Nwaka Onwusa Channels Her Genre-Rich Musical Upbringing as Chief Curator at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame

2020 was a cultural wake-up call for many, and brands, organizations, and institutions are now heeding the need for change. The global creative advertising industry is one such space, with an underrepresentation of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) perspectives—something that Spotify Advertising is looking to examine and change with the second season of its annotated audio series, Outside Voice

Each month, rising stars in the industry will curate original playlists that feature their favorite music alongside spoken-word annotations, providing each creator a platform to tell personal stories, discuss their creative passions, and speak to important social issues affecting underrepresented communities. Season two is opening up with two individuals, documentary filmmaker Mike Shum, and Nwaka Onwusa, the Chief Curator and Vice President of Curatorial Affairs at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. 

Nwaka, the first Black woman to hold her position, pulls from a personal background rich in music from across genres, cultures, and styles—as well as her experience as an African American woman living and working in the U.S. In her annotated playlist, Onwusa champions the power of music as a force for social change and progress—for everyone. “I love the term “BIPOC” because it’s a blend of who we are as a society, whether we realize it or not,” says Nwaka. “We’re made up of so many different things, so many different experiences. Similarly, the music that is most impactful can’t be defined by one genre.”

For the Record caught time with Nwaka to learn more about some of the thought-provoking and influential songs on her playlist, as well as ask her advice for institutions looking to incorporate the history, legacy, and impact of Black Americans.

In your liners, you say, “We have to [fight for justice] as a collective.” What’s a song from your playlist that speaks to this?

Sweet Honey In The Rock, “Ella’s Song.” That song is a summation of what we need to do as a society in pulling together and uniting—to truly be the change. That song was shared with me personally by 2Pac’s aunt, and it happened to be one of Afeni Shakur’s favorite songs as well. “We who believe in freedom cannot rest.” That’s the opening line. It’s my get-up song. Another song that exemplifies that is Bob Marley’sHigh Tide Or Low Tide.” However you listen to the lyrics, the spirit of that song—“high tide or low tide, I’m going to be your friend”—shows that everyone is needed. And then of course I have The Beatles’Come Together.”

What song makes you feel your power to make change?

The Carters, “Nice.” When they came out with that album, I just cried and cried. That song tells me to re-embrace, reconnect with the power that’s within myself, and not to be ashamed of that. And to truly harness it. When they were on tour, I remember screaming this anthem at the top of my lungs. In a time when I was definitely feeling pushed down and undervalued in my work space, being the only African American, taking the strength to like wake up and be strong every f&*$ing day—you know, it weighs on you—so to have such a bold song like that is really special.

No one person should bear the responsibility of educating allies on injustice. But if you had to pick an artist to speak for you, who would it be? 

Nina Simone. Homegirl puts it so plainly. I have “To Be Young, Gifted, and Black” on the playlist, but there is no louder voice or ally I want to have than Nina Simone. She’ll sum it up. 

How are you and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame grappling with the legacies of Black musicians and genres that didn’t get their due? Do you have a piece of advice for museums and other institutions who need to do a better job incorporating that reality and history?  

We’re all working collectively to help redefine what rock and roll is and to help folks understand that when we’re talking about rock and roll, we are not talking about a specific sound. Rock and roll came on as a cultural phenomenon—it was the sway in Little Richard’s hips, in Chuck Berry’s hips, in Elvis’s hips. You don’t get to talk about “the rock” without talking about “the roll”—everything else is encompassed in that roll part! That’s the gospel, the country, the jazz, the bluegrass; that’s how you get to hip-hop. Rock and roll is the spirit. We are talking about counterculture as a phenomenon, not as a genre construct. 

What I would say to other institutions: What better time than this to start afresh and look at your collection, look at your audience with new eyes. We can’t be doing the same thing. We have a new generation looking to be educated and inspired, and that’s who we need to be creating for.

One of your Outside Voice counterparts, Mike Shum, has a few concertos and orchestral songs on his playlist. Do these pieces do it for you? 

I resonate with classical music because I used to play violin. Classical music is definitely another piece of who I am. So for me, you’ll see Dorothy Ashbee on my playlist—she was a Black harpist. She turned that classical Euro-Harping into Afro-Harping, which is the name of her album. There are a number of ways we can start to incorporate classical in the day-to-day, and I love how his playlist kicks off with “In the Mood For Love.” So dope! I never heard this song before, nor the composer or artist. I think as music lovers and listeners and people who dig deep into music, soundtracks are the best places to find unique music. 

How can we start to incorporate some classical or traditional music from non-white composers into our repertoire? 

We do need to continue to challenge ourselves. That is a level of diversity we need to explore. I’m grateful I had it by playing violin, from second grade through high school. I do also lean into some of the African American composers who don’t get a lot of light, including jazz musicians like Wes Montgomery and Eric Dolpy. To the point of non-white composers, whether they’re Asian, Indian, American Indian, or Hispanic, Latinx, African, we have to embrace it, so I love that both of our playlists parallel and celebrate these.

Get to know Nwaka’s musical taste even further through her Outside Voice playlist below.