Exclusive: Why Beyoncé went with HBCUs at Coachella
‘Beychella’ showcases the fire of the black college experience with DRUMLine Live crew
In January 2017, fans were ecstatic to learn Beyoncé would be headlining the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival. Outside of the anticipation of a creative and energetic performance, Queen Bey would make history as the first black woman to headline the festival in its 19-year existence. Less than a month later, excitement turned to disappointment. Pregnant with twins, Beyoncé followed her doctors’ advice of adhering to a less-rigorous schedule and decided to cancel her performances.
Needless to say, the decision was a crusher to fans who’d already purchased tickets specifically for this one performance. For Beyoncé, it wasn’t so much a loss as it was an opportunity to expand on her ideas of a perfect show. The fans come first, and she’d have a year to make it up to eager festivalgoers who’d await the day she returned to the stage. Her wheels began to turn, and what Beyoncé landed on was a historically black college and university-themed production that could dethrone North Carolina A&T State University as the greatest homecoming on earth.
But to pull it all off, Beyoncé would need help from those familiar with the traditional HBCU environment. There would need to be band members and skilled dancers, drumlines and representatives of black Greek-letter organizations to transform the Coachella stage into a black campus quad. Beyoncé and her team enlisted the help of several groups to make up her 100-member-plus crew with whom she’d share the spotlight, including executive band consultant Don P. Roberts.
“[Beyoncé’s team] and I connected and talked in the beginning, but hadn’t agreed to anything,” Roberts said. “I think they were still doing their research. They asked me for background information about myself, my company and once they decided it was a go, it was my job to put together the best of the best — an all-star team that represented the best of historically black colleges and universities from around the country.”
Roberts was up for the challenge. Besides, scouting talent was something he was used to doing through his company, DRUMLine Live.
Roberts began as a band director at Southwest DeKalb High School in Decatur, Georgia. While leading one of the most popular high school bands in the country, Roberts caught the attention of producer and songwriter Dallas Austin, who was a fan of the high school band. After Austin attended one of Roberts’ band practices, Austin asked the band director if he’d be interested in becoming a consultant for a band-focused movie that he’d be working on.
“That movie was Drumline,” Roberts said. “I was the band director that you didn’t see.”
The movie was a hit. Those who weren’t familiar with black band culture wanted to learn more, and HBCUs featured in the film attracted a larger following due to exposure. With all of this in mind, Roberts had an idea to take the show on the road.
“How cool would it be if we could do something like this on stage?” Roberts asked himself. Austin and others supported the idea, later named DRUMLine Live, but funds were initially limited. Roberts was later picked up by Columbia Artists Management Inc., which helped with marketing and theatrics for upcoming shows. After years of growing pains and working out the kinks, Roberts began scouting talent of former HBCU band members from across the country to perform in the live production.
“DRUMLine Live is the only company in the world to allow [HBCU] band members to continue their careers after college,” Roberts said.
The troupe has traveled to Japan, Korea and performed for large crowds in more than 300 cities around the country. Today, the production is represented by Creative Booking Agency and is in the process of getting the rest of its 2018 schedule underway.
The first stop: Coachella.
Once Roberts received word that he’d officially been recruited by Beyoncé’s team to assist with her Coachella performance, he began assembling the best of the best from HBCUs across the country. Many of those chosen by Roberts were already members of DRUMLine Live, but a few others auditioned specifically for the event.
“Once we selected the guys, I could not tell them where they were going,” Roberts said. “I had to convince them to leave their homes, drop everything. Originally, I told them we’d be in New York. Then I told them we’d be in California, but still didn’t tell them who they were performing for. To see their faces by the time they found out who they were performing for, that was priceless.”
Most of the marching band, the entire drumline and some of the band’s trumpeters were all members of Roberts’ DRUMLine Live. This group, combined with Beyoncé’s core band and others selected by her team, worked seamlessly to form one gigantic HBCU band. Three of the crew members were Larry Allen, 30; Dasmyn Grigsby, 29; and Naderah Munajj, 27, all who were part of DRUMLine Live for years.
For Allen, a Houston native and graduate of Prairie View A&M University, coming from the same city as Beyoncé and sharing the stage with the star was enough to keep him focused.
“I wanted to lock in and give the best performance that I could just to help her brand out,” Allen said. “It was mainly about her for me, but I enjoyed the experience.”
The performance itself was one of Allen’s many blessings in disguise — an event he claimed shortly after Hurricane Harvey ravaged his home in Houston. Although the devastation was overwhelming, Allen chose to find a rainbow in the midst of the storm.
“I was stranded for two days in my house, but I looked at it as [God] washed all the negativity away and grew a beautiful flower,” Allen said. “I felt this was my year and good things were happening. Not long after that, I got the call with this wonderful opportunity.”
Fellow performer Grigsby also grappled with finding his footing before being called for this opportunity.
Though Grigsby had been involved in music all his life, even making up his mind in fifth grade that he wanted to become a college drum major, Grigsby enrolled at Bethune-Cookman University, where he majored in business. Music was his first love, but nearly every job out of college called for him to stray further away from his heart’s desire. At his last job, anger overcame him. It wasn’t that he hated his job, but the anger came from the realization that he hadn’t been fulfilling his true purpose in life. Determining what was best for him, Grigsby quit his job.
“Shortly after, this opportunity [to perform with Beyoncé] came,” Grigsby said. “I just have to give thanks to God and Don Roberts.”
The band members, both members of DRUMLine Live, were thrilled to be part of this production. But Munajj, a Florida A&M University graduate who is continually building her career as a singer, model, dancer and actress, took a different route for a part in Beyoncé’s performance. Munajj auditioned through a separate process, and was chosen as one of the finalists for a position. Although hopeful, Munajj received the crushing news that she did not get the part.
Luckily for Munajj, there was an unexpected second chance. One of the DRUMLine Live drummers would be out for a day, and she’d been asked to fill in. During that time, Munajj used her background as a dancer and limited knowledge of cymbals to wow those around her. When Beyoncé’s team was asked if they would like to bring the original drummer back to fill in the spot, they kept Munajj.
“I have a strong dance background, and my first time ever dealing with a pair of cymbals or playing with them was really on DRUMLine Live, so getting to this stage and being featured as a dancer, I had to be able to play the cymbals and still be able to execute my part,” Munajj said. “It was something very innovative and very new. These guys are dynamic performers who have been doing this for years. It was just a learning experience for me.”
Though the crew would only describe their practice days as long yet fun, it took Grigsby back to his Bethune-Cookman days.
“At Bethune-Cookman with Donovan Wells, who’s the band director there, one thing he’s really prideful on is repetition, and making sure that everything is on point and there’s no mistakes. He makes sure that every loose screw is tightened, and we really have a tight schedule. For two hours, we were just performing and practicing and if he saw something he didn’t like, he’d fix it or we’d do it again. The repetition at Bethune-Cookman translated to the Coachella performance. There were times that we did things over and over again just to make sure everything was tight. That kind of helped me in this realm of entertainment and performance.
“It’s very hot in Texas,” Allen added about his experience. “We have two seasons: hot and hot as hell. Just preparing all those years putting blood, sweat and tears on the field and leading the 350-plus band … it’s helped me so much. Being a drum major, I had to keep the ship rolling.”
Although the two-hour Coachella performance was a blur, there were moments that stuck out to each of them.
“I think [my favorite moment] was when Beyoncé looked and smiled at me,” Allen said.
“The best moment on stage for me was the moment the secret was out of the bag. When the lights went up and the audience started going crazy, they knew what the show was going to be about,” Munajj added.
For Roberts, it was the attention the performance attracted that blew him away.
“I’ve done movies. I’ve worked with pretty big-name people and it’s hard to overwhelm me with something spectacular, but I knew this was a different level after the event,” Roberts said. “The internet went crazy, everybody’s phones were blowing up. I had every major outlet from CNN to local radio stations blowing my phone up. I said, ‘Wow, we just made history.’ When the event was over, all the universities were calling to see who their students were. Everybody was claiming their people because they were so proud of who performed.”
Going into the second weekend of Coachella feels more like the main event to most of the members.
“The energy is so high right now because it’s like when you’re in a marching band and you have the pep rally and then the actual classic,” Grigsby said. “That was like the pep rally. This one is the actual classic. [The second performance] will be bigger than any classic we’ll ever do.”
Although there are other artists the team would love to work with in the future, it may take some time to recover from one of the biggest performances of their lives.
“I don’t know what in my career would top this,” Munajj said. “This has been an ultimate goal of mine, and now that I’ve done this, I know that I can take my artistry to the next level and explore the platform we’ve been given. To be on the stage with this woman certifies you anywhere that you go.”