The first time Nwaka Onwusa toured the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, she was blown away by everything from the architecture of the I.M. Pei-designed glass pyramid building to the main exhibit hall that houses John Lennon’s Sgt. Pepper outfit, Keith Moon’s Pictures of Lily drum kit, Michael Jackson’s sequined glove, and countless other rock treasures. But something felt like it was missing.
“When I looked around, I didn’t see Public Enemy anywhere in the Legends of Rock section,” she says. “I was like, ‘Well, they’re inducted. In the words of T.I. and Jay-Z [on their 2004 collaboration], let’s ‘Bring Em Out.'”
Weeks later, the Hall named Onwusa Chief Curator & Vice President of Curatorial Affairs. She is the first black person to hold such a position. In the role, she not only has the power to put Public Enemy in their rightful spot in the Legends of Rock section, but she is also the final arbiter when it comes to what artifacts are displayed in every area of the museum, what exhibits are given a green light going forward, and how the story of rock is told to the nearly 600,000 people that visit the Cleveland museum every year.
“I want to make sure that black voices, black musicians, are amplified in the Hall of Fame,” she says. “And this is not just in the roots section at the beginning. Gospel has continued to evolve. It does not stop with Mahalia Jackson and Aretha Franklin. Music is not static. It’s forever changing. Our museum needs to be a reflection of that change and that’s what I’m here to do.”
Music has been at the center of Onwusa’s life ever since she was a little kid growing up in Compton and Fontana, California, the oldest daughter of a Nigerian immigrant father and an evangelical Christian mother from Louisiana. Her mother banned nearly all secular music from the household, meaning she had to sneak in a cassette of Dr. Dre’s The Chronic and listen to it at night on her Walkman or catch glimpses of MTV while visiting friends before and after school. “My mom did her bet to protect me and my sisters from music,” she says, “but it didn’t work.”
By her teenage years, Onwusa was obsessed with Aaliyah, Erykah Badu and, especially, Lauryn Hill. “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill raised me,” she says. “It was my bible throughout middle school and high school. But all of those women are my spiritual mothers. They allowed me to embrace my blackness as a young lady. They helped me appreciate my name and understand the heritage behind it. They helped me discover who I was and to discover my identity as Nwaka Onwusa.”
After briefly singing in a girl group that didn’t go anywhere, Onwusa enrolled in University of California, Riverside with the goal of becoming an entertainment lawyer. But two years in, a chance encounter with an inspiring sociology professor caused her to change her major to sociology and start envisioning a very different sort of career path. At the same time, she worked at Forever 21 and FedEx in her downtime to cover her hefty tuition bills. “I was loading boxes in the back of FedEx trailers for about least six months,” she says. “One day I was like, ‘Okay, let’s find another job.'”
She accepted a position at the box office of the Fine Arts Theater at her school where she mastered Ticketmaster’s complex software and became a wiz at setting up events. The experience was critical in landing her a job at the Grammy Museum box office where she took on a similar role. By that point, she was also substitute teaching at an elementary school and contemplating a career as a sociology professor. But when the recession hit in late 2008 and much of the Grammy Museum’s office staff was laid off, museum president Bob Santelli gave her a chance to head up their education department.
“I didn’t major in museum studies,” she says. “I didn’t realize that was a real path I could follow. But I was able to grow into our education coordinator. Bob said, ‘Hey, you’re subbing for these kids. Let’s get you into this role.’ He’s been an incredible mentor to me.”
Working with Santelli, Onwusa spearheaded programs like the Music and Arts concert series at the White House. That meant she was in the East Room when Bob Dylan sang ‘The Times They Are-A Changin’ to a tiny audience that included President Obama. “I’m getting goosebumps now just thinking about that moment,” she says. “To be in that room and to feel his words, a song that was written some 40 year odd years earlier, and to see the times had changed…to have a black president in the White House and to have a program like that where artists could share their stories of triumph, you could really feel and see that times were changing. I felt so hopeful.”
Onwusa spent nearly a decade at the Grammy Museum, rising to the position of head curator. She’d never lived anywhere but California in her entire life, but when the position of Chief Curator at the Hall of Fame opened up in 2019, she found herself buying a beanie and a pair of snow boots and moving into an apartment in downtown Cleveland at the height of a frigid winter. “It was so exciting for this Cali girl,” she says. “There are these colorful lights that illuminate the buildings in downtown Cleveland. When the snow came down, it looked like purple rain and I’d always think of the song. It’s so mesmerizing and majestic.”
Her first major exhibit at the Hall of Fame was It’s All Been Said: Voices of Rage, Hope & Empowerment, which chronicles the social justice movement in rock over the past 60 years. It showcases Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” lyrics, an N.W.A. jacket, Aretha Franklin’s Valentino dress she wore while singing “Respect” at her first Radio City Music Hall concert, and a jumpsuit worn by James Brown. It also ties the civil rights movement of the Sixties to the Black Lives Matter movement of today in powerful ways.
“We wouldn’t even get to rock & roll if it wasn’t for blues, gospel, country, or jazz. If we’re not telling the story of what’s happening right now, we have a problem. We have a serious problem.”
“This exhibit was truly birthed out of our revolutionary summer of 2020,” says Onwusa. “If we’re not telling the story of what’s happening right now, we have a problem. We have a serious problem. And really wanted to elevate the black voices in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and touch on a subject that has not been discussed in the museum in this way. I wanted to really touch on rage and what it means. It doesn’t just mean bluntly cussing someone out. It’s about artists openly talking about racism, inequality and injustices through their music.”
Inevitably, there has been a backlash to these sort of efforts, and Onwusa has received plenty of hate mail and brutal online comments she does her best to ignore. And while a handful of reactions have just been blatantly racist, many others have made the tired argument that rock & roll is solely the product of traditional drum/guitar/bass acts, and hip-hop, disco, EDM and even pop groups have no place in the Hall of Fame. “That way of thinking is unfortunate because rock & roll has always been a melting pot,” Onwusa says. “We wouldn’t even get to rock and roll if it wasn’t for blues, gospel, country or jazz. “When people want to pigeonhole this music I say, ‘Sure, you can have rock. But don’t miss that roll. The rock and the roll is what makes this genre what it is. It’s all these things rolled up into not just one thing. Rock & roll is multi-dimensional.'”
That’s why Onwusa is excited about moving the Hall of Fame forward. She’s already plotting out their first-ever exhibit spotlighting the work of a black photographer, and the Hall of Fame’s $100 million expansion plans that will add 50,000 new square feet creates incredible opportunities to tell stories in new ways and bring younger artists into the mix.
Onwusa is also hoping that Tina Turner will finally be inducted into the Hall of Fame later this year as a solo artist. “She’s such an inspiration to so many women,” she says. “Her perseverance and tenacity is definitely something I personally respect as a black woman. I often tell myself, ‘If Tina was able to get through all her shit, you better keep pushing, sister. You better keep rolling.'”