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The 5th Quarter

The 5th Quarter: Florida A&M vs. Bethune-Cookman

Surprisingly, it was the nine high school bands that stole the show

In downtown Orlando, Florida, a sea of green and orange and maroon and gold swallowed bystanders who walked anywhere near the perimeter of the Amway Center. Fans were there nearly two hours before the show started, getting tickets, jamming to music and engaging in friendly trash talk before the doors opened.

Here, the large and loud Florida A&M University Marching 100 would take on the even louder Bethune-Cookman University Marching Wildcats in this year’s Florida Blue Florida Classic Battle of the Bands.

The Florida Classic, which has grabbed the attention of Florida A&M and Bethune-Cookman students, alumni and football fans since 1978, is not only one of the largest in-state rivalries, but also one of the largest historically black college and university classics with overall attendance surpassing the 1.5 million mark.

This Battle of the Bands, however, takes an approach that differs from some of the others. With nine high school bands joining from other parts of Florida, Georgia and South Carolina, much of the emphasis seemed to be placed on those bands instead of the headliners. For many in the arena — by show of hands — this year’s classic was a first, and the bands that traveled to entertain the crowd were ready to give them a show.

Around 7 p.m., fans were slowly streaming in, searching for food, beverages and their seats. The night’s emcee, comedian and Orlando native Rod-Z entertained the crowd with music and jokes until it was time for the first band to take the field.

One by one, the bands took their places. Faith’s Place Center for Arts & Education from West Palm Beach, Florida, was brought out first to warm up the crowd. Though most of the band’s members weren’t much bigger than the instruments they carried, they were experienced, and displayed the power southern bands have at all levels. Next up was Burke High School from Charleston, South Carolina, followed by Suncoast Community High School from Riviera Beach, Florida. It was the first band of the night that displayed more than their musical talents, completing their performance with stunts by band members, a blend of throwback tunes and hits from today. The Suncoast band, larger than the previous two bands, reignited an energy that had begun to wane in the crowd.

As the night went on, the bands grew louder and larger, beginning with Maynard Evans High School and followed by Jones High School. Both Orlando schools were greeted by a thunderous applause. Miami Northwestern Senior High School — one of the largest bands of the night — brought the crowd back with their Michael Jackson tribute, while Stephenson High School from Stone Mountain, Georgia, wowed the crowd with its vibrant tribute to Prince.

Dillard High School from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and Blanche Ely High School from Pompano Beach, Florida, were the last two bands to take the field. Blanche Ely’s polished appearance was reminiscent of Florida A&M — its pristine white uniforms accented by green and orange. Its 237 members magnified the band’s sound as their performance centered on the soundtrack of the 2002 hit movie Drumline.

The Real Battle

By 9:30 p.m., the crowd had thickened, but never filled the arena. Thirty minutes later, it was showtime. The drumline of the Florida A&M Marching 100 approached the center of the field. A video presentation appeared on the Jumbotron overhead, where children appeared playing, practicing and speaking about their aspirations of growing up and becoming members of the Marching 100, in hopes of continuing a legacy that has lasted for 70 years.

The show opened with a member of the Marching 100’s impressive blend of classical, jazz and hip-hop being played on a white piano in the middle of the field. As the pianist continued to entertain the crowd, the rest of the band made its way to the field wearing white pants and white long-sleeved shirts with Marching 100 logos in the center. The band began their performance with today’s top hits: Rae Sremmurd’s Black Beatles, Kanye West’s Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1 and Chance The Rapper’s No Problem.

After presentations and acknowledgement of the band’s graduating seniors, the Marching 100 continued with a rendition of R&B group Blackstreet’s Don’t Leave Me, before continuing with Rihanna’s Kiss It Better. The Marching 100, while keeping song selections simple, made the tall order of playing instruments, dancing and maintaining perfect lines look easy. And the high knees? Perfection.

Thirty minutes later, Bethune-Cookman’s mascot, Wil D Cat, appeared in front of the crowd with a rattlesnake in its mouth, offering a bizarre rap targeting Florida A&M and its fans. The rap was followed by the Bethune-Cookman’s drumline, which, unlike Florida A&M’s, came out playing as they took their places center field.

The Marching Wildcats also had a video presentation focusing on different aspects of the band, including “The Five Horsemen” — the band’s five drum majors. The rest of the band entered the field, louder and seemingly larger. In concert formation, the band stretches from one side of the arena to the other.

While Florida A&M stuck with a more subtle performance, the Marching Wildcats presented the crowd with the energy fans were looking for. Drum majors turned to acrobats as they flipped over each other while the band played Justin Timberlake’s Can’t Stop the Feeling. The band was indeed louder, but didn’t lose its quality. After an impeccable performance of the Isley Brothers’ Spend the Night (Ce Soir), the band brought it back with up-tempo tunes such as Kent Jones’ Don’t Mind and Chance The Rapper’s No Problem. The band ended the night by playing of Bethune-Cookman’s alma mater.

If Florida A&M was waiting for the actual football game to unleash what they had to offer, Bethune-Cookman took advantage by taking a head start at the Battle of the Bands. Though both bands were able to hold the crowd’s attention through an array of selections, it was Bethune-Cookman’s soulful sounds and movement that left the crowd anticipating what was to come.

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.