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HBCU Bands

N.C. A&T’s marching band is high-stepping its way back to center stage

With a top ranking and a tradition that goes back generations, the Blue and Gold Marching Machine is bringing all the noise and the funk

Music is a universal language, and that language is something that North Carolina A&T State University speaks fluently. Its award-winning marching band, the Blue and Gold Marching Machine (BGMM), is one of the best in the country and is currently the nation’s top Division I HBCU band in this season’s second Undefeated HBCU Band Rankings.

N.C. A&T isn’t a stranger to the No. 1 spot; BGMM finished the 2019 rankings as the top Division I band.

“It definitely feels really, really good to be recognized as a top program,” said Triston Johnson, captain of BGMM’s drum line, which is nicknamed “Cold Steel.” “We’ve been closely following the rankings since 2018. We wait for them to come out and move forward accordingly. You can always expect A&T to go above and beyond for every performance. We treat every single performance as if it’s our last or going to be televised. When you’re talking about HBCU bands as a whole, that’s what makes us different.”

Known for their showmanship and high-stepping style, historically Black college and university marching bands have always been special, and BGMM is no exception. The superstar status of the Aggies’ band often rivals its fellow Aggies basketball and football players. During football games, the relationship between the marching band and the football team is inverted as the band’s halftime show is often the primary driver of attendance and adoration.

Being a part of BGMM, which includes Cold Steel and the auxiliary dance squad, Golden Delight, is like a year-round sport, one that instills work ethic, determination, familial bonds and loyalty. From summer band clinics to band competitions to football season to spring performances, members of the band gain much more than a heightened knowledge of music. The discipline, strict practices and performance adrenaline help mold many members into the confident adults they are today. 

“Their hard work, drive and determination is what makes my students special,” said band director Kenneth Ruff, a North Carolina A&T alum and former BGMM drum major. “It takes a lot to be in an HBCU band, many hours of practice, and they are just so dedicated to the progression of this band. Their days involve so much. They have to study, make good grades and continuously learn music.”

Lamon Lawhorn, assistant BGMM band director, also stressed the need for discipline and a solid regimen. “For instance, you have to be at places early. You have to be able to take instructions from your peers, which is not an easy thing for young college students to do, and will often be presented with a time where you are in the place of authority. You also have to be able to be in a team environment and have really good time-management skills. All of these things may seem minor, but they apply to the real world. You’re under a lot of stress. When our members are done with the band, they are able to relate back when they are in stressful situations to say they been there before. They now know how to mentally focus and get tasks accomplished.”

When BGMM members are not in their uniforms performing, they can be seen walking around campus with a pep in their step, clad in their signature sweatsuits with the word “LOYALTY” sprawled across their chests.

“Loyalty has allowed the band program to become what it is today,” said Johnson. “Many HBCU bands are struggling right now because they do not have dependable staff or support from their own university. Our band has been so good over the years because the people in charge of pulling strings and directing us were once in the band themselves. They continue to give us their all, which is the main difference-maker.”

Coming back from COVID-19 interruption

Loyalty is what kept N.C. A&T’s band together over the last year and a half, as the coronavirus pandemic ravaged the country. Like the Aggies football team, BGMM’s 2020 fall performance season was sidelined. That meant no halftime shows, no homecoming, no band competitions, and limited rehearsals and recruiting. In fact, before this August, BGMM had not performed a live show since its win at the Honda Battle of the Bands in January 2020.

To stay fresh during downtime, Ruff did his best to keep band members engaged, educated and healthy. He opted for smaller group rehearsals and added extra safety equipment inside the band center. The band was divided into three smaller ensembles for rehearsals within socially distanced interior spaces and outdoors. “It was uncharted territory,” Ruff said. “But we still had music education going on. We tried to do as many rehearsals as we could outside, because it was actually safer outside. We provided special masks so students can play and perform at the same time and still remain covered.”

Added Johnson: “It was very, very different, almost like a complete culture change. Even for us [band members] that do not use a mouthpiece, marching band is very strenuous and wearing masks makes things a little more interesting. It’s not hard, it’s not easy, it just gets interesting and takes time to get used to. Our directors did make accommodations to ensure that our marching band could continue. We use plexiglass dividers when practicing with our sections. We also use bell covers, which are pieces of fabric that are put at the end of the instrument to eliminate another person coming in contact with anything that may come out the other side. We were eventually able to order masks made to accommodate a mouthpiece.”

All BGMM members had to comply with the university’s COVID-19 protocols and requirements, including proof of vaccination.

Instead of using Zoom for rehearsals like many other HBCU auxiliary teams did during the pandemic, the Golden Delight held in-person practices, but with some key precautions. All dancers and staff members had to wear masks at all times, wash their hands before and after practice, air purifiers were positioned in all corners of the room when practicing indoors, and all batons and flags were disinfected while people were socially distant.

Stephen Jarrelle Harris/Relnice Photography

“At first, dancing in a mask was extremely difficult to do because of the nature of our routines,” said Khaliyah Collins, a member of Golden Delight. “It was just hard to breathe, but we had to keep our masks on at all times because back then COVID-19 was so new. There was not a vaccine and honestly, I was still scared. You never knew who had it or who might have recently come in contact with it. Keeping things clean was not really that hard because we have an unwritten rule about getting to practice 15 minutes early, so we used that time to make sure we were ready.”

On Aug. 29, BGMM celebrated the return to live performances in the 2021 kickoff to fall marching band season at the Cracker Barrel National Battle of the Bands in Houston. In addition to N.C. A&T, this year’s lineup included bands from Bethune-Cookman, Jackson State, Langston University, Norfolk State, Southern University, Talladega College and Tennessee State.

“[Not getting to play last year] for some people, that was the end of their band career even though it might not have been the end of their college career,” said BGMM senior drum major Randolph Williams. “I know that was really hard on some people. But, it’s a highlight to be able to say that my senior year I kicked it off by getting on a plane and flying somewhere. That’s exciting for me. But it’s really exciting for the freshmen, knowing you started your college career in the Blue and Gold Marching Machine getting on a plane and flying to Houston.”

For this year’s Aggies homecoming celebration, better known as the Greatest Homecoming On Earth, the band partnered with senior business management major and former NBC The Voice contestant Victor Solomon for a performance of Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars’ “Uptown Funk.”

A legacy of more than a century

The foundations for BGMM’s greatness began as far back as 1910, when music professor Charles Edwin Stewart decided to start a college band and orchestra at N.C. A&T. It was Stewart who composed the music for the university’s theme song, “Dear A&T.”

The A. and T. College Band was born in 1918, when the school became the first Black college in North Carolina to have a band. That initial 50-piece ensemble quickly became the backbone of the school’s music department and has now grown to a 210-member ensemble with piccolos, clarinets, saxophones, trumpets, trombones, sousaphones, euphoniums, mellophones, snare drums, bass drums, tenor drums, quints and cymbals. The band was renamed the Blue and Gold Marching Machine in 1977 under the direction of former band director Johnny B. Hodge, who held the position for over 30 years. Members of the BGMM are not required to major in music, but they do get one credit hour for each semester they are in the band. Students with a variety of interests and specialties are encouraged to try out.

The idea of adding an auxiliary to BGMM was first introduced in 1946 by then-band director Walter F. Carlson, who wanted to model it after the bands at the University of Michigan and Ohio State University. He even drew inspiration from Michigan’s band uniforms to design N.C. A&T’s flashy blue-and-gold uniforms. Today, the Golden Delight is one of the country’s top HBCU dance teams.

“We all come up with choreography,” said Collins. “Whenever you see us dancing, it came from us or a GD [Golden Delight] alumna and has just stuck with us over the years. A lot of the field shows, those are always brand new. The whole team makes those up, and as far as our stands, we like to keep it traditional GD style. GD style is funky, sexy and versatile. In a Golden Delight performance, you’ll see ballet, jazz and of course some of the dances that are going viral at the moment. You may even see some hip-hop moves.”

In between new practice and rehearsal protocols, Golden Delight used some of its off time last summer to create a short film called Emotional Lockdown. The film takes viewers through the highs and lows of a host of human emotions via dance expression.

“The movie was a lot of hard work, I’m not going to lie,” Collins said. “When it all came together and we saw the hard work plus training all come together, it was worth it. There was no other feeling that could beat seeing all of our hard work on the big screen. I was a rookie when we made the movie and I was able to soak up so much GD information during the process and grow as a dancer.”

In addition to its music and choreography, another element of BGMM that stands out is its drum majors. The drum major is the leader of the band and is often the first person seen when the band takes the field. They are the start of the show and usually the one that gets the crowd on their feet. The drum major’s entrance is all about theatrics and sets the tone for the show. They usually begin by high-kicking their way to midfield, then doing a trademark backbend until their head touches the ground. The marching band follows, strutting onto the field with superb instrumentation and intricate formations, then the dance squad displays dazzling style and steps.

Williams joined BGMM in 2018 with his childhood best friend Myles Nooks, also a current drum major.

“A drum major does literally anything and everything to help the band,” Williams said. “Our tasks range from things everyone knows we do, like conducting the band and not so common knowledge like printing off drill charts that the band learns from, getting keys made for the band room, building trampolines, spray-painting chairs, putting together field shows, organizing flights and hotel assignments. We do everything except drive the bus.”

When Williams and Nooks were students at E.E. Smith High School in Fayetteville, North Carolina, their peers would often tell them they looked alike and asked if they were brothers. Eventually, the duo went along with the narrative and used it as a part of their band routine.

“I graduated valedictorian from our high school [E.E. Smith] and he [Nooks] was the salutatorian,” Williams said. “That’s my brother. The experiences I have been afforded while a part of the band would not be the same without the people I get to experience it with. Our chemistry makes leading the band a seamless task. We’re always communicating with each other even from across the field. Sometimes we yell out the same directions during practice without even knowing it. Dr. Ruff loves it.”

Over the years, BGMM has had several notable drum majors on its squad, including Anthony Criss, who in 1993 entered the Aggies’ homecoming halftime show via helicopter. Then there was Kellye Hall, who in 1998 became BGMM’s first female drum major.

“The challenge I faced in being the first female drum major is that Dr. Hodge initially said there would never be a female drum major as long as he was the band director,” Hall told The A&T Register. “That’s a whole long story in itself. Glory to God, he changed his mind less than a year later, unbeknownst to me.

“I chose N.C. A&T because my parents and three of my uncles went there,” Hall continued. “My dad and one of my uncles were in the band and we had season tickets to football games growing up, so I always wanted to be part of the Blue and Gold Marching Machine.”

Kellye Hall

Hall also noted how she drew inspiration from Criss’ 1993 helicopter delivery on the 50-yard line. “I got a chance to meet him one summer when I was at A&T for a band camp for middle and high schoolers. When he saw me dance, he instantly became my mentor and would let me come onto the track with him at football games. Some band members knew me before I actually got to A&T because of that. One of the greatest moments ever was when he saw me as a drum major at band camp. His reaction was priceless. I was just so happy he was proud of my accomplishment. I love marching with him in the alumni band to this day!”

The hard work of BGMM’s band members has led to numerous awards and national recognition, such as winning the Honda Battle of the Bands multiple times and the 2003 Defeat the Beat championship, becoming the official band of the Carolina Panthers and being the lead band for the 2012 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City.

“My proudest moment with the band was when we participated in the Macy’s parade,” Ruff said. “Bringing a band to Macy’s has always been a dream to me. I never really honestly thought that I would be able to do that. We applied and got accepted and performed. Afterwards, my mom came to me and told me how proud of me she was and it truly melted my heart.”

Added Lawhorn, “This band turned into a creative entity that everyone looks forward to seeing because they never know what to expect. They don’t know if they’re going to get a theme show. They don’t know if we’re going to use all of these huge props. They also don’t know what they are going to get in terms of Golden Delight or Cold Steel either. All of our entities are extremely creative, highly ranked, highly rewarded and awarded. We are respected across all HBCUs and marching bands across the nation. We’ve gone from being known as a small band to a creative ensemble that blows the house down every time.”

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.