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TSU’s ‘Aristocrat of Bands’ marches into Grammy history

“We’re here with our pockets empty, but our hands aren’t!”

So said Sir the Baptist, accepting the Grammy award for Best Roots Gospel Album on behalf of the Tennessee State University Marching Band – the “Aristocrat of Bands” – for “The Urban Hymnal.”

Baptist used his acceptance speech to highlight how underfunded historically Black colleges and universities such as Tennessee State are, saying he had to “put my last dime in order to get us across the line.”

The Grammys were held Sunday at the Crypto.com Arena in Los Angeles.

It was one of two historic Grammy awards for TSU. The second was for a collaboration with Spoken Word Artist and Poet J. Ivy on “The Poet Who Say By The Door,” which netted Best Spoken Word Album.

“Let it be known, this is for the poets y’all,” said Ivy, thrusting his into the air.

The nomination for Best Roots Gospel Album marked the first time a college marching band had been nominated in the category, especially significant given the role marching bands play in HBCUs’ identities and culture as AP’s Travis Loller explained last month.

With the win, Tennessee State’s 280-member Aristocrat of Bands (AOB) beat out the likes of Willie Nelson.

A statement from TSU read, “Excellence Is Our Habit!”

“The Urban Hymnal” album cover. (Photo by Garrett Morris via TSU News Service)

Tuned in to the 65th Grammy Awards presentation, Fred Jones, founder of Memphis’ Southern Heritage Classic, issued a statement that read, in part, “people around the world were introduced to the amazing talent we’ve had a front-row seat to for the last 33 years at the Classic. May this honor open more doors than ever before, and may TSU continue to blaze more trails for historically Black colleges and universities.”

With a shout-out to band director Dr. Reginald McDonald, the staff, the students, the contributing artists, and everyone else involved, Jones said, “TSU’s Aristocrat of Bands earned this. They deserve this. So, celebrate this moment. Revel in this moment, and we look forward to seeing what TSU has in store for us September 9th during the 34th Southern Heritage Classic.”

Gospel music has the power to inspire change, unite communities, and serve as a voice for the marginalized. Oftentimes, the concept behind a soul-stirring song or project can be just as profound.

Such was the case for the Grammy-winning “The Urban Hymnal.” It all started with an idea written on a napkin.

In February 2022, Professor Larry Jenkins, assistant band director, met with Sir The Baptist to brainstorm ideas about what’s next for the world-renowned AOB. Baptist, then a two-time Grammy award-nominated songwriter and artist, liked everything Jenkins shared during their meal.

The musical meeting of the minds yielded the concept for the album on a napkin at a Mexican restaurant.

“It just hit me, we should do a whole album,” Jenkins said to Baptist.

His response: “I was waiting on you to say that.”

A year later, Baptist, a TSU alumnus, and AOB won the Grammy for their 10-track album.

Jenkins, who is a co-executive producer of the album, said the accomplishment will change the trajectory of Nashville’s Music City reputation.

“You have an HBCU band doing an album … which is something that has never been done to this capacity,” Jenkins said, noting that this opportunity was a cultural shift.

“I hope this sparks another resurgence of the impact and importance of music. Not just Nashville, but north Nashville and Jefferson Street and how legendary this air is here.”

Jenkins referred to the historic aspect of Jefferson Street and its longevity of cultural African American music. Jefferson Street is less than a mile from TSU’s main campus at 3500 John A. Merritt Blvd.

Fisk University is about the same distance from Jefferson Street. The Fisk Jubilee Singers, founded in 1871, performed in front of Queen Victoria – a performance that contributed to Nashville’s reputation as a center of musical excellence. In 2021, the Jubilee Singers won their first-ever Grammy Award.

“We call Jefferson Street the Grammy mile,” Jenkins said ahead of TSU’s award-winning night. “

AOB earned its Grammy in the same category as the Fisk Jubilee Singers.

“Being a mile away from each other with so much history being packed into the biggest musical organization on both campuses is amazing,” Jenkins said.

TSU alum Aaron ‘DUBBA-AA’ Lockhart, a platinum recording artist, and one of the executive producers for the album, said the award “is a cultural award for Nashville in itself. This will solidify Black music in the city.

“Starting off at Fisk and ending off with TSU … this is something the culture needs,” said Lockhart, commenting ahead of Grammy night. Noting “the roots that birthed us,” he emphasized the importance of “being able to pass the torch” to future music students, AOB members and beyond.

Dr. McDonald, who is also a co-executive producer for the album, said, “There is more to the city of Nashville and the state of Tennessee than country music…. For Tennessee State University’s AOB to have produced an album to tie together two of the biggest music genres (gospel and HBCU marching bands) within the African American community is extremely significant….

“You start bringing awareness and bringing on the Black music scene.”

(This story includes reports from the Associated Press and the TSU News Service.)

(Listen to “The Urban Hymnal.”)


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