New Rock Hall Exhibit Focuses on Rage, Hope and Empowerment

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JEFF NIESEL
  • Jeff Niesel
Rock Hall Director of Curatorial Affairs Nwaka Onwusa was in the process of putting together an exhibit about rock 'n’ roll and social justice when the social protests started earlier this year. Those protests accelerated the process, and It’s Been Said All Along, a new exhibit that opens today, represents the fruits of her labor.

It highlights how Rock Hall Inductees such as Chuck Berry, Nat King Cole, Billie Holiday, Little Richard, Nina Simone, Sam Cooke, James Brown and Aretha Franklin were “trailblazers in speaking for the cause of dignity and equality.”



“Typically, we have a year or a couple of years to develop a new exhibit,” she says while wearing a mask and conducting an interview from a safe distance at the Rock Hall. “Because we have such powerful artifacts in our collection and we wanted this exhibit to be timely, we wanted to make sure, as Nina Simone says, to reflect the times. These musicians have been ‘saying it all along’ and this is a perfect time to amplify this narrative [of social protest] and celebrate these stories. It’s an opportunity to break down what rage might look like in a song.”

Onwusa says she steered clear of the “typical folks being hosed down” photos as she curated the exhibit.



“We want to highlight the eloquence and resilience of what these artists have overcome,” she says. “We want to show what the power of rock ‘n’ roll looks like in the face of segregation and racism. These artists have stood above all that and done it elegantly."

The exhibit features the work of African-American photographers such as Chuck Stewart, Bruce Talamon, Bob Douglas and others. Key artifacts include: Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” lyrics; a N.W.A. jacket reflecting the relevance of their single, “Fuck tha Police”; Aretha Franklin’s Valentino dress worn during her first appearance at Radio City Music Hall, where she sang “Respect”; a James Brown jumpsuit; a 1973 Wattstax film poster representing a cross-section of Black music from gospel to pop and was the largest gathering of African Americans during that time; and handwritten lyrics from songwriter and rapper D Smoke, who penned “Let Go” recorded hours before the killing of George Floyd, and recently performed live for the first time on the 2020 BET Awards. The exhibit also includes a guitar that was just acquired from singer-songwriter Fantastic Negrito.

“We wanted to make sure we were intentional about the images,” she says. “This is a great time to bring out some of the classic voices from the Rock Hall, and this is just a sampling of some of the key voices of rage, hope and empowerment. We’ll have a virtual exhibit in the coming months, and this is only the beginning. The timing is absolutely perfect for us to celebrate and amplify these voices.”

To celebrate today's opening, throughout the day, there will be spoken word and live music performances on the plaza, including Distinguished Gentlemen of the Spoken Word’s Clay ‘Bama at 1:45 p.m. and King Weatherspoon at 2 p.m. Singer-songwriter Jack Harris will deliver a Lunch by the Lake acoustic set, and there will be a Live & Local series performance by local singer-songwriter David Smeltz.

All performances are free on the plaza. RSVP at rockhall.com for the Live & Local performance that takes place from 5 to 7 p.m. With health and safety guidelines in mind, the plaza offers socially distanced outdoor seating, food and beer trucks, and free motorcycle and bicycle parking. It is pet friendly.

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