There’s a reason no one leaves an HBCU football game at halftime to fetch chips or a hot dog. And if you think you know the reason why because you saw Nick Cannon’s Drumline, you only know part of the story. A halftime performance by an HBCU marching band is about more than just one section —it’s about the collective, show-stopping talents of every member. The band unfurls onto the field with chest-high steps, moves, spins, sways, and dips, playing inventive versions of the latest Beyoncé song. The drum major leaps, leans back and touches his head to the turf, and directs with such authoritative fierceness it’s difficult to take your eyes of him and watch the band. And the dancers — the dancers! —easily could replace any chorus line from Broadway. Their names say it all: Howard’s Ooh La La! Girls and Hampton’s Ebony Fire. Part choreographed extravaganza, part over-the-top, wall-of-sound jam session, part gymnastics performance, and all-around, jaw-dropping theatrical event, HBCU halftimes are don’t-leave-your-seat moments thanks to the schools’ marching bands. “There is no better thing than a halftime show in any football game. I will tell you that I’ve never probably paid any attention to a single play, but you have my undivided attention at halftime,” says Howard alumna Tia Tyree, associate professor of public relations at Howard University. “You gotta be ready to dance, and move, and sing along. And when you have a stadium of black folk rocking and dancing and singing, that aura has nothing like it.”
At this game, look for Howard University’s marching band wearing dark navy, red, and white and Hampton University’s featuring vibrant blue-and-white uniforms. Band directors, Tory F. Smart from Hampton University and John Newson from Howard University, offer some insight of what it means to be part of the marching band.
Fan First: What’s one thing the bands are known for?
John Newson: We always perform with an element of surprise. We always do a little extra.
Tory F. Smart: The Hampton University Fan Fare. It’s the very first song we play when we come onto the field. It’s our signature song.
FF: What important places or games have you been invited to?
Newson: President Obama’s Inaugural Parade, Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City. This summer we’re going to Bermuda to do a workshop over there.
Smart: Obama’s Inaugural Parade—we were called and asked to participate. We’ve done various performances in the NCAA tournaments throughout North Carolina and Chicago. Our biggest goal this year is to get voted into Honda’s Battle of the Bands in January.
FF: Are there music influences or themes that you try to inject into the music?
Newson: It varies depending on where we’re performing. We like to keep it varied so it’s entertaining for everybody. For the classic it’s a standard show—most of it is centered around the most popular R&B tones.
Smart: Earth Wind & Fire and Stevie Wonder. This year we’re planning on doing a dedication to Prince and Morris White. We take influences from a lot of the old school musicians and groups—the music was a lot better around that time. As far as newer groups—Mint Condition and Maroon 5.
FF: How is the band involved locally?
Newson: We do all the home football games.
Smart: When some of the local high schools have their competitions, and they align with our schedule, we participate in those. Sometimes we give lessons in schools, etc.
FF: How does the band prepare for the classic?
Newson: From 6 p.m. to 8 p.m., Monday through Friday, once classes start. Each section has to have one sectional rehearsal on its own. We bring the students in one week prior to the school’s start—we call this Band Camp, from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m., every day for a week.
Smart: Our band camp starts August 8. It’s two weeks. After that’s over, we start with our regular schedule—three hours a day, 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. Sometimes we’ll squeeze some morning practices. We already started preparing for the classic this year.
FF: Do you have a favorite number you perform?
Newson: Not necessarily. I don’t. It depends on what’s the latest tune.
Smart: I do. The most notable song we have, other than the HU Fan Fare, is a song written by my father, “Somebody Loves You” sung by Patti Labelle, and “Someone to Love,” by Mint Condition.
FF: What do you think someone who’s never seen the band before should look forward to?
Newson: There are a variety of things that take place during the halftime show. We do precision drills, showing different formations. They should always wait for the dance routine at the end, which the crowd always waits for.
Smart: They should pay attention to the sound. As of right now, we don’t have a large organization. But it’s important for me to have a larger sound than what we actually look like, and that it’s very clean—that our blend and balance are wonderful.