Nwaka Onwusa Expands Black Excellence at the Rock Hall of Fame

The first Black chief curator at the Rock & Rock Hall of Fame talks 2Pac, being a “Museum Master P,” and inspiring others to be great.

The name Nwaka Onwusa has made making history look easy.

The first in her family to attend college, she is also the first Black VP and Chief Curator at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio, and an expert in all things cool and cultured. Her experience working in the UC Riverside fine arts box office got her foot in the door as a steward at the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles. 

She then would excel in utilizing her love of music through her imagination and her Nigerian work ethic to conceive and produce more than 20 exhibits, including Legends of Motown, All Eyez on Me: The Writings of Tupac Shakur, and my personal favorite — It’s Been Said All Along: Voices of Rage, Hope, and Empowerment.

RELATED: Wake Me When I’m Free: Inside the 2Pac Museum in L.A.

As a Black woman dominating in a white male-centered space, Nwaka Onwusa is a living visionary of the Rock Hall’s future while being a staunch custodian of its past. From working with Public Enemy’s frontman Chuck D to crafting the placement of handwritten letters for 2Pac’s Wake Me When I’m Free to lead education programs committed to inspiring students, Nwaka is committed to expanding Black excellence and empowering people to explore the arts. A fighter for diverse representation, the thirtysomething “Museum Master P” has broken barriers and come full circle in embracing her complete musical odyssey.

RELATED: Jay-Z And LL Cool J Further Cement Hip Hop In The Culture At 2021 Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame Induction

To continue’s Black Music Month Celebration, SoCal’s rich and exceptional export talks about her genre-rich upbringing, self-care lessons she learned from Tupac Shakur, and what end-of-year goals she still wants to accomplish. We first met at the preview showing for Wake Me When I’m Free earlier this year. And while your love of music has guided you throughout this beautiful career of yours — who were you listening to when growing up that continues to inspire your work and growth?

Nwaka Onwusa: Earth, Wind & Fire, Aretha Franklin, The Clark Sisters, James Brown, and Bob Marley [were just a few artists I was listening to at the time.] Normally I listen to everything from gospel to soul music, but I grew up in a super strict religious household that was Pentecostal, so we didn’t listen to much secular music. Whenever we did, though, those were some of the staples that were played. How did those artists help you in your career to manage stressful moments and stay centered?

Nwaka Onwusa: I am my own personal DJ [laughs]. I create my own playlists that all have some sort of sentimental feeling to them. Looking at it right now, the first song on Smooth Criminal: The Playlist is “God is Love” by Marvin Gaye. There’s an interlude by Earth, Wind & Fire called “Beijo,” also known as “kiss” in Portuguese.

My mom would always hum this tune and “God is Love” to me and my sister. Bob Marley is next to D’Angelo, which leads into “Keep Your Head to the Sky,” and these are songs that I need in my life. [At the time] I was listening to Earth, Wind & Fire’s “Keep Your Head to the Sky” on repeat as a reminder to stay inspired and stay focused. Whatever I am feeling, whether it is tough times or personal struggles, these songs help to refortify me and bring me back to my foundation. I come from a very spiritual family, so having that base in faith has helped me to get through a lot of ordeals. In my opinion, you’re a “Museum Master P,” a person who is deeply connected to the culture and someone who has put the work in for other museumgoers to enjoy. Out of the 20-plus exhibits that you’ve curated, which ones resonate the closest to who you are personally and why?

Nwaka Onwusa: Man, that is a great question! All of these exhibits in their own way do because it is all just like Fela Kuti says, “Music is spiritual. You don’t f**k with music.” As a curator, when I am focusing on an artist’s expression, I believe in resonating with them over who they are. I don’t care if you are Janis Joplin, Prince, Grace Jones, or even Tupac Shakur — music sees no gender.

That’s why personally I love Tupac when he’s talking to us in Wake Me When I’m Free. He’s not talking to just one person, he’s talking to everybody. His resilience knows no boundaries. And while I didn’t grow up in severe poverty, I still feel that his life resonates with mine because of him being immersed in the Black experience and us being Black people.

I think with all of these exhibits, whether you’re a fan or just want to learn something new, ones such as Wake Me When I Free or about John Coltrane or Ella Fitzgerald should resonate with you. It’s a powerful thing to see these amazing giants and how we’re able to celebrate them after they’ve left this plane, but there’s also so much more to witness about their lives as they’re complex human beings. Wake Me When I’m Free explores Tupac as a legendary figure who used music to speak out, share rage amongst the Black community, and empower us as listeners to challenge the state of affairs in America and around the world. What challenges arise when you develop these exhibits that point out issues that are still ongoing today?

Nwaka Onwusa: During the pandemic where we experienced the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, we lost these amazing people who were living their lives. It was beautiful to see at Wake Me When I’m Free how these people were active inside and outside of their homes. But they also learned from that exhibit that through music, while it was beautiful to black out your squares on social media, it was more engaging to let our voices be heard.

It’s sad when you think about what we already overcame as a people. From Billie Holiday going through the bulls**t, she went through to Ray Charles to Aretha Franklin to Stevie Wonder — all of these amazing pillars who used their art and craft to speak out on injustices also had to put their bodies on the line! Music is so powerful and can be used as a weapon for change that I felt with Wake Me When I’m Free that we’ve been saying this, but with ‘Pac it was important to show how much productivity came out of anger for change.

Music is a soundtrack of the revolution, it always has been.


Photo by Angelo Merendino Were there any self-care lessons that you learned from Tupac’s self-written letters that still stuck with you?

Nwaka Onwusa: ‘Pac left us so many messages, so many words, that to have the opportunity to see the collection as intimately as I did over the past few years was an honor. I think of the notes and messages he wrote. There’s a piece that I wanted to make sure was included in Wake Me When I’m Free, which was “Keep Your Head Up.” That’s all that was written on one solid piece of paper, and he signs his name at the bottom.

He has so many other words of wisdom that he shared during his lifetime, but for me, that’s one that hit me the most because there’s always going to be a moment that tries to break you down. You just have to keep your head up and remind yourself that it’s not only raining on your house alone, but it’s also raining on other people’s homes, too, which is a Bob Marley quote.

The fact that he has transitioned from us for over 25 years now, yet still making an impact on this world and being a continuous spark that creates change is amazing. If you’re feeling down, go to YouTube and watch a video with ‘Pac and you’ll be ready to hit the streets, create something impactful of your own, and do something that builds change in our human community. As the chief curator at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, how do moments such as Wake Me When I’m Free or others inspire you to evolve the space and connect it to a broader audience?

Nwaka Onwusa: Understanding that this place is important in history is key. This is the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame! But to understand the origins of rock and roll is to learn quickly the foundations of that artform come from the souls of Black folks and from our struggles. From blues to gospel to country music to R&B, American music is Black music, and I think that that is really important to stress. For me coming into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, I wanted to fill in the gaps where certain holes could be filled, and we could amplify and talk about subjects that were being overlooked.

Music is forever and not static, it is always moving. So, truly to be a reflection of the time in that way with this position, I wanted to make sure that my impact was felt. Hell, even curating The Beatles exhibit has been an exercise in how do I make things that are happening right now still relevant to us? As the VP and the first Black chief curator at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame enable me the space to dictate the narrative and shift what happens to our exhibition calendar.

It is really special and an honor, especially coming from someone who originally wanted to be a lawyer and a journalist. It is impressive to see how your goals created new opportunities for Black music lovers to experience their history on a grand scale. With us being at the midpoint of 2022, what are some end-of-year goals that you still have on your list to accomplish?

Nwaka Onwusa: There are several exhibitions that I have in the works that I can’t fully name here, but I definitely want to see those come to fruition. I want to celebrate and amplify Black photographers. I am thrilled about the work that I am able to do for the city of Cleveland and am interested in the changing of the guard here. Justin Bibb, the youngest mayor in the city’s history, is absolutely amazing. And this is a beautiful moment for Black people here and for what is possible in the city of Cleveland. I’m curious to see how I can be more involved as a servant to the community. I want to be a helping hand to uplift and make sure that there’s some longevity and perpetuity in all of this.

For any of the stories that I’m telling I am looking to have them travel, have permanence here at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and impact the next generation of creatives and artists. Those are just some career goals and next steps for me, but I’m truly happy for these exhibits that are coming up and am looking forward to talking about them with you soon.

Kevin L. Clark is a screenwriter and entertainment director for BET Digital, who covers the intersection of music, film, pop culture, and social justice. Follow him on @KevitoClark.

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