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Classic games are the time for bands from Black colleges to shine

Band members say the contests offer a chance to demonstrate their style and musicality

The MEAC/SWAC Challenge will put historically Black colleges Jackson State and South Carolina State and their bands in front of millions of viewers Saturday on ABC. And though it’s not considered a traditional classic game, the Challenge marks both the official start of HBCU football and the unofficial start of band season, bringing with it the traditions, rivalries, and special songs and dances to make the crowd move.

“Marching bands, as it relates to the experience around an HBCU game, are an integral part of [the experience],” said John Grant, executive director of the MEAC/SWAC Challenge. “Not just with the shows that they do at halftime but the energy that they create in the venue with their play in the stands during the game, how their play impacts and motivates their team, but also how their play may have an impact on the opposing team.”

HBCU classics and bands are inextricably linked. There are 10 HBCU games set for Labor Day weekend alone, including the Orange Blossom Classic, which will feature Florida A&M’s Marching 100 and Jackson State’s Sonic Boom of the South, a showdown anticipated by many fans nearly as much as the game itself.

There’s nothing like an HBCU classic. They’re about the battle to crown the real HU (“You know!”) when Hampton and Howard play; an Alabama State-Tuskegee rivalry that drives the storied Turkey Day Classic; games that bring schools up north such as Mississippi Valley State, which will play Central State in the Chicago Football Classic; and the Bayou Classic between Grambling State and Southern that ends the football season.

HBCU classics are extremely important to school culture because they encompass a lot of activities besides football, said Dowell Taylor, the former band director at Jackson State.

“You have Greek organizations coming from both sides of the classics, and they have a common thread of unity,” Taylor said. “When they come to a classic, this is a time to develop new friendships, rekindle old ones and just have exciting times.

A member of the Prancing J-Settes performs with Jackson State University’s Sonic Boom of the South at halftime of the 2019 Southern Heritage Classic at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium in Memphis, Tennessee.

Nick Tre. Smith / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

“The football game gets the attendees to a fever pitch in supporting their team. The most exciting part of the classic is the bands. That culture is one of the main events, [which] are just a big component of the atmosphere, the spirit, the camaraderie and the rivalry.”

Classics are bands’ time to shine. Unlike during a typical home game, bands put some extra swag in their performances during halftime and in the stands, and the Fifth Quarter challenges at after the game bring out the best (and sometimes the worst) in bands. It’s so intense that several band directors did not respond to requests for comment for this story, likely not wanting to tip their hand as to what they might do.

“For the classic games, it doesn’t feel personal, but at the same time it feels more of a hunger and eagerness to start the season,” Tennessee State drum major Joshua Knox said of the Southern Heritage Classic on Sept. 9, when TSU will play the University of Arkansas at Pine-Bluff.

“But at the same time it just shows what each band has to offer and what each style, what each band has as far as musicality, how they execute the field and just showing what they’ve been working so hard for.”

Taylor said classics represent an intense relationship with the opposing team, on the field and between the bands, where “usually it ends up being two of the best bands in the nation.”

That’s why bands work very hard to prepare something unique for classic games, which ramps up the intensity, particularly between two powerhouse bands, he said.

Members of Tennessee State University’s Aristocrat of Bands prepare for halftime of the 2019 Southern Heritage Classic at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium in Memphis, Tennessee.

Nick Tre. Smith/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

“The desire to be No. 1 in everything means everything to an HBCU band. Each band spends an inordinate amount of time preparing secrets,” Taylor said. “That’s very difficult to do in the day of social media. In this era, you can do a halftime performance at nighttime or at halftime, and that entire performance is online in the next five or 10 minutes.”

The Southern Heritage Classic offers Tennessee State one of its few chances to play against HBCU bands, as most of TSU’s football schedule is within the Ohio Valley Conference. Band members look forward the game to every year.

“Playing [an] HBCU band is a little different than going to the OVC game where we’re there mainly to entertain the crowd and be able to supply a good performance for the game. But the classic, it feels more like a competition between bands,” said Knox, who said fans should expect to see something special from Tennessee State’s drum majors at the classic.

When Della Robinson-Hill, an alumna of Tuskegee’s Marching Crimson Pipers, first walked onto campus years ago, the Oakland, California, native had never heard of the Turkey Day Classic, the annual football game between Alabama State and Tuskegee that dates to 1924. Her closest bandmates, who were entrenched in the yearly tradition, quickly got her up to speed. So did others in the band, who were intensely working on moves shortly after reaching campus.

“That first year stuck out because I soaked it up like a sponge,” said Robinson-Hill, a former Tuskegee Piperette. “It was a total culture shock, yet [one] I loved. I saw a lot of love.”

So when Robinson-Hill took that first trip to Montgomery, Alabama, she marched in the parade, watched vendors sell merchandise and saw alumni tailgate before the game. It left her with a sense of camaraderie while representing the Marching Crimson Pipers and developing a new family tradition.

“[I had to] just be mentally ready for that one day,” she said. “Those few hours in that day meant the world because we were going to be televised, recorded.”

Southern University’s Fabulous Dancing Dolls perform with the Human Jukebox marching band during halftime of the Bayou Classic at the Caesars Superdome in New Orleans on Nov. 26, 2022.

John Korduner/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Robinson-Hill plans to make the trip to see Tuskegee in the classic this year to watch her son, Edwin Hill III, play in the tenor drum section. But beforehand, there will be some friendly trash-talking on the family group chat, which includes her twin nieces, one at Tuskegee, the other at Alabama State.

That’s an added incentive for Edwin Hill III, who highlighted the game date in the group chat when it was announced. He has been working on cadences for the game on a separate group chat with his section.

“The Turkey Day Classic is literally like a mini Super Bowl for us, ’cause we’re looking forward to witnessing this among the family,” Robinson-Hill said. “To have it come full circle right now and have my son be a part of it, I love it. The band is still a part of my heart.”

For Norfolk State graduate Melanie Winns, the classics bring a great sense of pride and a sense of how her school is moving forward. But it’s really all about the game.

“It’s entertainment and it is a way to maybe break up some [momentum] depending on who’s winning, who’s losing,” Winns said. “I’ve seen teams that might be losing the first half and then the band comes on, and it’s a whole different story. It’s like a new energy.”

Winns echoes many in the HBCU band community: Get your popcorn or candy early and don’t miss the halftime show.

“Everyone is sitting, no one goes to get anything to eat at halftime, unlike any other football game in America, right?” Winns said. “You’re prepared to go to the bathroom, go get your food, get everything together for halftime. It’s not intermission time to go and do anything else but see the band play now.”

Darren A. Nichols, a 30-year industry veteran, is an award-winning journalist and contributing columnist at the Detroit Free Press.