If you’ve ever been to a Black College sporting event, you know that the band performance is what everyone waits to see. For many schools the bands are the heartbeat of their schools. The band doesn’t just play music, but they provide the soundtrack to their school’s pride and joy.
For that reason, those bands, which are displayed most during halftimes of their school’s football games, become competitive and have evolved into a phenomenon all their own. Hence, Battles of the Bands in which schools get to showcase their band’s sounds, dances and field shows against each other hoping to win over the crowd.
From the perspective of the students involved as well as those who watch, the Battle of the Bands it’s more than a tradition, it’s one of the things that HBCU culture revolves around.
“Battle of the Bands is all about culture,” said Amina Gethers, a senior a North Carolina Central University, explaining the importance. “You go to have fun and listen to music you want hear but more importantly, you get to learn about other school’s cultures through music. As an HBCU student it gives us an opportunity to celebrate diversity and the love of art in an HBCU atmosphere” she continued.
RELATED: What It Was Like For Me: HBCU Alums At The Smithsonian NMAAHC Remember Homecoming
HBCU band culture itself stretches back to the postwar years. In 1946, Florida A&M University debuted it’s “Marching 100,” founded by director Dr. William P. Foster, although there had been field bands performing as far back as the early days of the then-Tuskegee Institute when Booker T. Washington was leading it.
But Foster’s band influenced many other schools which evolved their own band programs of the course of generations to the point in which bands like Clark Atlanta's “Mighty Marching Panther Band,” Southern University A&M’s “Human Jukebox,” or Tennessee State’s “Aristocrat of Bands.”
Performers with the bands say the unique thing about Battle of the bands is the ability each band has to bring something fresh to the competition.
Cornell Trotter, a TSU senior and a percussionist with the school's “Aristocrat of Bands,” talked about his experience and excitement for participating in the upcoming HBCU All Star Battle of the Bands in February 2023 at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta.
“It’s something I take seriously, in conferences like the SWAC (Southwestern Athletic Conference) they get to see HBCU bands all season but because we’re in the OVC (Ohio Valley Conference) we only get to see a few,” said Trotter.
Started in 2002, the All-Star Battle of the Bands' mission is to celebrate some of the most dynamic collegiate musicians representing the country’s top Historically Black Colleges and Universities The All-Star Battle will also feature a special performance by two of the best local high school marching bands in Atlanta.
Despite making their work look easy Trotter explained it takes a lot of work and time to put on a performance especially for a competition. The format, he explained, typically is one band gets to perform their field show while other bands watch. After the field show other bands then get to play the music they have been working on while the next band prepares to take the field.
“If it's a regular Battle of the bands at a game we work and practice about 2-3 hours a day but when it comes to this competition, we must be prepared to go against anybody along with the field show that we have to perform. Our practices start to get longer as the day gets closer. We typically have music rehearsal, field rehearsal, and start to learn the format of the battle closer to the date,” Trotter said. “This opportunity is very special for us. It's going to be a great cultural and competition experience.”
Although the musicians are the key to a band the flag girls and dancers are very essential.
Breann Wyman, a former flag girl at North Carolina Central University, reminisced on her time with the band.
“We rehearsed over and over again, even if we thought we had it right we wanted to make sure it was perfect. We’d break up into our individual sections and then come together as a full band at the end,” she said.
Wyman explained how although she enjoyed the field performance she really loved performing in the stands. “That vibe of being in the stands just felt so much better. You get to look across at the other flag girls dancing and ask yourself who’s bringing it the hardest?”
Essentially, marching bands are brand ambassadors for their schools. Arguably, they have done more to popularize HBCUs than anything else and the schools are known for their bands. At games, they tend to be the featured attraction.
Further, they have been featured on platforms ranging from Super Bowl performances – in which FAMU’s “Marching 100” performed during Super Bowl III in 1969 – to the documentary film “Marching Orders,” released on Netflix in 2018. Also feature film, “Drumline” featuring Nick Cannon as a drummer in a fictitious HBCU band was released in 2002.
For Wyman, being part of the battling bands is a unique way of life that brings a diversity of students like her to fulfill the same purpose: competing and creating.
“You’ve got HBCU bands from all over the United States who share the same core values trying to achieve a goal while using different techniques. I love it!”
Correction: An earlier version of this article indicated that TSU would be participating in the Honda Battle of the Bands instead of the HBCU All-Star Battle of the Bands.