For Nwaka Onwusa, music does much more than evoke emotions. Music, she says, is an integral part of the human spirit. Lyrics and rhythms are weaved into daily life, culture, politics, and history. As chief curator and vice president of curatorial affairs at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, Onwusa, 36, works to capture and exhibit this essence for more than 560,000 annual guests who visit the Cleveland-based museum.
“Music is spiritual. It reaches deep into the soul and connects us as human beings,” said Onwusa, who earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology from UCR in 2008. “It’s deeper than whatever our differences are.”
Onwusa joined the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2019, becoming the first Black person to hold the position. She previously held various roles at the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles, starting as a box office worker and leaving as lead curator for more than 20 exhibitions, including “All Eyez on Me: The Writings of Tupac Shakur” and “Jenni Rivera, La Gran Señora.”
Raised in Fontana by a mother from Louisiana and a father from Nigeria, secular music was frowned upon. As a child, gospel music was all Onwusa knew. But her inquisitive nature led her to discover new genres. In high school, Onwusa asked friends to narrate what was on MTV or borrowed a friend’s Walkman. At UCR, her love of music and her desire to develop an understanding for humanity merged when she took a sociology class with Professor Adalberto Aguirre. As a first-generation student, Onwusa worked jobs on and off campus, including as a residential advisor and at the UCR Fine Arts Box Office, where she learned to use Ticketmaster’s complex software and helped set up events.
“A MUSEUM IS A PLACE OF LEARNING. THERE IS ALWAYS SOMETHING TO BE LEARNED AND THIS IS MY CITADEL.”
For current and future UCR students, Onwusa shared this simple piece of advice: “Don’t be afraid to ask questions, especially when you come from a background where you are first generation. Don’t be afraid to be vulnerable because you are on campus to better yourself and no one can take that away from you.”
In describing her role and most recent exhibitions at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, Onwusa said one of her jobs is to humanize artists of all genres. The goal is to present their music, their lives, and their influence in a palatable, tangible manner to a diverse audience. When it comes to historical moments — wars, civil rights, or sporting events such as the Super Bowl — music is there.
“This history happened in our culture and made the waves,” Onwusa said. “Look at photography, look at people’s clothing, hair, and musical instruments. Music is in all of that, music is not static, and we are here to capture all that motion and movement.”
Researching archives and uncovering pieces of little-known musical history often gives her goosebumps. That keeps her motivated to find more slices of history to curate and present to the public.
“We just want to plant the seed,” Onwusa said. “These are not Tupac’s exact words, but he said, ‘I want to be the seed that sparks change.’ I’m honored to be here. A museum is a place of learning. There is always something to be learned and this is my citadel.”
Photo credit: Getty Images