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Battle of the Celebration Bowl bands

Jackson State’s Sonic Boom of the South and S.C. State’s Marching 101 get set to square off in Atlanta to claim the HBCU musical spotlight

Jackson State coach Deion Sanders and South Carolina State coach Oliver “Buddy” Pough won’t be the only ones looking to make sweet music after a victory in Saturday’s Cricket Celebration Bowl in Atlanta. For the bands from each school, halftime is their game time, as JSU’s Sonic Boom of the South will take on S.C. State’s Marching 101 for historically Black college and university (HBCU) band bragging rights.

“South Carolina State comes from the MEAC conference, and if you look at the history of the MEAC as it relates to marching bands, it’s usually very clean, very concise music,” said Naderah Munajj, social media correspondent for The Undefeated. “The music is crowd-pleasing, but it is also highly based on technical abilities. In the SWAC, Jackson State’s conference, they are going to give you some very funky sounds. It’s very loud, verbose and full of energy. I would say the difference with South Carolina State’s band is that they are more focused on technique, sound and cleanliness. Whereas Jackson State, they’re going to have technique, but they’re also going to try to get the energy and momentum built up in [the] stadium.”

This will be each university’s first trip to the Celebration Bowl in both football and band competition. The two bands will first face off Saturday morning at the Bowl Kickoff Band Jamboree presented by Disney on the Yard at the Georgia World Congress Center International Plaza. 

“If you can [try to] visualize the two drum lines from the movie Drumline during the battle scene,” said Don P. Roberts, executive consultant for The Undefeated HBCU Band Rankings. “We’re going to have both bands side by side. One band is going to play, then the next band is going to play. One drum line is going to play, then the next drum line is going to play. It’s going to be an old-fashioned battle side by side. It’s almost like the fifth quarter or zero quarter. The biggest thing about this time is there’s probably only going to be about 10 feet separating the two bands while they are side by side.”

At halftime of the game, the bands will take the field and showcase their best sounds, dance moves and routines in front of a crowd of more than 50,000 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. After the game, the bands will end their performances with an old-fashioned fifth-quarter showdown. “The 5th Quarter” at HBCUs is an event that takes place after the game, when the bands of the two opposing schools battle each other for bragging rights to the best musical performance.

“I’m just excited to be here,” said Natorie Ladson, the trumpet section leader for The Marching 101. “This is my first time coming to the Celebration Bowl. I always look up in [S.C. State’s] Oliver C. Dawson Stadium and see all the championships [S.C.] State has won, and for the marching band to now be able to be a part of this is very exciting.”

Besides being seen by 50,000-plus spectators, Saturday’s game will also be televised on ABC and livestreamed on ESPN+.

“I think the excitement for everyone really stems from the opportunity that we have to be showcased on a national scale,” said Roderick Little, director of the Sonic Boom of the South, which was ranked No. 5 in The Undefeated’s final Division I HBCU Band Rankings of the season. “Of course, the football team has been doing well this season, along with the band. We’ve already known what we have within ourselves as a university with the band and the football team. It is an opportunity to show the nation what we have to offer in music, showmanship and pageantry. The most exciting part for me is just being able to display our students’ talents on a national scale.”

For the Celebration Bowl, the shows for both bands will be a departure from their usual game-day performances. Normally, the bands get more than nine minutes to perform. On Saturday, the bands will only have seven minutes to take the field, perform and exit.

“It makes it extremely challenging to get so creative in such a small amount of time,” said Patrick Moore, director of S.C. State’s Marching 101. “There are also a lot more restrictions as far as music selection because we have to make sure the music is cleared with copyrights and all those types of things. Also, once we realized we were in the Celebration Bowl, we noticed all of our practices would be while the students are trying to finish their final exams on campus. The majority of our students have been trying to prepare for finals while also getting extra hours in for the band.

“We wanted to pick songs that would grab the audience’s attention from the beginning and keep their attention during the entire show,” Moore said. “We also wanted to find a theme that everyone could relate to. We came up with songs that fit the theme of the Celebration Bowl. I think we have picked out some really good songs from different genres and eras that the older crowd, as well as the newer and younger crowd, will also be able to recognize and enjoy.”

Little has dreamed of bringing his Sonic Boom of the South to the Celebration Bowl since the championship game’s inception in 2015, the same year he took over as band director.

“I always describe our style as energy with swagger. I’ve always told myself that if our program ever would make it here, I want to do something applicable to the holidays,” Little said. “Quite naturally, the next holiday coming up is Christmas, and when planning for our [Celebration Bowl] show, I just wanted to be sure to keep that in mind as we put together our field show presentation.”

The Sonic Boom’s reputation is what brought many of its members to Jackson State. “I joined the band because of its tradition and the high standard that Jackson State holds itself to,” said Nathanial Kenner, the head drum major for Sonic Boom of the South who hails from New Orleans. “We also play a variety of music. For example, we do marching band, but we also have a concert band, symphonic band, different wind ensembles. Just know that we are not just good at one aspect of music, we are skilled musicians all around.”

JSU’s Sonic Boom of the South was established in the 1940s when the institution was still Jackson State College and the band was composed of JSU students and students from Lanier High School in Jackson, Mississippi. Currently, the band has 280 members, including a legendary War and Thunder drum line, the Jackson Five drum majors and the high-stepping Prancing J-Settes dance line.

Nick Tre. Smith/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

“The Prancing J-Settes always help keep Jackson State a part of the top 10 for The Undefeated band rankings,” Munajj said. “It’s specifically because they have a distinct style that cannot be duplicated. Other dance lines have choreography styles that are inspired by them. When you think of SWAC dance lines, Jackson State is one of the first schools that comes to mind. They have a sense of ferociousness and pure attack that they bring to the stadium, stands and field during their entrances, exits, ramp kicks and everything in between. It is all executed very well.”

The Marching 101 also has a rich history. It began in 1918 at S.C. State in Orangeburg, South Carolina, as a small regimental band performing military drills and assisting with music at Sunday schools. Over the years, Marching 101 has evolved from a service band to part of the university’s music department to a full marching band. It currently has 125 members, including the Champagne Dancers and the Color Guard Electric Silk. The Marching 101 won Atlanta’s annual Honda Battle of the Bands competition in 2011 and 2014, and was featured in the VH1 movie Drumline: A New Beat.

“It’s not always about the quantity, it’s about the quality,” said Roberts, referring to the size difference between the two bands. “I think they [S.C. State] are going to put on a quality performance.”

Added Ladson, “From my freshman year to now, [S.C.] State has done so many things. This year is the most we have traveled as a band. We have been on the road ever since we got the OK to come back from the COVID-19 [coronavirus pandemic]. We have been on the ball, so size isn’t really that important. The train has not stopped yet and I am hoping it doesn’t stop because I am loving the progress that we are making right now.”

While searching for ways to keep both bands fresh and in tune during the coronavirus pandemic, both Little and Moore also had to find reasonable methods to keep their band members healthy while practicing. After all, leading a band through a pandemic and remote instruction is not the most ideal task.

“A couple of things we actually had to take into consideration was the number of days and hours we rehearsed,” Little said. “We did not rehearse as many hours as we typically would have before the pandemic. We had to truncate the hours of rehearsals. We also had to ensure that we were social distancing. We made sure students were using masks and bell covers. We also did the typical things like encouraging students to wash their hands, use hand sanitizer and being mindful of their surroundings, even when in the general population of the university. The administration here at Jackson State was very supportive of our efforts.”

When the pandemic began, S.C. State had just wrapped up its spring 2020 concert. When the students and faculty went on spring break the following week, Moore wasn’t sure when they would be returning to campus.

“I was able to keep the band in constant communication and kept everyone updated with information we were receiving from the university,” Moore said. “It was difficult, but it was something we were able to do very well. We went ahead and planned to come back that fall semester, but then we found out at the last minute that we were not coming back to school at all. We wanted to make sure we didn’t lose contact with anyone and that everyone is OK.”

With both bands now ready to put on their best performances in Atlanta, all of the uncertainty from the pandemic seems to be a thing of the past.

“My students have been absolutely phenomenal this year,” said Little. “They’ve been through a lot this season. I tell a lot of people we’ve done just about any and everything you can possibly do with [a] band and they have handled it very professionally. They have handled it with the utmost of candor. This season [where] they have grown the most is just pulling together as a family to just kind of navigate through all of the different performances. That’s one thing that is important, just not in band, but throughout life. You have to have a crutch or a person you lean on when things begin to get rough or trying, or even just a bit too much.”

Moore agrees.

“The students who are in the program now are going to be able to look back and say they were the first band from S.C. State to get to participate in the Celebration Bowl,” Moore said. “It is a great honor to be able to be here.”

As far as predictions go, the experts at The Undefeated seem to have an idea as to who the front-runner is.

“I saw Jackson State when they first played FAMU in Miami,” said Roberts. “They were good during that performance, but I would say at this point during the season they are exceptional. As any team, band or group, you’re supposed to get better from game to game and they have definitely gotten better. I think this is something that can be attributed to their band director Dr. Little and the staff they have now.”

Added Munajj: “I’m hoping that both bands recognize the platform that they have and how huge of a game this is. Even if we were to talk about the fact that the stadium is sold out. I really hope that puts some more pressure on each of the teams to really want to show up and show out because all eyes will be on them. Jackson State has had an eye on them [S.C. State] the whole season. My hope is that South Carolina State’s Marching 101 is going to take it to the next level the way MEAC bands really know how.”

Alexis Davis is a senior multimedia journal journalism student from Prince George’s County, Md. She is a sports and culture contributor for The A&T Register, the campus newspaper at North Carolina A&T in Greensboro.