Up Next

HBCU Bands

Growing demand for HBCU bands’ talent increases their time in national spotlight

TV shows, ads and sporting events raise awareness of Black college culture

When Bethune-Cookman University’s Marching Wildcats band took the field at the Daytona 500 in February, it put historically Black colleges and universities’ culture in front of the world.

As the most prestigious race in the NASCAR series, the Daytona 500 boasts the largest financial purse to win and historically draws the highest television crowd. For Bethune-Cookman, it made leading the top drivers down the iconic track and playing in front of about 15,000 fans afterward a huge deal.

“By the school being in Daytona, that’s a huge thing. It’s a huge thing around the world, but the Daytona 500 is a huge event in Daytona,” said Donovan Wells, who has been Bethune-Cookman’s band director for 26 years.

Bethune-Cookman wasn’t alone in displaying HBCU culture in the media last month. Black colleges such as Norfolk State University in Virginia, Prairie View A&M University in Texas and Central State University in Ohio also put their bands on display. From Home Depot commercials to television host Sherri Shepherd’s daytime show, the demand for HBCU bands is as high as ever on the national stage.

Despite performing at the Daytona 500 before, this performance meant more to Bethune-Cookman. It was only weeks removed from the brief, contentious hiring and resignation of Ed Reed to be football coach , which brought the school national attention. So while many sports fans were familiar with the school, which is about two miles away from Daytona International Speedway, the 325-member Marching Wildcats showed them so much more.

“For us to be a part of it, it makes us feel extremely special. It’s a great crowd to play in front of because NASCAR people love racing and they love to have a good time,” Wells said. “Our band, the type of music we play, our movements and dance steps and stuff fall right in line with them. Our kids got a blast playing on the infield. It was really, really great.

“Anytime your art form can be shown to a new audience, a new segment of society, it’s great because then people understand you better. They understand what you do better.”

The ramifications are significant. Every time an HBCU band is seen or heard, it puts Black culture in front of people who likely never would have had a taste of it.

“In so many ways this is a seminal moment for HBCUs and all that HBCUs stand for. For so long they have been a very important piece of the tapestry of this country, but unfortunately, it just always felt like they were only known to a certain pocket of our world,” said Sheryl Kennedy Haydel , director of the School of Communication and Design at Loyola University New Orleans.

Kennedy Haydel said seeing HBCU bands in mainstream media adds another dimension to non-African Americans seeing the culture; it allows them to appreciate the immense talent that’s being produced.

“With that new, renewed focus, HBCUs have [now] become a front and center conversation piece, which they should have always been,” said Kennedy Haydel, who also has worked at Dillard and Xavier universities, two HBCUs in New Orleans. “So now when we see another layer of the bands being featured in commercials, halftime, pregame shows or in parades, that it is also another important step in how HBCUs now are part of an international dialogue, which they should have always been.”

That was the scenario when Shepherd issued a challenge recently to HBCU bands as part of an ongoing promotion asking viewers to come up with creative ways to use her TV show’s theme song. Thus far, Norfolk State’s Hot Ice dance troupe and Prairie View A&M’s Marching Storm band have submitted videos. Norfolk State danced to the theme song, while Prairie View A&M performed a rendition of it.

Prairie View A&M band director Timmey Zachery said he cut the band by one-third to teach the rendition in a two-week timeframe. He added he loved turning the song into an HBCU-style rendition.

“It was an opportunity for us to support Sherri Shepherd and her show as an African American in the industry through what we do. So, we are very proud of what she’s doing, as well as trying to show the world what we do,” Zachery said. “It gave us the opportunity to reach people in other places and expose them to at least the name, Prairie View, so that hopefully they would sit down and investigate and go and do a search on us to figure out who we are and why we are so great.”

Zachery said it was “just sheer excitement” for the band members and their families to see themselves in their element on Shepherd’s show. It also was great exposure for the school, given most of the students are not music majors.

“The vast majority of those people in that video are engineers and architects, or future engineers, future architects, future nurses, future doctors,” Zachery said. “We have to make sure they realize that this is just a part of what these students do. And it’s a small part. It plays a big role, but it’s a small part.”

Both videos were played live on the show, which is produced by Jawn Murray , a Norfolk State alumnus.

“It was really nice to see, because it perpetuates that dance is an option at an HBCU, which a lot of kids do not know,” said Melanie Winns , a Norfolk State grad who watched the performance on the show. “They are the heartbeat and the pulse [of bands], outside of the drum major. When you think of [what it means] to young little girls of color to see that on national television, what it might mean to one child who never thought it was even possible, they [now] know these are college girls on a national stage dancing in a graceful way.”

Let’s be clear: Highlighting HBCU bands in commercials or major performances is not new; it’s just more prevalent now.

When A Different World included a small Hillman College marching band in the show’s opening in the 1990s, it introduced HBCU culture to a national television audience. It allowed a new generation to learn about and see Black college life.

Drum majors for Tennessee State’s Aristocrat of Bands participated in a photo shoot for specially made red, white and blue TSU x Nike Dunk Lows, part of a footwear collection celebrating historically Black colleges and universities.

Tennessee State University

But whether it’s due to the ripple effect from Deion Sanders’ time coaching at Jackson State’s football team or not, the national spotlight on HBCU culture has increased in recent years.

Last fall, the Tennessee State band’s drum majors participated in a photo shoot for specially made red, white and blue TSU x Nike Dunk Lows, part of a footwear collection celebrating historically Black colleges and universities.

In December 2021, Pepsi unveiled a $3 million, 60-second ad called The Halftime Game during the Southwestern Athletic Conference championship game on ESPN2. The ad featured Jackson State University’s Sonic Boom of the South and Florida A&M University’s Marching 100.

The added exposure helps raise awareness of HBCUs in states such as California, which struggles to send young people from the West Coast to East Coast HBCUs. The closest HBCU to California is in Texas.

“I hear of a lot of people who say kids don’t care about HBCUs or they don’t apply,” said Winns, president of the Southern California chapter of the Norfolk State University Alumni Association. “The band helps us jump on that coattail, and it validates who we are and that we even exist.

“I was different. I was one of those who saw it on A Different World in the ’90s or School Daze , but it wasn’t as foreign as it would be for kids in California [now].”

The Home Depot has been using HBCU bands prominently in promoting its annual Retool Your School campus improvement grant initiative on television and social media. The ads feature North Carolina A&T’s Blue and Gold Marching Machine , cutaways from other bands and background music in others.

“At The Home Depot we love championing HBCUs and are proud to partner with them to create real change for their campuses and students alike,” said Briar Waterman , senior director of creative and design for The Home Depot. “In our creative work we wanted to feature some user-generated films from a variety of schools that included the authentic energy and unique traditions of HBCU bands.”

Individual NBA teams have included HBCU bands as a part of their Black History Month campaigns. In February, Central State played a Motown set at a Detroit Pistons game, and Bethune-Cookman performed for the Orlando Magic crowd.

Kennedy Haydel said all of these opportunities allow the masses to see the diversity of HBCU bands in a safe space. Each band has a different name and a signature style, which makes them unique for others to watch. But the key to grabbing viewers’ attention is music, which is the ultimate unifier, she said.

“All of these traditions, especially [from] a band perspective, really add another layer to the Black community and [show] just how extremely diverse [we are],” Kennedy Haydel said. “Music is one of those spaces where people forget about race, they forget about socioeconomic class and they just enjoy it. They can be immersed in whatever the tune is, whatever the lyrics might have been. They’re singing along with the band.”

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