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Boss Ladies of CLE: Vice President and Chief Curator at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, Nwaka Onwusa

Onwusa is the visionary for the Rock Hall's future, and the custodian of its past.

CLEVELAND — "You're in, you at the Rock Hall- this is major. Like, this is no, this is no game."

Nwaka Onwusa is the Vice President and Chief Curator at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and most days, she pinches herself just to make sure she isn't dreaming.

"I've road tripped with a Supreme. I can say that. Wow. Now that is pretty crazy," said Onwusa. "Actually getting to go to Ringo Starr's house, sit down, pick artifacts, drink some tea, have a couple cookies...Wow. That was pretty amazing to say I've met a Beatle."

Onwusa is the visionary for the Rock Hall's future, and the custodian of its past. Her favorite artifacts are the artists' hand-written lyrics -- on paper, on napkins, on scraps of whatever they could find when inspiration struck.

"My dad, he loved Bruce Springsteen. And I love that song. So I remember like driving with my dad and he's singing Bruce and you're thinking like, wow, a Nigerian man singing born in the USA. And I just, we were just born in the USA," said Onwusa. "When I got to the Rock Hall, getting in the vaults and then seeing that we have them, I cried, I called my dad and he was like, oh my God, like we have these lyrics."

So what's an average day look like when you work at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame?

"There is no average day at the rock and roll hall of fame," said Onwusa, laughing. "It is a wild card at any moment, maybe an artist can be coming through or we're acquiring a new artifact to our collection or got to return something or licensed."

Onwusa is the first Black woman to hold such a role, and she says her goal is to create immersive experiences that emphasize diversity in music. She says she is most proud of her exhibit "It’s Been Said All Along: Voices of Rage, Hope and Empowerment,” which born out of 2020's turning point moments.

"Rock and roll has always been at the forefront of change. Always, no matter what color you are," she said. "I'm honored to say that I was able to do that exhibit where it's located in the museum. I'm honored to say that it's right at the front. It's like, there's no ignoring these issues."

Onwusa grew up in southern California...in a religious household...with an undying love for music. 

"Unless it was Motown, James Brown, Failla or like the Supremes, we weren't, I was not getting it. I was not finding it at home. We were not listened to naughty by nature, and I was not getting all my TLC's, all that stuff came from school and my friends, but that hunger, because I wasn't really cultivating it at home, really has been a huge drive for me," said Onwusa.

In college, she started working at UC Riverside's box office…then took a part time job in the box office at L.A.'s Grammy Museum. With great mentors, she found museums could be her calling.

"You cannot look to the left or the right or be distracted. It will always sway you from your anchor. So that's my advice to these young women," said Onwusa. "If I were to hear those voices and let other people be the reason why I didn't do something for myself, I wouldn't be here today will be a whole other person sitting in this seat."

She's a new champion of Cleveland, leaning into every experience and getting involved in the community.

"I'm in love with Cleveland. Anyone who has anything to say about Cleveland I'm coming for your neck," Onwusa said, laughing.

She is part of a small group planning for a $100 million expansion of the Rock Hall, set to begin in 2022. On this induction week, the first held at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse, she's focused on watching music history unfold.

"It's great to see this event grow in stature. It's great for more access for fans to actually get that experience with music history happening," Onwusa said.


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