How Black Culture Influenced Drum line
Historically Black Colleges and Universities have heavily influenced some of today’s biggest hits. Songs like “Industry Baby” by Lil Nas X and “Love Lockdown” by Kanye West wouldn’t sound the same without the catchy, marching band inspired beats.
Arthur Buckner talks to percussionist Dasmyn Grigsby about the evolution of HBCU marching bands and how they continue to influence pop culture today.
- What connects ancient African drum circles
to this Coachella performance by Beyonce?
And what do historically black colleges and universities
have to do with it?
If you've seen the 2002 film drum line,
you know this electric feeling all too well.
From hip hop inspired beats to innovative dance routines,
black colleges have been laying down classic beats
and grooves for years that set them apart from the rest.
Today, we're gonna take a look at the roots
of HBCU drum lines
and find out why this percussive party is so entertaining.
When the movie "Drumline" came out, I was in seventh grade,
And when the school had went on a field trip,
but my class wasn't going, I didn't go.
I was like, wait, I'm the drummer though, in the school.
I mean, you see, in this movie though,
I end up seeing a movie three times in the theater.
That's the one movie that
don't nobody wanna watch with me.
'Cause I'ma say every single word.
- I was in eighth grade when the movie "Drumline" came out,
I went to Chapel Hill Middle School.
Chapel Hill Middle School is the feeder
of Southwest DeKalb High School,
which is the actual band for the Atlanta AT&T Drumline,
where they were actually students that got paid
all the playing parts.
All the cadences were parts
of the Southwest DeKalb Band Program.
- That was a high school band?
- That was a high school band.
- To understand how we got here,
we have to take a look at the origin of black marching bands
as a whole.
Throughout America's military history
many African-Americans were drafted into the military
without property of career or a formal education.
The union used these black soldiers to drum up support
for the war and inspire people to enlist.
Groups of smaller military bands
would travel to community events, to play patriotic music.
They performed for malicious
to inspire them for the perils of war.
Francis Johnson was a leader amongst these men
and laid groundwork for black military musicians.
He is the first African-American to have his composition
published as sheet music.
In 1837, he was also the first African-American musician
to tour in Europe.
During the civil war,
there were around 185,000 black men enlisted
when the war ended, many uneducated black musicians
were left with nowhere to go.
So they kept doing what they knew how to do to get by.
Menstrual brass bands popped up to play music
to move and entertain the crowd.
Minstrelsy is a controversial performance form
where stereotypically African attributes
are emphasized for entertainment.
This blatantly racist form of performance
was often the only way black musicians
could earn any type of living.
By the time World War I came around
groups like the Harlem Hellfighters had emerged.
Officially known as the 369th infantry regiment.
They mainly consisted of black soldiers and recruits
from Puerto Rico.
The Hellfighters were well-known for their military band
led by James Reese Europe.
The band not only performed in battle,
but also toured Europe, playing jazz and ragtime tunes.
During the war, the Hellfighters helped introduce Europe
to black American music.
Despite the cultural importance,
the Harlem Hellfighters spent the most time
in continuous combat in any other American regimen.
They suffered the most casualties too.
But where did school marching bands come from?
For that we have to go back to after the civil war,
after emancipation schools for African-Americans
were established in the south.
Today, these institutions are called HBCU
or Historically Black Colleges and Universities.
In the south the music culture is so prevalent.
It's so thick.
It's still strong it's like kids can grow up,
going to see a battle of the bands
and being influenced by that.
Why do HBCU play such a big role in marching band culture?
- The history of marching band is very militant
is very straight forward, it's commands.
The military bands were there to help the military.
We've got to give credit to Dr. William Foster at Florida,
A&M really who kind of changed the way HBCU bands appear
and how they perform.
And it gives us a sense of belonging.
We hear our music.
We produce our music,
but to put it on a field with live instruments
gives us that seasoning
that a lot of other bands cannot give.
- Music directors like WC Handy, and Dr. William P. Foster
shaped the early band sound
by incorporating African music traditions.
Because of segregation
these bands developed independently
and created a unique sound centered
and African-American culture.
There are three primary styles of marching bands,
military, corps and show style.
The style we're talking about today,
and the one most often used by HBCU bands is show style
also sometimes called traditional.
Show style band tradition is rooted in the foundations
of African-American music like blues and jazz.
Syncopation is the concept of this
placing the stress notes in music.
For example, Mary had a little lamb is stressed
in a classical European approach with no syncopation.
Whereas something like this cadence
has distressed on the off beats.
Call and response is the idea of musical conversation.
You play something and I play back in response to you.
This comes from traditional African drumming circles,
where the music was improvised and felt as a push and pull
between the players.
African vocality is everything you've heard in RMB, rap,
jazz, and blues, all the runs, the rhythmic speech,
the vocal effects.
This can even be felt on a drum line with no singing
through chance and call outs.
(drum rattling) (scat singing)
HBCU drum lines are also unique
with their style of composition.
If we look at the corp style, percussion battery,
only three instruments are represented, snare drum,
bass drum and multi-tom's also referred to as tenors.
The additional tenor drum
adds for a driving rapid fire middle voice,
and they use marching symbols to add some top end flair,
both audibly and visually.
You may have also noticed
that the equipment used is different.
Corp style and modern military drum lines
use rigid harnesses that make carrying
and playing the drum much easier.
HBCU drum lines, opt to use straps and slings
for an increased range of motion,
letting them incorporate dances
and physical stunts into their plane.
One staple of HBCU bands
is a dance routine called the breakdown.
Dr. William Foster of FAMU's Marching 100
laid the groundwork for the breakdown.
The breakdown is a special part of the show
where the band dances and plays a mashup
of current popular music.
Today, HBCU drum lines are thriving with dedicated events
like the Honda Battle of the Bands,
the National Battle of the Bands and other regional events.
HBCU drum lines have even influenced pop music.
So Beyonce, she pretty much raised me
like the first CD I ever bought with my own money
was writings on the wall.
But what was your reaction when Beyonce reached out to you?
- (chuckles) That's a whole story.
I'ma try to condense it.
I quit my corporate job in February, 2018.
I wasn't really being fulfilled.
So a month later I get a call from Don Roberts,
who is the owner and CEO of Drumline Live
and he says, "Hey, I have an opportunity.
"You have to leave for two months,
"but it's paid it's for a very big artists.
"I cannot tell you who it is, but I promise you,
"it will be worth it."
I said to my homeboy, I'm like,
hey man, you got that call from Don.
He's like, "Yeah, I got the call."
I was like, I haven't heard anything.
Do you know anything about it?
And he's like, "Man, all I know is for being Beyonce."
I say who?
He was like, "Yeah, it's for Beyonce."
I said, "Huh?"
I was like, "Okay."
- I have like rehearsal footage in my mind to Beyonce.
What was the energy like?
What was the vibe like?
- Honestly speaking truly and honest,
it felt like band practice every single day.
- Like Beyonce is legendary Coachella performance,
other pop stars like Lil NAS X have incorporated HBCU bands
in their art.
Right now there are 107 HBC use out of the nations,
approximately 5,300 universities.
The culture of the HBCU drum line goes hand in hand
with the plights of African-Americans today.
The constant fight to be relevant when your slice of pie
is the smallest has pushed these groups
to create something and refined much like jazz in its day,
Drumline is a cultural phenomenon.
Before you go,
I wanna tell you about a new documentary series
on PBS voices, American veteran, keep it close.
Each episode tells the story of a US military veteran
and a special object they have from their time in service,
a vial of lip gloss, a small stone, even a microphone,
check it out at the link in our description
and let them know that Sound Feel sent you.
One more thing,
we wanna invite you to take the PBS digital studios,
annual audience survey that helps us a lot
if Sound Feel fans participate.
You even get to vote on potential new shows.
There's a link in the description below.
And if you have a few minutes,
we will love your input, thanks.
More Episodes (42)
How Black Culture Influenced Drum lineJanuary 12, 2022
How Did Pop Music Evolve into HYPERPOP?January 10, 2022
In Defense of Auto-TuneNovember 17, 2021
Do You Know How Much Classical Music Is Edited?July 07, 2021
Why Is Für Elise so Famous? (And Is It Overrated?)May 13, 2021
The Genius of Fela Kuti and AfrobeatMarch 01, 2021