For HBCUs, the bands are about much more than the show to the Black community: 'This is family'
It’s almost 10 p.m. and still a sweltering, sticky 95 degrees when Texas Southern’s Ocean of Soul band marches onto the top of a parking garage a stone’s throw from downtown Houston.
The glittering skyline is close enough to provide some illumination to the dimly lit structure. It reveals beads of sweat dripping off many faces as the students near the end of a 10-hour rehearsal day. One of the three drum majors, Dominique Conner, speeds through his bandmates, handing out kudos when earned and criticism when needed.
Band director Brian Simmons climbs to the top of a nearby ladder and lifts a bullhorn.
“Everything you do matters,” he barks.
Just why more than 100 student musicians are honing their routines on a giant slab of concrete in the brutal August heat of a Houston summer is a microcosm, in many ways, of life at a historically Black college or university like Texas Southern. They are here because it’s the best available option at a school where resources are rarely plentiful. They are here because they need the practice for a showcase against seven other HBCU marching bands that is coming up fast.
They are also here because playing in bands like the Ocean of Soul isn’t about school participation and it’s not about knocking out an extracurricular activity. By joining, just like their brethren in HBCU bands at Southern and Howard and Florida A&M and all the others, they become part of a treasured hallmark of the Black community, which is eager to love them like family and celebrate with them step by choreographed step. It has been this way for decades, but in the age of social media and online streaming, the bands are enjoying fresh attention.
“HBCU bands, it represents a lot of things,” said Simmons, who at 31 is the youngest band director ever at Texas Southern and is decades younger than most everyone else in his position at an HBCU. Simmons performed in Southern’s Human Jukebox band as a student and spent eight years as assistant director there before coming to Texas Southern in 2021.
“It’s competition. It’s discipline. It’s tradition. It’s all those things,” Simmons explained. “Marching band for HBCUs, it’s almost a cornerstone.”
Somewhat quiet by nature, the importance of his role has forced Conner to be more outspoken, even commanding. Being a part of something that means so much to the Black community fills the junior with pride.
“It just gives minorities the chance and opportunity to show their passion and their craft and their culture,” he says. “People have the chance to just show their creativity.”
The right notes
Competition and showmanship are at the heart of all HBCU bands, which number approximately 40 across the country. They have been ever since William Foster at Florida A&M formed the Marching 100 band in 1946, launching a high-stepping style and thrilling blend of music and dance that can border on gymnastics. It is unique and it has been emulated at thousands of high schools and colleges ever since.
For Christy A. Walker, HBCU bands are “literally in my blood” and she has spent her life around them. Her parents met while both were in the North Carolina A&T band and she followed in their footsteps playing clarinet in the Blue and Gold Marching Machine.
Walker has written three books about HBCU bands, helped found a website about them and hosts a podcast called “The HBCU Band Experience.” She called the bands a vital part of Black culture that deserve more reverence than they get.
“We do it different and honestly we are, I would say, tastemakers for the entire band culture, including non HBCUs,” she said. “Because we are the ones that will play Top 40 songs that are out now. If a song comes out on Monday, by the time Saturday rolls around a band will perform it.”
At HBCUs, Tennessee State band director Reginald McDonald says, the bands are often “the window to the school” that influences opinions about the institution.
“It basically puts a spotlight on each one of our programs and allows people to understand and know that in terms of music education at each one of these schools they’re very viable programs,” he says. “And we do some unique things with very little funding often and we make magic, in a sense, happen.”
The Aristocrat of Bands he runs is one of the best in the country. Founded the same year as the Marching 100, it began performing at professional football games in 1956 and became the first HBCU band to perform in a presidential inaugural parade when it marched for John F. Kennedy’s ceremony in 1961.
It also has a title no other HBCU band can claim: Grammy winner. The band beat Willie Nelson, among others, in February for the Best Roots Gospel album honor for “The Urban Hymnal.”
More than 2,200 band members and dozens of directors and staff from around the country have arrived for the chance to show their skills in front of a crowd of more than 50,000 at NRG Stadium, home of the NFL’s Houston Texans.
Derek Webber, a graduate of Hampton University, created the National Battle of the Bands to increase exposure of HBCUs and their bands and to help them educate aspiring musicians. He is proud that the event has raised more than $1 million in scholarships for participating schools, which are often underfunded and lack resources.
“For an HBCU, the bands are part of the culture, they’re part of the lifestyle,” Webber said. “And in some cases, they’re more important than the athletic team.”
Webber proudly noted the size of the crowd the bands would draw on the final Saturday before college football began.
“Here we are on a Saturday and there’s no football going on and we’re going to get 50,000 folks,” he said. “The fans really enjoy what they see. The bands put in a tremendous amount of work to put on a great show. And this is energetic. This is entertaining. This is family. This is lifestyle.”
Nerves were high as Saturday night arrived with the promise of 3 1/2 hours of music, with all eight bands performing and rap artists such as Doug E. Fresh, Outkast’s Big Boi and Slim Thug taking a stage in between.
Draped in a sparkling gold cape, with a feathered Corinthian helmet on his head, Yohance Goodrich II high-stepped onto the field as Mr. Spartan with Norfolk State’s Spartan Legion band trailing behind.
Tall and regal, Goodrich commanded the band with an easy confidence. Every move he made was precise and crisp, whether leading the band through traditional songs or dancing to a hip-hop medley highlighted by T.I. and Missy Elliott songs. Mr. Spartan is the band’s head drum major and, as Goodrich noted as he cited his responsibility for the success of the band, “enthusiasm is the key and discipline is the legacy.”
“It’s the highest position on the student level … it’s an honor to earn that position,” he beamed. “It’s a lot of work that goes into it and most importantly it’s one of the biggest positions on campus in terms of our culture and how important band is to our university.”
Virginia State’s Myiles Spann began twirling “behind the scenes” in ninth grade, dreaming that one day he would have a shot to perform in a marching band. After two seasons in Virginia State’s Trojan Explosion, he finally got a chance to join the auxiliary line and was the only male twirler in the Battle of the Bands.
Wearing black slacks and a sequined royal blue shirt, Spann dazzled with a flawless performance, a huge smile never leaving his face. When the crowd showered the band with applause, it was better than anything Spann could have imagined.
“It felt so amazing,” he said. “It felt like I was in a dream.”
All those nights the Texas Southern band rehearsed atop that parking garage it was the thought of this event that kept the students focused. With the showcase taking place in their city, they had no choice but to bring it.
“You have to represent your city,” Simmons said. “You have to make people proud that they share a ZIP code with you, that they share a city with you.”
On a night that was also a celebration of the 50th anniversary of hip hop, the Ocean of Soul wove that connection into its show. The band brought down the house when Simmons handed a microphone and a bucket hat to a band member, and he rapped Run DMC’s hit “It’s Tricky” while the band performed the song.
Conner, fellow drum major Kevin Smith and head drum major KamRon Hadnot wowed the crowd with a choreographed dance during the piece. It included the Kid ‘n Play dance from the 1990 movie House Party and the Druski dance, which went viral in 2021.
“We brought them on that emotional ride with us,” Simmons said. “So, in the end when you turn around and you get to see that standing ovation, it means job well done.”
Anyone not in Houston missed quite a show. But college football has begun and basketball is not far away, which means every week there will be HBCU bands around the country entertaining crowds and showcasing Black excellence.
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