May 7, 2015

Listen: Songs That Inspired The Smithsonian’s ‘Musical Crossroads’

By Ally Schweitzer

Chuck D of Public Enemy performing at the 2012 Movement Festival in Detroit.

Chuck D of Public Enemy performing at the 2012 Movement Festival in Detroit.

With their success on the pop charts, groups like Living Colour, Public Enemy and En Vogue are already familiar to millions of Americans. But chances are they didn’t hear about those artists in a museum.

That could change come 2016, when the Smithsonian opens its National Museum of African American History and Culture on the National Mall. Curators at the institution have been working for several years on a collection of African American music objects — some of which will turn up in an exhibit called “Musical Crossroads” — and the collection promises to be as diverse as the spectrum of black American music itself. Jazz, funk, rock ‘n’ roll, hip-hop, go-go and Chicago house: It all has a home there.

Museum specialist Kevin Strait poses next to the items he acquired for the National Museum of African American History & Culture: George Clinton’s P-Funk Mothership (left) and Chuck Berry’s Cadillac (right).

Speaking to WAMU’s Bandwidth, Smithsonian music specialist Timothy Anne Burnside says “Musical Crossroads” makes a case for the interconnectedness of all black American musical expression — old, new, popular and not-so-popular. “We’ve got all of these things that are part of the story, and you can’t understand the whole without examining all of it,” Burnside says.

Before specialists from the Museum of African American History and Culture stop by the Kojo Nnamdi Show, we asked Burnside what songs would best represent the breadth of “Musical Crossroads.” She sent us suggestions that span decades of recorded music, from Harlem jazz man Cab Calloway to Detroit protopunk band Death.

Finding significance in contemporary music, as opposed to just the old and vaunted, is part of the mission of “Musical Crossroads,” Burnside tells Bandwidth. “I think it really smashes a lot of ideas about what the Smithsonian does and what it’s supposed to do. I think a lot of people put the Smithsonian museums into this kind of realm of long-gone history, and way, way, way back is how we can understand things and learn from our distant past. And that’s not the case.”

This week, the Smithsonian offers a sneak peak of the African-American Museum’s collection with a preview show called “Through the African American Lens: Selections from the Permanent Collection.” It opens May 8 at the National Museum of American History. If you’re hankering for more than a sneak peak, check out the music that inspired this collection. Here are Smithsonian museum specialist Timothy Anne Burnside’s top picks:

Listen to WAMU’s Ally Schweitzer and Smithsonian curatorial museum specialists Kevin Strait and Timothy Anne Burnside on The Kojo Nnamdi Show Thursday, May 7, at 12:00 p.m.

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