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HBCU Homecoming

Jay Rock performing with Howard University band at homecoming halftime

This will be the last homecoming performance for longtime band director John Newson

Homecoming week is without a doubt one of the most important stretches on a historically black college calendar. As Howard University in Washington, D.C., prepares for the annual tradition, the “Showtime” Marching Band is gearing up for a show that director of bands John Newson hopes will stay with fans and alumni long after the band exits the field.

This year, the band is adding rapper and songwriter Jay Rock to the halftime lineup.

Jay Rock, best known for singles “Win” and “King’s Dead” featuring Kendrick Lamar, Future and James Blake, will perform as the band plays those tracks at halftime of the Howard Bison’s homecoming game against South Carolina State University at Greene Stadium.

“Howard, I’m about to turn y’all homecoming all the way up Eastside Johnny-style!” Jay Rock said.

Jay Rock is the latest of several performers the band has welcomed over the years, including rappers T.I. and Lil’ Kim and a host of rhythm and blues groups, including 112, Guy and New Edition. Although Jay Rock may attract a younger crowd, Newson says, this year’s arrangement, just like every performance, includes something for everyone.

“We always do a mix of old school and new school,” Newson said. “It’s never just for the students or all for the alumni. We try to make sure we can entertain not only the students but also the alumni who have come back. We have several selections. Since we’re not as large as some of the other schools, we make everything work in regards to the size of our band and the placement of instruments on the field.”

Newson began planning nearly a month in advance. There are a few adjustments that need to be made to accommodate live artists with the 100-member band to ensure the audience will receive the best performance. The day before and the morning of the show are both reserved for quick rehearsals before the main event.

“The mic check is important,” Newson said. “We have to make sure [Jay Rock] is miked correctly and make sure the band isn’t overpowering him. We have to soften down the music and let him be featured.”

The homecoming performance will wrap up a week filled with entertaining events for the “Showtime” Marching Band, including a halftime performance during the Washington Redskins and Dallas Cowboys matchup on Oct. 21, a pep rally, the YouTubeBlack FanFest and handling interviews for a local documentary that will focus on the band.

At the end of the season, Newson will retire after a career of 50 years, 32 of which were spent at Howard. Homecoming will bring mixed emotions for the director of bands.

“It’s going to be somewhat of mixed emotions overall because there are students coming back from 10, 20, 30 years ago just to pay tribute to me,” Newson said.

In 1968, Newson started as a band director at a Louisiana high school before moving on to Detroit, where he taught instrumental music for a year. Later, Newson got his first collegiate role as an associate band director at Prairie View A&M University before moving on to Albany State College, spending 11 years at Morgan State University and eventually landing at his final home at Howard. After Newson’s last performance, he will need to adjust to a life without a band.

“It’s kind of scary because when you do something for 50 years, it’s hard,” Newson said. “I know next football season, it’s going to hit me. I’m probably going to make one or two games since I’ll still be in the area. I’m going to miss it because it’s in my blood and it’s going to take maybe a couple of years to die down. I know I’ll miss it next year.”

But there are some things Newson is already looking forward to during his newfound free time.

“My wife will keep me busy,” Newson said. “We’re going to do some traveling. We’ll do some things with the youngest grandkids, who are 8, 10 and 12 years old. Those are the ones we’re going to spend a little time with and travel with. I’ll have more freedom to do things and travel to see friends and family across the country. We’re not gonna be sitting at home.”

Until then, Newson’s focus remains on what has been one of the driving forces in his life. He hopes this year’s performance is one of the best fans will witness during his reign.

“I’m hoping that when [fans] leave there, that aspect of homecoming will be among the top in regards to the football game and pep rally. The halftime show will be at the top of their list of things that take place.”

Maya Jones is an associate editor at The Undefeated. She is a native New Orleanian who enjoys long walks down Frenchmen Street and romantic dates to Saints games.