ATLANTA — Five drum majors approach midfield and snap into high-stepping formation, capes swirling as they spin and drop into splits before hopping up and bending backward until their hats scrape the ground.
When they dart toward the sideline, Bethune-Cookman University’s 300-piece marching band and its 14 Karat Gold Dancers surge onto the field, performing Mary J. Blige’s 2007 hit “Just Fine” for a crowd of more than 62,000 at the 16th annual Honda Battle of the Bands Invitational Showcase in Atlanta.
High-energy routines like Bethune-Cookman’s are the norm for marching bands at many historically Black colleges and universities, keeping people near their seats instead of the concession stands. But the bands are more than a halftime show; their popularity has spread through pop culture, music and film.
“It’s about the showmanship,” said James Oliver, band director of the Mighty Marching Hornets at Alabama State University. “We are a show band. Our shows must be entertaining to our fans. HBCU marching bands are so much more different than the corps-style bands. It’s entertainment on a whole other level.”
Known for incorporating the latest chart-topping R&B and hip-hop hits into their performances, HBCU bands have appeared alongside some of the biggest names in music.
Florida A&M’s Marching 100 performed with Prince for his spectacular Super Bowl halftime show in 2007. Southern University’s Dancing Dolls squad accompanied Madonna at Super Bowl 46 and Beyoncé at her 2013 halftime show. Southern, FAMU and Grambling State have performed at 12 Super Bowls in all.