I, like many other fans, am not one of those who piles into Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium primarily to watch the Tigers of Tennessee State University and Jackson State University duke it out on the gridiron during the Southern Heritage Classic.
Many of us are there for the “real show” – the battle of the bands – that unfolds at halftime between the Aristocrat of Bands (TSU) and the Sonic Boom of the South (JSU). The battle ensues this Saturday (Sept. 8) for the 2018 “Classic,” version 29.
It’s an entire production, from the band/majorette uniforms to the stunts to the top-notch choreography and formation. And, of course, there are the antics of the bands’ fearless leaders, the drum majors. It really whips up the haterade for folks like me, who went to a PWI (predominantly white institution) and really longed for this type of pageantry, fanfare and blackness.
Putting a “Classic” accent on this edition’s #ACCESS901 column, I spoke with two friends, who were drum majors at JSU and TSU during my day. By name, they are JSU alum James Wesby (class of 1996, drum major 92-95) and TSU grad, Kedrick Malone (class of 1995, drum major 94-95).
Who better to talk about the halftime show than the stars of said show?
I asked about the pride each feels in his school and how it feels to attend games as an alumnus.
Kedrick Malone: Once you attend an HBCU (historically black college/university) that pride is instilled in you from the day that you set foot on campus. Everyone loves their college. Your teachers look after you. They want to make sure you succeed. Everyone I know that has gone to an HBCU has pride in their school.
James Wesby: All black people had (before more recent years) for higher education was HBCUs. (The games are symbolic of…) our soul; it’s imbedded. You think about African (culture), drums… that’s the soul of our people. It goes back to how our ancestors communicated, how we talked, how we moved. It’s a natural thing for us.
JW (continues): It’s a family affair, a family reunion. When I go back to homecoming it’s like, “what’s up brother, what’s up sister?” In college, you can have a friendly battle with other Greeks but I guarantee you that when you step out of college it becomes one. How can I get that individual that went to Jackson State or TSU a job? Or that Kappa or Sigma?
(Note: James is a member of Alpha Phi Alpha; Kedrick is a member of Kappa Alpha Psi.)
Describe the feeling of being on the field, especially as a drum major.
KM: Imagine being in a stadium with 50-60 thousand people. The clock goes to zero. People are going crazy. The hair stands up on your arms. All that hard work and practice leading up to this game is about to pay off. Memphis is in the middle of Jackson and Nashville. A lot of people from here went to either JSU or TSU, so there’s a rivalry. You look up in the stands and you’re like Oh my God! It’s a feeling that I can honestly say that I have never felt since I left school. I can’t explain it. It’s like a drug!
JW: It’s definitely one of those highs, starting when you get on the bus until you blow that whistle (Kedrick cosigning in the background)… it’s like a marching army. Over the years, TSU has proven themselves over and over again that they are the band to watch. I’m giving them kudos because they have never altered their identity. All the top tier bands should have one. That’s how you know you’re a great band. TSU is that band that will “out-funk” you and outplay music. They will reach back to the 60s and 70s (in their music catalogue).
How did your band experiences translate to your professional life after college?
JW: If you are able to manage hundreds of different personalities and move them as a commander across the field, you can do a lot of things in the real world. Those are powerful, transferrable skills, especially drum majors and section leaders.
KM: James said everything but I’d like to add that the band is a lot of hard work. A lot of times people aren’t built to withstand all of that pressure. It’s 6 to 7 hours a day for 4 or 5 days a week. It’s taught me how to be committed to it and not give up. Looking at corporate America or jobs I’ve had, I see people give up when they face adversity. And like James said, you have 150 or so people looking to you for direction. Many of us are in management positions and others understand how to take direction but ask the right questions. There’s so much you can learn from being a part of the band.
Was there a time one outshined the other?
KM: I think Jackson State has some of the best drum majors in the business. The tuxedos, the kids in costumes, their introduction, how they came out on the field…they never wore hats. We would we be like, “I wish I could take my hat off, I wish I could wear a white tux.” Now as far as music, I have yet to see a band that has a whole book (of music). We pride ourselves on having 60, 70 songs memorized. And we’ll play all of them until the other band gets up to leave.
JW: I will admit to that. That’s the honest truth. The identity the Aristocrat Band has is their book. You can play rap songs then TSU can come back and play an Earth, Wind & Fire song. If you don’t have that in your book, it’s done. That’s how you win battles by having a diverse repertoire. If you have 80 percent hip-hop in your book, you can’t compete with TSU. They’re gonna bring some Barry White or Teena Marie on you!
We shall see all of this for ourselves who’s bringing the smoke at the Classic this Saturday!
Big thanks to both Kedrick and James for a really dope conversation.
Oh. Fun fact: they can both still do backbends. Props!