musical Crossroads

Musical Crossroads

Created By: William Zheng and Brandon Freestone


Housing a wide variety of musical artifacts, the Musical Crossroads exhibit tells the story of African Americans throughout America’s history, from the time of the start of the transatlantic slave trade back in the mid-1400s all the way to the present day. The exhibit is located in the National Museum of African American History and Culture and was opened on September 24, 2016. The exhibit holds a wide variety of artifacts, from banjos to vinyl to Cadillacs. The exhibit uses African American music to preserve its culture, to show how it’s a critical part in American music, and to allow people to experience African American culture in a unique way. Music is a great way to pass down the history and slaves because the lyrics and style of the music reveal a lot about how African Americans viewed their lives during the time the music was created. There are many different panels that discuss the importance of each artifact, detailing the background and historic importance of each artifact. As a hub of African American history, the Musical Crossroads exhibit is an excellent way to illustrate the past and present of African American lives by taking old, important objects and show how they affected the world we live in today.

Historical and Cultural Context

As technology has changed the way people experience music, older pieces of music are lost and forgotten in a sea of contemporary music. In order to allow people to understand historic music in a cohesive manner, the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) gathered together many different African American musical artifacts. With objects such as gramophones becoming increasingly rare, the NMAAHC wanted to preserve some famous ones that exemplify African American culture, such as Billie Holiday’s acetate discs. By preserving these original discs, people are able to go back in time by directly playing these discs, getting an understanding of what life was like when Billie Holiday was still alive. These original discs give a more realistic view of the lives of African Americans than something like a YouTube video because these are objects that people in the past also had access to. Another reason that this exhibit was created was due to the rise of music style such as rap and hip-hop that were popularized in the late 1900s. With such an iconic example of African American music, combining that with blues and jazz, Musical Crossroads is able to create a timeline that showcases the evolution of African American music. The exhibit revives a crucial part of history that is difficult to recreate and experience elsewhere.

Another reason that the exhibit was created was because more and more people only focus on the most iconic types of music by African Americans. An example of this can be seen from Jacqueline Djedje who argues that objects like the fiddle are highly ignored even though black fiddlers play a major role in African American music. She discusses how “even record companies of the twenties and thirties segregated music into separate series: one designed for blacks (blues, jazz, religious music, and vaudeville songs) and another for whites (fiddle, banjo, some religious music, and jazz performed by whites)” (Djedje 1). By forgetting some important aspects of African American history, people in the future will have even a more incorrect opinion on the extent that African American music has changed American history. The NMAAHC tries to reeducate people on the importance of some of these forgotten music types and instruments by including objects like a banjo and a fiddle within the exhibit. This demonstrates the extent that African American music from the past has affected the present day, yet many people do not understand the full extent of these affects.


Fig 1 Williams, Levon. African Americans Playing Music. 15 June 2015.


Themes and Style

The main theme of our digital encyclopedia is how African American music preserved culture in times of slavery (the past), discrimination after slavery (moment of creation), and today.  African American music is a vital part of our Nation’s heritage. The music exemplifies the creative spirit at the heart of American identity and is among the most innovative and powerful art the world has ever known.  The effects of the music shows itself through ways not only in the past, but present day as well.

Music helped African Americans preserve their culture and traditions during the time of slavery by getting together and singing whenever they had time through the day or at night after all their work was finished. They sang their hearts out to subjects of their homeland, because it was the only way to remember it and in this hope that one day they will escape the cruelty at the hands of their master and return to their motherland, Africa.  African Americans also preserved their culture after the times of slavery, which started the difficult time of racism, discrimination, and separation coming from the whites. They managed through this time and used lyrics in songs and shows/concerts to speak out against the hatred from the whites to the blacks and appeal for repeal. An example of this today is the Lemonade album by Beyonce. It politically spoke about against how black women are treated the worst and showed how music can be used to identify problems and be used to preserve identity of the people. With this she swayed the mind of her listeners and made them understand that we need to do all we can to help for the equality of black women.  Our English class discussed a lot about Beyonce’s album and concluded that the music she created signified defiance against the whites. Through the music videos she tried to show the identity of the black women by using flamboyant clothing that symbolizes happiness, freedom, joy, rebirth, and strength. With the acts of defiance she was claiming self-freedom and therefore she strives to preserve the way of the blacks and fails to accept to fall to the racism and mistreatment of the whites.

The topic of Musicals Crossroads also explores the afterlives of slavery in the way that music genres such as hip-hop and classical would not be the music it would be today (and might not have even existed) if not for the Africans Americans slaves that the sounds and tunes emerged from; and with it how the music was used to gain freedom and equality. The music the African Americans created is the base of these music genres and have evolved into the music you hear around everywhere today. A group Public Enemy S1W Uniform today uses the rhythm of the old music and is rewriting the rules of hip-hop particularly in their ability to communicate statements of social revolution, activism, and protest to their listener against the unequal treatment of African Americans (Public Enemy Bibliography 1). Public Enemy is among one of the most influential and controversial rap groups in the history of Hip-Hop music. The group voiced ideas of -black pride and racial awareness with a level of seriousness largely unseen in the Hip-Hop. To show this their 1990’s Fear of the Black Planet LP is one of the most celebrated hip-hop albums of all-time, as the LP produced some of the best political rap of the modern era. One of the songs on the album was “911 Is a Joke,” a track that called out the 911 emergency system. In their lyrics “Don’t you see how late they’re reactin’. They only come and they come when they wanna,” they talk about how the police don’t care about the blacks and that this signifies police brutality in a certain way.  

Africans Americans also affected the genre of classical music. An example of an effect an African American made on classical music is the Marian Anderson’s Ensemble from the 1939 Concert at the Lincoln Memorial. (Musical Crossroads 1).  Marian Anderson was successful with her music and she performed for audiences worldwide. But in Washington, D.C., the Daughters of the American Revolution refused to let her perform at their concert house, Constitution Hall because she was African American. In response, Walter White, executive secretary of the NAACP, and Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes arranged for a public concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on Easter Sunday, April 9, 1939. It was a big moment and leap in civil rights history. Marian Anderson gave voice to the principles of freedom, justice, and equality.  The main theme of the exhibit Musical Crossroads is how music was used to fight for freedom and equality and also to show the public the injustice the black felt and how the white were trying to destroy their traditions and way of life by restricting them with discrimination and racism.

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Fig 2 Milnes, Shawn. Marian Anderson Singing in Front of Lincoln Memorial. 9 April 1939.


Critical Conversation

Many famous individuals like Barack Obama and schools researchers from respectable Universities share the same ideas toward African American music as we have introduced about how African American music preserved culture in times of slavery (the past), discrimination after slavery (moment of creation), and today as it was used as a tool to fight for freedom and equality and how African American music affects society and the culture of Americans. Everyone understood the importance of black music to the movement of equality and how it affected the public opinion, which is very important to have to invoke change.

Barack Obama, in an article, proclaims that the month of June 2016 will be African American Music appreciation month.  He believed that learning about African American Music was important so he called upon public officials, educators, and all the people of the United States to use the month with appropriate activities and programs in order to raise awareness and foster appreciation of music that is composed, arranged, or performed by African Americans.  The reason he believed the music was important to learn was that, “African-American music helps us imagine a better world, and it offers hope that we will get there together” (United States: Presidential Proclamation — African-American Music Appreciation Month, 2016. 1).

The Archives of African American Music and Culture also houses extensive materials related to the documentation of Black radio.  The overall goal, mission, and priority of the Archives of African American Music and Culture is to establish a unique collection of primary and secondary source materials on African-American music and culture (Archives of African American Music and Culture: Indiana University 1). Similarly, Cross the Water Blues is a collection of essays exploring the topic of African American music. The collections of essays purpose was to recognize that African American music is a significant part transatlantic culture exchange and through this proves my idea of how African American music affects society and the culture of the people who listen to it and are around it a lot. In the article there are part where the authors say that African American music affects the culture of others negatively, a quote for example, “The intellectual underpinnings for most of the collection derive from Eric Hobsbawm’s arguments in his book The Jazz Scene (1971) regarding music and youth rebellion, and Christopher Small’s assertion in his book Music of a Common Tongue (1994) that envy, fear, and voyeurism are all at the core of the white attraction to black music,” which still proves my point that the music affects culture of others surrounded by it (Absher 3). All of these articles’ thoughts agree with mine with the fact that music was used a tool by the Africans to fight for the public opinion in their quest for freedom and the demolition of inequality against the black race.

A quote to show that without African American music, American music would not be where, it would be that today, “You cannot imagine American music without its African influences. It just doesn’t exist,” said Benjamin Harbert, an assistant professor of music in the Department of Performing Arts. Another quote said in the article Songs of Struggle and Spirit by Mac Dressman and Yewande Ilawole, “Black music adds a layer of diversity to the American identity and constantly responds to the black American experience. The daily struggles, triumphs, hopes and failures of generations of black Americans are carefully and methodically recorded not only in the pages of history textbooks but also by the music and lyrics of the era.”

Works Cited

Absher, Amy. “Cross the Water Blues: African American Music in Europe.” Journal of Popular Culture. Vol. 41. Malden, USA: n.p., 2008. 878-79. Print.

“Archives of African American Music and Culture: Indiana University.” Journal of Pan African Studies, vol. 10, no. 1, 2017, p. 424.  

Djedje, Jacqueline Cogdell. “The (Mis)Representation of African American Music: The Role of the Fiddle.” Journal of the Society for American Music, vol. 10, no. 1, Feb. 2016, pp. 1-32. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1017/S1752196315000528

“Musical Crossroads.” National Museum of African American History and Culture, 8 Jan. 2018,

“Public Enemy Biography.” Rolling Stone,
“United States: Presidential Proclamation — African-American Music Appreciation Month, 2016.” Asia News Monitor. Bangkok: n.p., 2016. N. pag. Print.

Further Reading

Mcclary, Susan, and Robert Walser. “Theorizing the Body in African-American Music.” Black Music Research Journal 14.1 (1994): 75-84. Print.

Radano, Ronald. “Black Music Labor and the Animated Properties of Slave Sound.” Boundary 2, vol. 43, no. 1, Feb. 2016, pp. 173-208. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1215/01903659-3340685.

Salaam, Kalamu ya. “It Didn’t Jes Grew: The Social and Aesthetic Significance of African American Music.” African American Review, vol. 29, no. 2, Summer95, p. 351. EBSCOhost

Werner, Craig. ““Meeting over Yonder”: Using Music to Teach the Movement in the North.” OAH Magazine of History, vol. 26, no. 1, Jan. 2012, pp. 41-45. EBSCOhost,


  1. (African American) Music
  2. (African American) Culture and Tradition
  3. National Museum of African American History and Culture
  4. Musical Crossroads
  5. Experience
  6. Heritage
  7. Identity
  8. Freedom
  9. Equality