20 years after ‘Drumline,’ HBCU bands credit film for boosting visibility

The Howard University color guard and band perform at halftime of the Howard-Harvard football game at Audi Field in Washington on Oct. 15. (Craig Hudson for The Washington Post)
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Janae McCloud didn’t always know how to read music perfectly, or the technicalities of playing the alto saxophone. She just did whatever she needed to keep going with the music.

But in her sophomore year of high school, she watched the film “Drumline” and felt seen in the fictional story of talented band member Devon Miles, who couldn’t read music. It inspired her to keep performing.

McCloud is now a senior at Benedict College and one of the five drum majors for its Marching Tiger Band of Distinction, which was chosen to perform at the 2022 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

“I’m a biology major, and I want to become a doctor,” McCloud said. But “I’m still using things that I’m learning in marching band to help me propel to become the best doctor that I can be.”

“Drumline” follows a gifted drummer (portrayed by Nick Cannon) who was awarded a full music scholarship to Atlanta A&T University, a fictional historically Black college. The film, which led to a sequel and live show, was inspired by music producer Dallas Austin’s experience in his high school band.

The film, celebrating its 20th anniversary next month, gave audiences a small glimpse into the structure and culture of marching bands and dance ensembles at HBCUs such as Benedict, Morgan State University and Howard University.

“It was a big thing, you know, to have the honor to see what I do as a career” in the movie, said Jorim E. Reid, Morgan State’s director of bands, who had friends and associates who took part in and had cameos in the film. “It was a good feeling”

MSU’s Magnificent Marching Machine Band performed before their homecoming game in October 2022. (Video: Courtesy of Morgan State University)

The film drew more attention to performances, and videos of popular halftime shows can now draw up to 1 million views. It also led to an increase in band participation at K-12 schools and colleges, some musicians and directors say.

“It took a culture that was kind of somewhat underground and made it mainstream,” said Don Roberts, executive band consultant for the film and the creator of “DRUMLine Live.”

Kylan Jones, a sophomore trumpet player in the Sonic Boom of the South Marching Band at Jackson State University, believes the film was the reason many African American children joined their middle school and high school bands. “When I joined band, all of the boys wanted to play snare like Nick Cannon,” Jones said.

“No one really knew it was going to be like a phenomena,” Reid said. Morgan State’s previous band director of 50 years, Melvin Miles, retired early this summer.

HBCU bands offer a unique style and showmanship that showcase the elements of Black music and traditions. The first modern-day band style originated in 1946 at what was then Florida A&M College with the creation of the Marching 100. The bands help support institutions with recruiting and fundraising efforts but also offer audiences entertainment and a taste of HBCU culture. And the ties continue after graduation: In October, Howard University’s S.H.O.W.T.I.M.E band participated in a homecoming tunnel, where band alumni come back to represent their band sections.

“People got a chance to see that this is really entertaining [and] the advancement and the musicianship are incredible,” said Donovan Walls, band director at Bethune-Cookman University. He said he’s noticed many bands from predominantly White colleges have “adopted a lot of elements of HBCU bands.”

“Drumline” also showcased the dedication required to be in a collegiate band. Scenes depicted band members working day and night to prepare for a band competition, as well as the different exercises and training needed to prepare for other shows.

“The movie itself was huge. And it shows some of the things that actually goes on and against an HBCU band program,” said Wade Johnson, band director at Benedict College. “As an educator, the thing that most of our students miss [is] the fact that to be a part of a wonderful organization, you have to have the necessary skills to be able to make the cut and the actors portray that quite well.”

Amid nationwide enrollment drops, some HBCUs are growing. So are threats.

The band also cast a wider spotlight on HBCU band competitions. The BET Southern Classic competition featured in the film was loosely based on the Honda Battle of the Bands.

“ ‘Drumline’ showed that bands could be marketed and that money could be made off it,” said Brian Simmons, director of bands at Texas Southern University.

Still, while the film helped increase attention on bands, Roderick Little — director of the Sonic Boom of the South — said that at Jackson State, it didn’t translate to additional financial resources.

“We’ve yet to really see any financial gain to help support our programs when it comes to our students and infrastructure,” said Little, an assistant professor of music at Jackson State. “I would like to see this change since a lot of people capitalize off our culture. [But] what do they really do to fuel it?”

In the two decades since the film’s release, HBCU band culture has continued to see increased representation in media and pop culture. HBCU bands have now been featured in presidential inaugurations, reality TV shows, music videos and even highlighted in Beyoncé’s Netflix special, “Homecoming.” In June, FAMU’s Marching Band 100 performed at the 2023 Spring and Summer Men’s Fashion Show at the Louvre in Paris.

Many still credit “Drumline” with helping launch that expansion.

“There was no national media for us except what we would do ourselves,” said Eddie Ellis, the former band director at Morris Brown College. “It did more, in my opinion, for HBCU bands, than anything that I can think of.”