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ESPN/The Undefeated HBCU Band Rankings

Bethune-Cookman, Florida A&M bands blend new and old school during Florida Classic battle

There’s an art to uniting the older and younger generations, and both schools have mastered it

The scene was reminiscent of a family reunion.

Friends and strangers alike gathered in front of the Amway Center in downtown Orlando, Florida, on Friday for the same reason they do every year: The Florida Blue Florida Classic Battle of the Bands between the Bethune-Cookman University Marching Wildcats and the Florida A&M University Marching 100.

There were moments that captured the essence of why people eagerly come back each year. Nestled in between the T-shirt tosses and giveaways that took place during the brief intermissions were dance contests pitting the old school vs. new school, singalongs, several variations of “The Wave” and acknowledgements of why historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) are still just as vital and relevant as they were when they were created.

And when the bands took the center of the field, all eyes would rightfully be on them.

Since the debut of the ESPN/The Undefeated HBCU Band Rankings in October, The Marching Wildcats have claimed the No. 1 overall spot twice, only being beaten out once by the North Carolina A&T State University Blue and Gold Marching Machine. In the latest rankings, released this week, Bethune-Cookman remained No. 1 overall while Florida A&M traded places with Jackson State University by climbing to No. 6.

Florida A&M takes the field at the Battle of the Bands.

Willie Allen Jr. for The Undefeated

Although there was chatter about whether the Florida A&M Rattlers football team (4-6 overall) would be able to hold off the Bethune-Cookman Wildcats (6-4 overall) on the field Saturday afternoon, the debate between which band would win Friday night’s battle proved to be the more passionate discussion. Even with such a strong showing from both fan bases, the Marching 100 was clearly the favorite, judging by the roar of the crowd at the mention of the school’s name.

The event began promptly at 7 p.m. with the spotlight on 10 high school bands, one more than last year, looking to showcase their talent. Seven bands hailed from the state of Florida, while three traveled from North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia to participate.

Blake High School’s woodwind section prepares to take the field.

Willie Allen Jr. for The Undefeated

The small but mighty band of under 50 members from the Palm Beach Lakes Community High School (West Palm Beach, Florida) kicked off the night with an energetic performance. The high school battle of the bands seemingly saved the best for last with Norland High School (Miami), which was pegged as the “most requested high school band in the state.” Other high school bands that participated included Heritage High School (Palm Bay, Florida); E.E. Smith High School (Fayetteville, North Carolina); Mainland High School (Daytona Beach, Florida); Creekside High School (Fairburn, Georgia); Piper High School (Sunrise, Florida); Edgewater High School (Orlando, Florida); Howard W. Blake High School (Tampa, Florida); and Darlington High School (Darlington, South Carolina). The most popular songs among each band included a selection of songs from the catalogue of singer-songwriter Bruno Mars, old school classics from Michael Jackson and Frankie Beverly & Maze, and more modern songs from artists including Migos, Cardi B and Lil Uzi Vert.

Randolph Williams II prepares the E. E. Smith High school band out of Fayettevillle, North Carolina, to take the field.

Willie Allen Jr. for The Undefeated

After three hours of band performances and a trophy presentation that followed, attendees waited patiently for the main event. Neither Bethune-Cookman nor Florida A&M disappointed, but the swift performances left fans ready for an encore.

It was the Marching Wildcats’ year to take the field first. Dressed in dark gray practice suits with white stripes and white caps with a maroon bill, the percussion section took the field. After a three-minute set, the arena darkened and a short video was played with band members expressing their appreciation for the band and university, as well as testimonials detailing how much the band meant to them. By its conclusion, the rest of the band joined the percussion section on the field with a high-energy performance of TLC’s What About Your Friends.

Blake High School’s marching band prays before taking the field.

Blake HS marching yellow jackets

A seamless blend of old-school and new-school classics followed until the band gathered into concert formation to offer R. Kelly hits, including “It Seems Like You’re Ready” and “I Can’t Sleep Baby (If I).” The band continued to alternate between old hits, including “Slow Jamz” by Twista featuring Kanye West and Jamie Foxx, and newer ones such as Kendrick Lamar’s “Humble.” With such a high-impact routine, the band was able to have a cool-down period during the playing of the Bethune-Cookman alma mater. The band didn’t hesitate to pick up where it left off with its next number: Juvenile’s “Back That Thang Up” with a Bethune-Cookman twist. The drum majors rapped to the music being played as lyrics ran across the Jumbotron. After the set, the Marching Wildcats confidently exited the field through the same tunnel in which they entered. The hyped crowd cheered as they awaited the final act of the night.

A drum major waits before taking the field.

Willie Allen Jr for The Undefeated

Much like the Marching Wildcats, the Marching 100’s percussion section took the field first. As they played, the rest of the band filed in from the tunnel, dressed simply in black sweatpants and hoodies bearing the well-known Marching 100 logo. The band’s new uniforms are set to debut during the halftime show of the football game Saturday. After the opening set, announcements were made as the band prepared to start the show. Once again, the arena darkened. A video appeared on the screen and ended with an instrumental of Jay-Z’s “4:44from his recent album of the same name. In a creative opener, members of the band covered the field with a black sheet. As they ran, the sheet floated across the field, revealing the band members who were already in place beneath it. The band followed its opening video and led with a loud and proud version of “4:44” as its first song of the night. Earth, Wind & Fire’s “Can You Feel It,” a band favorite, followed soon after.

Unlike the Marching Wildcats, the Marching 100 reserved its energy for the second half of the performance, and after a brief scramble to concert formation, the band blared out a New Edition medley, including “Mr. Telephone Man,” “Cool It Now,” and “If It Isn’t Love,” followed by SZA’s “The Weekend.” The crowd, praising the band after each song, applauded at the conclusion of the powerful performance, with some fans offering a standing ovation.

Conversations and debates continued on the way out. Who won the battle is all dependent upon where the loyalty lies — you were either on one side or the other. Whether cheering for Bethune-Cookman or hollering for Florida A&M, we can all agree that both universities know exactly what it takes to keep the loyal crowd coming back to see how they’ll top the previous year’s performances.

We’re already looking forward to 2018.

Maya Jones is an associate editor at The Undefeated. She is a native New Orleanian who enjoys long walks down Frenchmen Street and romantic dates to Saints games.