When Tennessee State University’s Aristocrat of Bands won Best Roots Gospel Album for The Urban Hymnal at the 2023 Grammy Awards, they made history as the first collegiate band to win a Grammy. But it all started with a sound.
Videos by American Songwriter
Videos by American Songwriter
To Sir the Baptist, there’s nothing quite like the sound of an Historically Black University (HBCU) marching band. When the gospel artist and Grammy-nominated producer came across a video of the Aristocrat of Bands on Instagram, the sound of their playing immediately caught his attention. He then contacted Assistant Director of Aristocrat of Bands Larry Jenkins to come to see the band perform in person, traveling from Chicago to Nashville to watch their halftime show performance at a Tennessee Titans game.
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“For me, it was a moment to experience that HBCU sound,” Baptist expresses in an interview with American Songwriter. “The real sound behind HBCU, if you were to give a definite pinpoint, would be the marching band. I came to TSU and I heard them in the band room for the first time and it blew my mind. The amount of energy that’s coming out of these horns and from these kids really blows you away when you’re in front of it. It’s a level of power that I wasn’t used to, especially in gospel.”
Jenkins, a TSU alum who also runs the school’s artist in residency program, knew that Baptist was right for the role when the two sat down at a Mexican restaurant after the game and sketched out the idea for a gospel album, that became The Urban Hymnal, featuring the marching band with one goal in mind. “We need to make history,” Jenkins recalls to American Songwriter. “Give the students that experience that they may not have ever had.” TSU is no stranger to the spotlight. Lizzo gave the Aristocrat of Bands a shoutout on social media for their performance of her Grammy-winning hit “Truth Hurts” at the 2019 National Battle of the Bands, while country star Kane Brown collaborated with the band on campus during his performance at the 2021 American Music Awards. But they had never been a part of a project like this. Jenkins and the musicians turned the band room into a recording studio while Baptist reached out to friends like J. Ivy, Dallas Austin, Fred Hammond, and many others to be featured artists on the project, all of whom donated their time.
Baptist also started writing a series of original gospel songs like “Me Too,” a spoken-word anthem that turns the biblical character Moses into a civil rights leader who frees the slaves. “Dance Revival” is a fast-paced, foot-stomping, hand-clapping number with Jekalyn Carr’s voice leading the charge, and Baptist professing I’m the new Martin Luther and I just want the tables to flip. An integral element of the songwriting process was connecting the past and present, with Baptist and his collaborators interweaving traditional spirituals including “Wade in the Water” and “Goin’ Up Yonder.”
“We always found a way to go back to our roots,” Baptist says of blending original lyrics with those of ancient hymns. “We needed to create some of our own so that the truth stays close to where we are right now. We wanted to show how we could advance it, but still stay in the sonic pocket of what it is to be a hymn.” The students played an instrumental role in setting the tone for the album, whether creating the lively spirit of “Dance Revival” and “Going Going” to the gentleness of “Me Too,” the album showcases the range the band is capable of outside of the big-band sound they’re typically known for. “What we did was show you all of the intricacies that the marching band has and the different levels, layers, personalities and character,” Jenkins describes, adding that they were constantly changing the studio setup in a way that allowed for each individual instrument to shine. “We want to show all of the range and the versatility of the band.”
One of the students who was immersed in this process was Curt Olawumi, a member of the wind ensemble. In addition to having the opportunity to play on a Grammy-nominated album, Olawumi says the community-building that took place between his peers is what made the experience particularly special.
“One important lesson I learned was to not take the journey alone,“ he says. “Just to see my bandmates in this type of environment was an eye-opener for me personally and to have the opportunity itself is amazing. I know that everyone is grateful for it.” Another person who’s grateful to be a part of this project is Aaron Lockhart, a TSU alum who’s now a hip-hop producer in Atlanta, known as Dubba AA. Lockhart, who was part of the marching band as a percussionist when he attended TSU from 2012-2016, jumped at the chance to give back to his alma mater when presented with the invitation from Jenkins, leading the drum section on “Fly” and “Me Too.”
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“Marching band is the heartbeat of any HBCU,” the 2016 graduate notes, adding that the experience helped him “see music in a different light.” “This project was definitely something that I felt that was needed for me to be a part of. It makes me feel great to say that I’ve used everything that I’ve learned in that same program to give back to that same program. It warms my heart to see that I’ve been blessed with an opportunity of a lifetime that not many people get.”
One of the many artists who contributed their talent to the project is Louis York, the hit songwriting duo of Claude Kelly and Chuck Harmony, who co-wrote and produced “Blessings on Blessings,” which helps to bring the album to a peaceful close. “Blessings” is one of the few songs that doesn’t feature the driving force of the marching band, instead leaving the listener with a humble message. “It’s like the most beautiful way of wishing someone well until you meet again,” Kelly explains of the “anthemic” song, citing the poignant, not even time could melt the joy we felt / There’s no reason to cry / This aint goodbye / It’s just farewell as his favorite lyrics in the song.
“’Blessings on Blessings’ is key to Urban Hymnal being what it is,” Kelly observes. “They say hello and then you’d have to say goodbye in the most profound way possible. That’s what ‘Blessings on Blessings’ does.” Harmony, an alumnus of HBCU Alabama State University, where he played the tuba in the marching band, is honored to be a part of elevating a fellow HBCU-making history. “It’s really important to highlight the fact that music is central to the educational experience of a lot of HBCU graduates,” Harmony asserts. “I’m happy to be a part of helping to shed some light on the fact that HBCUs produce brilliance.”
TSU’s Grammy win for Best Roots Gospel Album is one of the many threads that connect them to a fellow Nashville-based HBCU Fisk University, as the Fisk Jubilee Singers won the same category in 2021 for Celebrating Fisk! The 150th Anniversary Album, marking the Jubilee Singers’ first Grammy Award.
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Jenkins and Stephan Naylor, director of bands at Fisk, are longtime friends, with Naylor and members of the Jubilee Singers often visiting TSU to offer their feedback and support while the Aristocrats were making The Urban Hymnal. Both schools are located a mile apart on historic Jefferson Street, which once echoed with the sounds of Jimi Hendrix, Ray Charles, Etta James, and many other legendary voices who used to perform at since-demolished clubs. The students of TSU and Fisk are now the voices that are making history, the root of the bond between the two HBCUs. “The number of gifts and talents waiting to be shared with the world from our HBCUs is unimaginable,” Naylor proclaims. “Historic moments such as this ensure that the Black community is represented in all areas of education and entertainment. The door has been kicked in for other HBCU ensembles to be considered for Grammy Awards. The history and importance of HBCUs have another opportunity to be heard by the masses because of Fisk and TSU. We now have another opportunity to advocate for our HBCUs’ preservation, funding, and elevation.”
“We’re holding on and connecting to our roots deep down in the soil, but we’re at the top of the tree like that new leaf that sprouts that’ll fall and become another one,” Jenkins conveys, calling The Urban Hymnal “legacy work.” “It’s magic on Jefferson Street…the spirit didn’t leave and I think that this is almost part of a renaissance of that spirit because it’s pinpointing right now how much magic is happening in this current moment. You’re looking at it happening in real-time and it shows the world and shows our community here that it hasn’t gone, it’s only grown.”
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