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It takes two allotment planes to move the Sonic Bang of the South from its home in Jackson, Mississippi, to the aboriginal accident of the season, in Las Vegas, Nevada. The 230 musicians are traveling with four bandage directors, abutment and medical staff, a aegis detail, a amusing media and video unit, cheerleaders and a aggregation of swivel-hipped changeable dancers alleged the Prancing J-Settes.

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The Sonic Bang of the South is the cossack bandage of Jackson Accompaniment University, and a arch backer of the high-stepping, high-energy, brave appearance that has developed in historically atramentous colleges and universities (HBCUs) in the Abysmal South. Accepted as “show style,” it combines the aggressive cossack bandage attitude with dejected syncopated rhythms and elements of jazz, R&B, pop and hip-hop. The bands comedy with amazing ability and absorb deeply choreographed brawl routines into busy acreage drills. This altered American art anatomy has acid and able itself over abounding decades and is now breaking through into added cultural prominence.

Michelle Obama, in her admission accent at Jackson Accompaniment in April 2016, declared the Sonic Bang of the South one of the best bands in the country, and told university admiral how abundant she enjoyed watching the band’s performances on YouTube. The Boom, as it’s accepted for short, played at the 2016 commencement of Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant, and aloof accent the anniversary Jackson Christmas Parade, a anniversary attitude cartoon bags of spectators. “We don’t accept the actual best musicians, or the best absolute assignment formations,” says O’Neill Sanford, the administrator of bands at Jackson State. “But no one abroad can accompany the aforementioned activity and showmanship, and amaze a army of 110,000 bodies like we can,” he says. “That’s what anybody wants to see.”


The University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV) has arrive Jackson Accompaniment to comedy the aperture football bold of the season, but the invitation, co-sponsored by the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, had little to do with football. The arrangement specifies that the Sonic Bang of the South, in its abounding entirety, allegation accompany the football aggregation and accomplish at halftime. Added colleges and universities about the country accept started accomplishing the aforementioned thing. They’re agreeable historically atramentous academy football teams in adjustment to see their cossack bands.

For abounding of the Boom’s members, this is the aboriginal time they’ve aureate on a plane, or catholic out West. The excitement, however, is account by abysmal fatigue, abnormally amid the freshmen. They accept aloof appear through a barbarous two-week admission accepted as Freshman Bandage Camp. It takes abode every year in August, aback Mississippi calefaction and clamminess are best oppressive.

“Their parents bead them off, their mamas bawl and hug them goodbye, they analysis into the dorms, and the abutting morning, we alpha afore dawn,” says Sanford, a allegorical amount in the academy cossack bandage world, charming, unflappable, awful adroit and now abutting retirement. “Most kids today are so weak,” he adds, acquainted that the bandage requires strength. “So we breach them bottomward to anatomy them up.”

 Kevin Levine, a Jackson burghal badge administrator and above Sonic Bang member, is in allegation of the concrete training. He leads the freshmen through a long, backbreaking accepted of aggressive calisthenics every morning, and sends them to a appointed fall-out breadth if they charge to collapse or vomit. “Let it go, son,” he calls out to the nauseated. “Release your impurities.”

Band affected canicule aftermost for 18 and sometimes 20 hours to anatomy stamina, and because there’s so abundant to learn. Best freshmen appear out of aerial academy bands that beforehand with a “corps step”—the anxiety break low to the ground, landing heel-first and rolling adjoin the toe. The Sonic Bang marches with the acceptable aggressive aerial step, allotment up the knees to a 90-degree bend and pointing the toes downward. It’s added difficult to accumulate your aperture deeply positioned on the advocate of a horn while cossack like this. To accomplish it alike added challenging, the Bang additionally marches with a alongside amplitude in the aerial body, authoritative all the helmet plumes move in unison, and sometimes the musicians accept to comedy while active active brawl moves.

There’s additionally a mother lode of music to learn. Afterwards football games, in the alleged fifth quarter, and at appropriate contest like the anniversary Honda Action of the Bands—which the Sonic Bang won by fan poll in 2016, afterwards agitation a army of 63,000—marching bands taunt and claiming anniversary other. Using their instruments like weapons of war, they try to boss their opponents in agreement of volume, energy, musicianship and song selection. Sometimes these battles go on for 90 account or more. The Sonic Bang requires its musicians to adept and acquire pieces from affectionate marches to the latest club hits. Anybody in the cossack bandage affairs is additionally appropriate to apprentice classical pieces and abounding Bang associates additionally comedy in the school’s symphonic band.

Then there are the acreage drills for the halftime performances, endlessly apposite on a big parking lot abreast the campus sports fields, beneath the administration of the active Roderick Little, a above Sonic Bang bang above who is now accessory administrator of bands. By demography absolute 221⁄2-inch steps, and afterward memorized instructions, the bandage associates use their bodies to actualize letters, numbers, chevrons, revolving pinwheels and added formations of animal geometry on the pitch.

At the end of bandage affected this season, actual freshmen—68 of 94 fabricated the cut—were alloyed with the upperclassmen, and the 2016 Sonic Bang of the South played calm for the aboriginal time in advanced of a huge, auspicious army on campus. Aloof a few canicule later, they were shuttled out to the airport and loaded assimilate the allotment planes.

“It takes a lot of blood, diaphoresis and tears, but it’s an absurd feeling,” says James Gray III, a trumpet amateur from Tuscaloosa, Alabama. “Most of us accept been watching Bang videos on YouTube aback we were kids and absent about cossack in the bandage one day. To apperceive that I fabricated it appear is article I’ll backpack with me for the blow of my life.”

The 100-plus associates of the UNLV cossack bandage are accepting into their uniforms abaft the stadium, attractive actual accidental and relaxed, aback the Sonic Boom’s boss drums alpha up beyond the parking lot. The accordance from the big, abundant bass drums, nine in all, are so able that they set off a car anxiety 70 yards away. The snares complete like awkward machine-gun fire. “Holy s—,” says a big UNLV tuba player, scrambling to put on the blow of his uniform.

Then the long, aflame beforehand comes into view, all able brass, acceptable helmet plumes, and blatant blue-and-white uniforms. The percussionists accept absolute their tongues dejected with Kool-Aid and bonbon (an old tradition) and abounding of them accept a fierce, aggressive announcement on their faces as they beforehand accomplished the stunned, half-dressed UNLV bandage members.

Leading the Bang are four lean, handsome, high-strutting bang majors in massive, aerial shako hats, coursing with so abundant activity that it seems their bodies can about accommodate it. Their names are Joe “Rogue Dynasty” Williams III, Abraham “The Prototype” Duffie, Tyler “Mr. Dejected Phi” Action and Giann “Mr. 704” Soto. On the Jackson Accompaniment campus, their amusing cachet eclipses that of any athlete. Acclaimed for their dancing abilities and showmanship, the bang majors additionally accept a basic administration role in the band, acting as acreage commanders for the bandage directors.

“We’re a paramilitary alignment with bound conduct and a alternation of command,” says Williams. “We can additionally accomplish a accomplished amphitheater get up and feel good.”

Behind the bang majors, accepted their achievement and smiling, are ten adolescent women accepted as the Prancing J-Settes. They’re cutting argent boots, blue-and-silver capes, and showgirl leotards with sequins and tassels. Nicknamed “The Thrill of a Actor Eyes,” the J-Settes were afresh voted the best changeable danceline of all the historically atramentous academy cossack bands.

These dancelines developed out of the bang majorette tradition. They gave up batons to apply on dance. The J-Settes accept a advanced repertoire of moves, alignment from affected interpretations of symphonic music to accelerated booty-shaking and acquainted routines. They affirmation to accept pioneered a abominable pelvic casting move accepted as “bucking” that has aback become boundless in dancelines.

In the Las Vegas army of 18,575 are a few hundred alumni from historically atramentous colleges. They abrasion the names of alma maters on caps and T-shirts—Jackson State, Alcorn State, Grambling State, Mississippi Valley State, Tennessee Accompaniment and a few others. Jermaine Rimmey went to Southern University in Billy Rouge and now lives in Las Vegas. “Jackson Accompaniment are our bigger rivals, but I’m auspicious for them today,” he says. “I can baker my Louisiana aliment out here, but I get alone for bands and bandage culture.”

Asked to call that culture, he says, “I abhorrence to accompany chase into it, but at a predominantly white game, bodies leave their seats at halftime and get a hot dog or whatever. At an HBCU game, cipher leaves at halftime, because that’s aback the bands appear on. We abutment our football teams, but the rivalry, the excitement, the arguing and talking smack, it’s all about the bands.”

On YouTube, and at websites like BandHead.org and HBCUdigital.com, Rimmey follows all the cossack bands in the Southwestern Able-bodied Conference, or SWAC, which extends from Alabama to East Texas and is acclaimed for its show-style bands. Florida A&M (FAMU), alfresco the SWAC, is the bigger and best acclaimed bandage of all, says Rimmey, but it still hasn’t recovered from the 2011 hazing afterlife of bang above Robert Champion, and the abeyance that followed. (As a pledge, Champion was appropriate to run bottomward the centermost of a bus while actuality punched, kicked and assaulted by added chief bandage members, and he died from the blows. Afterward that incident, HBCUs accept absurd bottomward on the hazing traditions in their cossack bands.)

As Rimmey and his accompany delay for halftime, they watch and beef as the Jackson Accompaniment Tigers get burst on the football acreage by the UNLV Rebels. At halftime, the account is 42-10. The amphitheater anchorperson warns the admirers adjoin abrogation their seats, because of the appropriate appearance advancing up, “with one of the best cossack bands in the land.”

The UNLV bandage comes out first, cossack corps-style. They comedy a abominable old polka accepted as “The Chicken Song,” and do a little leg bang move aback they go into “YMCA” by the Village People. The bang majorettes bolt their batons, the bandage doesn’t accomplish any mistakes, but by HBCU standards, it looks about abundantly bruised and lackluster.

The Sonic Boom, with bifold the numbers, curve up in brittle ranks at one end of the field. The bang majors angle to absorption about the 20-yard line, afresh whistle, carol and exhausted their continued maces over their heads. Suddenly the absolute bandage is antagonism with a accelerated drag step, boundless the eye by activity in two admonition at already and alteration speeds, and afresh basic eight continued beeline curve that re-form as diagonals. This is the acclaimed Tiger Run-On, and the Vegas army goes agrarian for it.

During the continued canicule of bandage practice, Roderick Little will sometimes acquaint the musicians to “tear accessible the sky with your sound.” This byword able-bodied describes the huge, piercing, blood-tingling complete of all the horns and woodwinds as they let rip for the aboriginal time, alarming an absolute beforehand afore activity into Gwen Stefani’s “Sweet Escape,” while spelling out the belletrist UNLV and JSU with their bodies. Afresh the Sonic Bang floats these belletrist bottomward the field, with no clashing or wobbling, while the bang majors bound and dance. They baffle force with their aback bends, and aback they do splits, they animation appropriate out of them afterwards missing a beat, like James Brown.

Now the J-Settes appear out, accepting afflicted into gold lamé and tiger-print bikini-style outfits, prancing and high-kicking and casting their apparition of alloyed hair, their affectation appreciative and eye-catching. For a finale, the Sonic Bang performs its theme, or “spirit song,” “Get Ready,” by the Temptations. The bandage associates spell out the belletrist LAS VEGAS, while the bang majors do the “Mean Lean,” cossack with their knees aerial up to their chests, while angry their bodies sideways, and the “Funky,” which “Rogue Dynasty” Williams describes as a “ground-shaking hip gyration.” As the Bang marches out, the absolute amphitheater rises to its feet, clapping, cheering, yelling, abounding of joy and appreciation.

“I’m absolute appreciative of them,” says Little, cossack out with them in his bandage director’s clothing and tie. “A calamus in our cap,” says Sanford.


The origins of African-American cossack bands can be traced aback to the atramentous regimental bands in the Union Army, and the assumption bands that emerged in New Orleans afterwards the Civil War. In the aforementioned postwar era, the aboriginal colleges and universities for African-Americans were created. From the ancient canicule of their existence, according to cossack bandage historian William D. Lewis, atramentous colleges and universities took abundant pride in their music and bandage programs, and played music in both the European and the colloquial American tradition.

The high-stepping beam of the avant-garde show-style bandage seems to accept acquired during convenance sessions at Florida A&M University in 1946, beneath the bandage administrator William Foster. “We were aloof accomplishing accomplish and high-knee lifts, and bodies anticipation that was the greatest affair on earth,” he already recalled. “I had a concrete apprenticeship abecedary to advice with the choreography, putting the accomplish to music…very anon afterwards, added bands started accomplishing it.”

At Jackson State, the seminal amount was the active William W. Davis, whose account hangs in two places today in the trophy-stuffed music building. An ex-Army bandsman, he went on to align music and comedy trumpet in Cab Calloway’s orchestra, afore acceptable JSU’s aboriginal bandage director, in 1948. Davis alien applesauce rhythms and Calloway-style showmanship to the 20-odd acceptance in the cossack band. By 1963, the bandage had swelled to 88 members, and they were arena Count Basie and Duke Ellington arrange at football games.

In 1971, Davis was succeeded by Harold Haughton, who adopted the name Sonic Bang of the South, created the Tiger Run-On, and additional the musicians to 160. “Marching bands were a big affair at HBCUs in the 1970s, but the absolute competitiveness was about football aback then,” says Sanford. White universities in the South were actual afraid to recruit atramentous athletes, so historically atramentous schools were fielding football greats like Walter Payton, who played for Jackson State. Jerry Rice, the Hall of Fame advanced receiver, played his academy brawl at a baby HBCU alleged Mississippi Valley Accompaniment University, from 1981 to 1984.

“During the 1980s, white colleges started absolution atramentous athletes in, and afterwards that, they consistently took our best players abroad from us,” says Sanford. “People got fed up with it, the accepted of football went down, and the accent switched to bands. No one capital to booty our musicians.”

In contempo years, some predominantly white academy cossack bands accept adopted heavily from historically atramentous show-style bands, best conspicuously Ohio State, whose 2013 accolade to Michael Jackson, featuring a moonwalking acreage drill, went viral on YouTube. Some critics saw it as cultural appropriation, and O’Neill Sanford absolutely wasn’t impressed. “People go on about Ohio State, but we were accomplishing all that actuality 40 years ago,” he says. “The alone aberration is that no one was recording it and announcement it on the internet.”

Early in his career, Sanford bankrupt ancestral barriers by acceptable the aboriginal African-American bandage administrator at the University of Minnesota in 1976. Aback he arrived, the cossack bandage was all white and arena polkas, marches and appearance tunes. By the time he left, in 1985, the bandage independent some acceptance of color, and it was arena Earth, Wind & Blaze and a few added R&B songs. Afresh he went to the University of Pittsburgh, area he endured and overcame a aggravation attack that included a afire cantankerous on his lawn.

Marching bands accept taken him on continued jaunts to England, Spain and Sweden. He holds an honorary doctorate from the National Conservatory of Music in Mexico City, and Hollywood is now absorbed in his activity story. “It’s been an absurd adventure for a atramentous kid from a tiny boondocks in rural Louisiana,” he reflects. “Now I’m aback area I started, administering an HBCU bandage in the South and bringing aback aggregate I’ve learned.”

He campaign all over the country, and afresh to the Virgin Islands, to beforehand out the best aerial academy bandage musicians and allurement them to JSU with scholarship money. Rival bandage admiral are accomplishing the aforementioned thing, although added they do their talent-scouting on amusing media to save time and money.

Last season, the Sonic Bang had 350 musicians and played at astronomic volume. This season, attributable to accompaniment account cuts and added banking hardships at JSU, there’s beneath money accessible for bandage scholarships, and the Bang has diminished to about 210 members, with variations anniversary to week. Lowell Hollinger, the accessory director, doesn’t see this shrinking as a problem, “The added bodies you have, the harder it is to accomplish them complete like one. It can get ragged so easily. We’re acquainted article appropriate this year, article aerial that’s adamantine to put your feel on. We’re aflame for abundant things.”

The Saturday afterwards Las Vegas, aback the Sonic Bang marched out adjoin Tennessee Accompaniment in Memphis, all the horn and woodwind players were captivation aboriginal instruments, adjourned by the cash-strapped university at a amount of added than $460,000. The old instruments were cutting out, and the new ones, all fabricated by the aforementioned company, articulate added adapted with anniversary other. “It increases our aggressive edge,” says Sanford. “But annihilation happens cheaply with a bandage this size.”

The uniforms amount $250,000. Six bout buses are appropriate for transportation. Every time the bandage eats, it’s $6,000 or more. For JSU, it’s punishingly big-ticket to beforehand the Sonic Bang at its accepted akin of excellence, but as Sanford puts it, “The bandage is the best recruiting apparatus they have.” If the Bang were to compress added and blooper bottomward a few notches, the accomplished university would suffer, not aloof in agreement of pride, but approaching acceptance and alumni support. Added than a few ­HBCUs accept already suffered through this cruel, bottomward band-related spiral.

Jarrett Carter Sr., founding editor of HBCUdigest.com, wants to apperceive why historically atramentous schools haven’t managed to monetize their cossack bands, at a time aback they’ve never been added popular. The capital problem, as he identifies it, is that amusing media is the primary area for this popularity. YouTube, Facebook, Snapchat and added companies are announcement bandage videos afterwards advantageous for them and acquisitive the announcement assets they generate.

Carter addendum that HBCU bands accept played Super Bowl halftimes and appeared in pop videos and absoluteness shows. They were acclaimed in the 2002 movie Drumline, which overcame a bulky adventure bandage to acquire $56 actor at the U.S. box office. Florida A&M was one of some 90 groups that marched in President Obama’s 2009 countdown parade. Despite all this exposure, he writes, “many of these schools face acute bread-and-butter straits.” He calls for HBCUs to get sponsors’ logos on bandage uniforms, advertise paraphernalia, professionalize video assembly and alpha alleviative their bands as a admired artefact with “hundreds of bags of brand-loyal consumers.” Sanford acerb agrees. “Marching bands are a abundant accessible relations tool, but they’re additionally able of breeding austere banking resources. That’s what we charge to alpha cerebration about.”


In academy sports, the best acute animosity in the South is amid the University of Alabama and Auburn University football teams. Appropriate abaft that is the animosity amid the Jackson Accompaniment and Southern University cossack bands. Grudgingly, if pushed, the Sonic Bang will accept that the Southern band, nicknamed the Animal Jukebox, is abutting to actuality its equal. Every time the two bands go up adjoin anniversary other, the antagonism is abounding with tension, ball and excitement. It’s accepted as the Boombox.

Now the two bands are appointed to action anniversary added at a new accident in New Orleans alleged Crankfest. (“Crankin’” is a argot appellation for an impressively loud band.) There will be no football teams present, and no added bands. “This Accident Promises to Be the Best Spectacular, High-Energy, Action-Packed Exhibition of Ability House Cossack Bandage Programs in the Nation!!” according to a Crankfest web page, “in the Bandage Head Capital of the Universe.” Tickets amount from $25 to $60.

Normally, the Sonic Bang rehearses every day from 5:30 p.m. to 10 p.m. This week, rehearsals accept been catastrophe afterwards midnight, as the bandage attempts to adept 15 new songs. The Southern bandage is accepted as the Animal Jukebox because of the huge alternative of songs it can play. No one is abiding how continued Sunday’s action will last, but the Bang absolutely doesn’t appetite to run out of ammunition.

“New Orleans is aloof a abbreviate hop from Billy Rouge,” says Hollinger. “We’re activity into a hornet’s nest.” Aback the Sonic Boom’s buses ability the Tad Gormley Stadium, in a burghal esplanade in the affection of New Orleans, there are bags of bodies outside, boring funneling in through the turnstiles, and abiding enough, abounding of them are cutting the gold shirts and caps of Southern University.


Inside the stadium, Kool DJ Supamike is spinning tunes for Southern, and DJ Poppa is apery JSU. Afore the action begins, they balmy up the army with bass-heavy brawl beats. The rules of assurance accept been set in advance. The bands will abrasion able-bodied clothes, not cossack uniforms. They will not arrest anniversary other, or try to asphyxiate anniversary added out. The Sonic Bang will beforehand in first.

In aphotic dejected countdown apparel and analogous caps, with blue-tongued percussionists and blush stickers—promoting the account of breast blight awareness—on their larboard cheekbones, the Bang enters the amphitheater with its drumline anguish at best volume, afresh launches into the alluring alarm of “Get Ready,” with the bang majors dancing furiously. “Give it up, y’all!” yells the announcer. “We acquisition out tonight who’s got the hottest bandage in the land.” The Bang files up into an abandoned angle and arranges itself on the bleachers, as the Animal Jukebox, “often imitated, never duplicated,” appears at the added end of the stadium.

The Southern drumline doesn’t backpack absolutely the aforementioned force, and the blow of the bandage stays bashful as it marches through the amphitheater and up into the angle abutting to the Sonic Boom. The Prancing J-Settes, dressed in apparent able-bodied leggings and acme with their midriffs bare, do not attending happy. Their opponents, the Dancing Dolls, are cutting cutaway gold lamé leotards with white gloves.

Now the conductors ascend their stepladders, and the action begins. Roderick Little raises his billy and leads the Bang through a activation old beforehand alleged “Them Basses,” accounting in 1924. The Bang performs it magnificently, but the accessory army jeers and boos. Afresh it’s Southern’s turn, and the army roars because the Animal Jukebox is absolutely louder, with a massive aerial arrant complete that’s about earsplitting. The Southern bang majors accomplish throat-cutting gestures adjoin the Sonic Boom, and the Dancing Dolls bolt the ablaze on their deficient gold apparel as they agitate and gyrate.

Then it’s aback to the Boom. Scholarship cuts accept eaten into their volume, which is a problem, but they accept a richer, thicker, meatier complete than Southern, with the assumption counterbalanced out by woodwinds, and absolute ability advancing from baritone horns and trombones. The Southern complete is so loud and arrant that the melody generally gets lost.

“They’re overblowing for power, they’ve absent harmonic balance, we do it too aback the kids get overexcited,” says Sanford, sanguine and airy as always. “I’m not audition the third in the chords.”

When they’re not dancing, the J-Settes sit assertive on the bleachers, with one bottom tucked abaft the other, their easily bankrupt on their knees, their backs not-so-subtly angry adjoin the Dancing Dolls. They won’t condescend to attending at their opponents, except aback concern gets the bigger of them, whereupon a J-Sette ability glance over her accept with assuming disdain. Then, aback it’s time to dance, their courtly address changes utterly, and they alpha bucking and twerking like crazy on the tiny brawl belvedere amid one bleacher and another.

As the action extends into its additional hour, the bands alpha cheeky anniversary other, authoritative cheeky duke and arm gestures, blame up their faces in disgust, afraid their trumpets and trombones in calumniating and dismissive ways. In the crowd, bags of bodies are on their feet, cheering, booing, dancing, throwing gestures, filming with their phones and announcement clips to Twitter and Snapchat.

Afterward, as the addled and sweat-drenched Sonic Bang files bottomward from the stands, the Southern admirers army about them and bear their verdict. “I’m sorry, y’all,” says Kyra J. Duke of Billy Rouge. “We took it, no problem.” The Sonic Bang fans, and some independents, appear to a absolutely altered verdict, and these arguments are abiding to backpack on for months and alike years to come. A adolescent aloof brace from New Orleans, abrogation the amphitheater and walking home beyond the park, accord achievement to the Sonic Boom, “They played a greater array of music and backward loud throughout. Their dancers came with absolute depth. The Southern dancers aloof fabricated the aforementioned moves over and again.”

At that moment, the two bands, instead of aggressive aboard their buses, alpha to action again, and the bang and bang of a drumline thunders out into the night.

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