Cleveland Magazine: You grew up in a household where pop music wasn’t welcome. How did that shape your curatorial journey?
Nwaka Onwusa: It’s allowed me to immerse myself in a deeper way. I’m learning things now just because of my innate feeling of wanting to know more about this artist. Then, you had hip-hop and certain songs that weren’t kid-friendly, but I had a foundation of growing up in a household where we listened to Motown, Bob Marley, James Brown and Nigerian music. But, the pop scene was not necessarily embraced. I got a lot of my education from my friends and what they were listening to, just being curious about “What do you have on MTV?” I was doing a lot of research even then.
CM: How did your path towards becoming a curator begin?
NO: My background was not starting out in musical studies. I didn't start out thinking, I want to be a curator, to be quite honest. I didn't know what a curator was. I was a sociology major in my undergrad, and a lot of that was focusing on storytelling and trying to find and ask questions about the deeper meaning of cultures and how they intersect, asking questions of "Why is this? How did that come to be?" I feel like, fueled with that interest, and then just my passion for music, I had that kind of collide, and luckily that happened at the Grammy Museum, from there things just kind of skyrocketed and took off in a direction that I couldn't have even imagined. And now, we're here, in Cleveland. That's amazing.
CM: Your curatorial work at the Grammy Museum covered everything from Tupac Shakur to Taylor Swift. Do you see a common thread among exhibits that you’re trying to impart?
NO: The goal at the Grammy Museum with tying different genres together, it was really trying to find that special story about these artists… What is the message for the future in their musical legacy? How does that inform us for the future and inform the next generation of not even just musicians, but just the next generation period? We all listen to music. That's the one thing that unifies us…I will say that with the Grammys and the Recording Academy, there were so many categories to cover. At that time, there were 89 [Grammy Award] categories and we had to cover them all. So, I've done exhibits focused on comedians like George Carlin. He's a Grammy Award Winner! People don’t think about that! Or thinking about someone like Joan Rivers or Cheech & Chong. It's all over the place. But being immersed in that culture really did expand my musical palate. I was listening to Tejano music, to Columbian roots music, to raga and Ravi Shankar.
CM: Some genre purists believe only rock music should be included in the Rock Hall and its inductions. What do you say to that?
NO: Music is a melting pot, just as we are as a nation. A melting pot of cultures, beliefs and ideals. You don’t get to rock ‘n’ roll without covering blues, roots, gospel music, country, R&B and hip-hop. Hip-hop and rock ‘n’ roll, in the capacity that they’ve taken over the past three decades, really are like siblings. They’re birthed out of the same sort of rage and noise and thought process. So, to that I say no … This genre has an evolution. It’s not a full-stop. It’s not a period. Rock ‘n’ roll, and music in general, is a dot dot dot.
CM: What’s the idea behind the Interactive Garage?
NO:You can produce a song damn-near on your phone. This is an immersive experience where you’re not just seeing these instruments behind glass, but we’re bringing them to the forefront for our visitors to touch. Can you imagine a 5-year-old coming in… and we have a full floor dedicated to the celebration of instrumentation and everything musical? For a kid who’s never seen a keyboard or sat behind drums because their family can’t afford it or their school doesn’t have a music program? This serves a number of purposes and is a great benefit to the community.
CM: How do you translate a sonic experience into a visual display?
NO: I’m definitely a fan of handwritten manuscripts, lyrics, notebooks. Keeping notebooks is critical to see the thought process behind an artist when they’re writing their lyrics. I had an opportunity to touch a John Coltrane manuscript, and you can see where he’s making a composition here, and scratched out a note or erased something. Then on the back, he took some words and was scrambling them. The story was that he would unscramble words and make new words ... That adds to his story and the depth of his genius ... Handwritten lyrics are always my favorite to get. There was this drawing that I came across doing an exhibit on John Lee Hooker, King of the Boogie. He made a hand drawing [to illustrate a concept]. He was illiterate for most of his life. His grandchildren taught him how to write his own name. So, seeing is truly believing. That drawing goes into the story of who he was, where he was from, where he was born, deep in the Delta… I try not to have a super strict list, but just be open to what a collection can teach you. You never know what you can find.
CM: As a woman of color working in a white male-dominated industry, what does this appointment mean? What do you say to young women of color who want to be curators?
NO:Be open to what life has to show you ... I was literally from Compton. Not that my family didn’t go to museums, but I didn’t know how exhibits were put up. This is a space for storytellers, for anthropologists, sociologists, journalists ... This could be anyone’s role. I’m honored it’s mine and I don’t take it lightly. For the women, I’m happy that I’m here and I’m visible, so someone else can see and be intrigued by that, and think, That’s something I can do.