CLEVELAND (WJW) – The story behind rock ‘n’ roll begins at its root.
“Rock ‘n’ Roll is not a genre that was built and grown in a vacuum. It’s inspired by so many other amazing genres,” said Nwaka Onwusa, chief curator and vice president of curatorial affairs at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
Genres such as gospel, blues, country, R&B, folk, and bluegrass led to the melting pot of music known as rock.
Many of its pioneers are Black.
“You’re talking about the Robert Johnsons, the John Lee Hookers, B.B. King,” said Onwusa. “So many amazing blues men who have impacted the sound of rock and roll, who have inspired the sound of rock and roll, R&B, funk, hip-hop.”
It’s an undeniable evolution, traced through the dozens of Black Rock Hall inductees, including but not limited to Nina Simone, Isaac Hayes, Ray Charles, James Brown, The Jackson 5, Prince, Jay Z and LL Cool J.
“Our list goes on from past, present, and future,” said Onwusa.
Celebrating the past at the Rock Hall of Fame includes looking deeply at Black artists’ fusion of music and activism.
Museum visitors can get an up-close look at Public Enemy, the 2013 inductees who brought socially conscious rap to the masses.
“They were very raw in their message. The lyrics that we actually have on display and the exhibit called ‘It’s Been Said All Along’ is ‘Fight The Power.’ I mean, ‘fight the powers that be,'” said Onwusa.
The same exhibit celebrates Aretha Franklin, the first female Rock Hall inductee, and it features the Valentino dress Franklin wore for her first appearance at Radio City Music Hall.
During that performance, Franklin sang her 1967 hit “Respect,” a song that became the battle cry of a generation.
“These are like anthems to encourage you through your fight. Through your social justice fight, through your fight as a woman,” said Onwusa.
The Rock Hall of Fame also honors Black artists who bring the world music that sparks joy. No one does that quite like the legendary psychedelic soul band Earth, Wind and Fire.
“‘September’ is probably a song that we can all just break out in song together as a music community,” said Onwusa.
The Elements’ dazzling capes and stage costumes are part of several exhibits, including “Legends of Rock” and “Hotter Than July,” a study of the visual representation of blackness during the golden age of soul, R&B, and funk.
Each exhibit is an opportunity to tell the personal stories of icons.
From Tina Turner, a two-time Rock Hall inductee who overcame domestic violence, to Whitney Houston and Lionel Richie, two artists Onwusa said were criticized by some who believed their music wasn’t Black enough.
“Both of them stood strongly and stood so firmly in saying, ‘I just want to make music, just good music,'” said Onwusa.
The Rock Hall believes sharing the struggle behind the music helps to humanize artists the world has grown to love, but their challenges could never overshadow the impact of their work.
“I think that’s the thing about the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. When you come into this space, learning about these artists, you identify with that moment, that song, that artifact, that dress, that music video,” said Onwusa. “There’s so many mediums that are celebrated here to educate, inspire and spark that joy, you know?”