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HBCU Bands

Prairie View and N.C. Central band rivalry just as heated in the stands as on the field

It was a battle to sound the best, pride and tradition at MEAC/SWAC Challenge

The battle started long before the North Carolina Central and Prairie View A&M football teams took to the field for their noon kickoff of the 14th Annual MEAC/SWAC Challenge in Atlanta.

On Sunday, hours before teams and supporters from the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC) and the Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) gathered, band members poured from their buses and onto the sidewalks in front of Georgia State Stadium. Raising their instruments, the bands started to play, fielding an unofficial war cry to greet fans straggling through the parking lot and roaming the corridors. Outside the gates, the bands signaled to anyone who could hear that black college football was back.

But this was a different type of rivalry. In less than two hours, a chorus of football helmets and pads would be the soundtrack on the field, but in the stands, the pressure would be on for each university’s band to proudly represent their institutions, regardless of what the scoreboard read. Tradition, pride and a battle to sound the best reigned supreme.

Shortly before 11 a.m., with the bands now in the stands, Prairie View A&M Marching Storm was sure to set the tone and high-spirited energy that would carry them throughout the afternoon. The band kicked off the day with a historically black college and university crowd favorite, Cameo’s “Talkin’ Out The Side Of Your Neck,” before launching into a medley of songs to wake the crowd up.

On the other side of the field, the NCCU Sound Machine Marching Band put on a show for fans who’d just filed into the stadium. The two bands went back and forth, being courteous in the beginning then fighting to play over each other as time progressed.

And the real game had yet to begin.

“They like to perform. They love the energy of feeding off of the audience and doing what they do,” Prairie View A&M band director Timmey Zachery said of the Marching Storm. Leading up to the game, the band prepared during 3 1/2-hour practices with what Zachery describes as very elaborate, organized and specific practice routines. The band has grown exponentially under Zachery’s direction, expanding from more than 150 members to nearly 400.

When the football game began, the Panthers wasted no time running up the score to 23 unanswered points during the first two quarters. But in the stands, the NCCU Sound Machine fired off songs from the past and present to keep the crowd entertained.

“We play a game just like [the football team] plays a game,” NCCU band director Thurman Hollins said. “We’re their pep squad, so we try to play tunes that will get them going and fired up. It’s like we’re a part of the game just as much as the team.”

Thirty-one seconds before the teams were set to clear the field for halftime, the N.C. Central Eagles burst into the end zone for the team’s first touchdown of the game.

Then, it was time for the battle of the bands to continue on the field. Being led by five drum majors, the Marching Storm entered from both sides of the field to meet in the middle and immediately let the crowd know who they were with a quick “PVAMU” formation. The band continued with a brief tribute to the late Aretha Franklin before launching into a medley of Beyoncé songs, including “Crazy in Love” and “Sweet Dreams.”

“We knew we were coming into a neutral battleground where it’s not SWAC or MEAC, so we had to choose a playlist that was going to be appealing to both [sides],” Zachery said.

The Marching Storm rolled on with a musical blend for everyone, from Demi Lovato’s “Sexy Dirty Love” to the 1994 classic “Candy Rain” by Soul 4 Real.

What the Eagles lacked on the field, the NCCU Sound Machine made up for at halftime. The band ran onto the field, a refreshing burst of energy that left the crowd anticipating what was to come. Much like the Marching Storm, the Sound Machine blended the old and new to perfection during their halftime show.

“We looked at our audience,” Hollins said. “In our audience, there’s a lot of alums here so we have some old school, and we have some kids here so we wanted to give them some Top 40s, some fun stuff.”

The band took it back to Pete Rodriguez’s “I Like It Like That” before bringing the crowd back to the present with G-Eazy’s “1942” and Drake’s popular single “In My Feelings.”

The Eagles may have been inspired by the Sound Machine’s halftime performance, or perhaps a locker room pep talk. Either way, the team came out with a renewed confidence that hadn’t made an appearance during the first half and impressively worked a 16-point deficit down to two. Although the Eagles still fell 40-24 to the Panthers, the spirits of fans were still hopeful beyond the concluding game on the field.

Their focus remained back in the stands, where the battle was far from over.

Both bands brought a strong showing of musical selections during the fifth quarter — a battle of the bands that continues after the football game has ended. For 30 minutes, the bands awaited their turn to play what they’d practiced for, and the few patient fans who stuck around were rewarded with a variety of songs that were played with the same energy as the bands had when they first entered the stadium. And even after the allotted time had expired, sounds of horns blared outside of the stadium’s gates long after the bands had left the building. The battle still wasn’t over.

It’s never over.

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.