Beloved HBCU All-Star Battle of the Bands cultural event returns

The HBCU "All-Star Battle of the Bands" returns this year, as the world's largest exhibition of HBCU bands and dancers. (Photo Courtesy of HBCU All-Star Battle of the Bands)

Historically Black college and university marching bands and dancers are part of a beloved tradition. Marching bands showcase incredible charisma and talent, and lately have been finding their way into major media moments like the pop star Beyoncé’s stupendous “Homecoming” performance at the 2018 Coachella festival. The HBCU All-Star Battle of the Bands returns this year, as the world’s largest exhibition of HBCU bands and dancers. The event takes place Feb. 4 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta and will feature six competing college marching bands, and for the first time, two Atlanta high school bands. To talk more about the showcase, “City Lights” host, Lois Reitzes was joined via Zoom by Lindsey B. Sarjeant, chairman of the Battle of the Bands and Music Department chair at Florida A&M University, and Donovan Wells, music and band director for Bethune-Cookman University.

Interview highlights:

Less battle, more band pride and relationship-building:

“I feel so honored to have been a part of this very, very important cultural event,” said Sarjeant. “I call it a cultural event, because when you start talking about Black college bands, it’s a culture that is so important, and what we brought is that band culture. We eliminated the competitiveness of the bands to more or less featuring it as a showcase. And that’s what the founders had in mind, to bring, I think it was 10 college bands at first… and the thing that I noticed from the very beginning, how it grew out of a non-competitive environment, where now students were getting to know other students in other bands. When you take out the competitiveness of ‘My band is better than your band,’ this kind of thing, what you have is a camaraderie that is second to none. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

“We have a great art form in the show-style marching bands, and I’m a fan of every one of them,” said Wells. “Every one of them has something unique that only they can bring to the table…. The HBCU All-Star Band Showcase, what would happen there is that the winner there will be the fans. The fans are the winner, because they see six great HBCUs out there, doing their thing, doing their pageantry, doing their show style. They have exciting moments in their show. They have a couple of surprises. You never know, may have a celebrity with them. You never know. So the winner is always the audience.”

How Bethune-Cookman’s Marching Wildcats became national stars:

“Over the years at Bethune-Cookman, when we started out, my goal was just to increase the size of the band and make the band better, to get our symphonic bands up to par on a collegiate level. And as that started happening, things happened for the program that I never anticipated. I could take credit for it, but really, it just happened. It wasn’t planned,” said Wells. “One of our first big engagements was in 1998, ’99. MTV called us to do their Super Bowl special. Then the next year, we got a call to do ‘Drumline.’ Then the next year we got a call to do Ellen DeGeneres. Then… we started getting NFL halftime, something that we had never done, and over the last 20-something… years, we’ve done 21 NFL halftimes, not including the Super Bowl and the Pro Bowl.”

How the marching band spectacle dazzles in several areas of talent:

“Every band has a different marching style, and they adjust; they’ve been learning all their life,” Wells explained. “I don’t audition. Kids don’t have to do a dance routine or anything. We are just looking for good, solid, fundamental skills of playing the instrument that they have chosen to play, and I look for students that I can bring to Bethune-Cookman, and they may not be an all-state player or a first chair player, but I’m still looking for students that can come in and make a contribution musically. And sometimes that musical contribution may be big, sometimes it may be small, but as long as you are contributing, you are helping the program. The choreography, I wish I could take credit for that too, but that’s the creativity of our students.”

“The dance part of what we do, that’s a part of the African-American tradition, it’s part of our culture. So you can’t go to an African-American party, for instance, and there’s no dancing. Dancing is a part of what we do. I remember the year that Nelson Mandela was released from South African prison [after] 27 years, people danced in the street, people danced in their homes. So dance has always been a very, very important part. And if Donovan can tell you, if our bands don’t dance during a routine, we’re going to hear it from our audience.”

The All-Star Battle of the Bands takes place at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Feb. 4 at 3 p.m., preceded by a college fair from 10 a.m. – 2 p.m., open to high school students and recent graduates. Tickets and more information are available at