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How marching bands became tools for cultural and political expression

“March On,” a new exhibition at the Storefront for Art & Architecture, dives into the history of marching bands in African American culture

Marching On Performance. Commissioned by Storefront for Art and Architecture. Presented with Performa and Marcus Garvey Park Alliance. Marching Cobras of New York. Curated by Bryony Roberts and Mabel O. Wilson. 2017.
Jenica Heintzelman

This month, Beyoncé took to the stage twice at Coachella, backed by a drumline and brass band. Being a Beyoncé production, the performance and musicianship were spectacular.

But, #Beychella transcended mere festival spectacle to become one of the most expressive moments of black culture so far this year. Beyoncé not only riffed on a longtime tradition of marching bands at historically black colleges and universities; she was in dialogue with centuries of black musicians who used marching bands to fight for their rights and establish creative space.

“Marching On,” a performance piece and exhibition at the Storefront for Art & Architecture explores the relationship between race, public space, and marching.
Jenica Heintzelman

Throughout U.S. history, marching bands have been evocative tools of black-American cultural and political expression, and the bands have evolved from their military roots to become vehicles of civil disobedience during Jim Crow segregation—and as a way to reclaim space in today’s anxious era of mass surveillance.

A new exhibition at the Storefront for Art & Architecture examines how that came to be. Curated by Columbia University architecture professors Mabel O. Wilson and Bryony Roberts, Marching On: The Politics of Performance investigates the relationship between race and public space through the lens of black marching bands.

“People think that parades are innocuous, but the march ‘form’ is very critical,” says Wilson. “In the Civil Rights movement and today with Black Lives Matter, there is always singing, chanting, and percussive sounds. The different marches during Mardi Gras are also making statements in a segregated city on who can be where. There’s more than meets the eye in these performances.”

Marching bands are a beloved tradition at HBCUs, like Florida A&M.
Courtesy Storefront for Art & Architecture

Roberts and Wilson were curious about how marching bands came to be important in African-American communities. They pored over history books and archival sources at Harlem’s Schomburg Center to find out. Their research led them to 19th-century military history and how African Americans served in the armed forces.

While laws prevented black people from carrying weapons, they were allowed to hold musical instruments. Many were assigned to the fife and drum corps—musicians that played small flutes and drums as a way to boost the spirits of fighters, a military tradition that goes back to the Revolutionary War. Members of the fife and drum corps brought what they learned back to their communities where their music became an expression of solidarity and pride. This tradition runs strong today at historically black colleges and universities.

The Tuskegee Institute’s marching band
Courtesy Storefront for Art & Architecture

During the Civil War, weapon laws changed and African Americans were recruited to fight in infantries. But though they fought and died, they didn’t have full rights once the war was over. Marching in uniform became a way to draw attention to injustices under the guise of honoring the military.

The marching band was both a political agent and a costume. Wearing camouflage is typically an act of stealth—it allows someone (or something) to move while drawing as little attention as possible. A marching band—with its elaborate costumery, raucous noise, and pageantry—is the exact opposite: it’s about being seen and heard. But in Jim Crow–era America, marching bands enabled African-Americans to gather in large groups and occupy space.

“Being able to take to the public streets in an act of patriotism, [and] with this act saying ‘I have served in the military, I fought for your rights,’ the parade becomes a kind of camouflage,” Wilson explains. “It’s exuberant and joyous, but it’s making a point about injustice.”

Silent Parade down Fifth Avenue, July 28, 1917
Library of Congress

Take the Silent March of 1917: Over 10,000 African-American men, women, and children dressed in white marched through the streets of Manhattan to protest lynching and racial violence. While they held signs saying “Make America Safe for Democracy” and “We march because we deem it a crime to be silent in the face of such barbaric acts,” there was no chanting, no yelling, and no speaking. The only sounds at the march were military drum beats.

Marching bands evolved with the times, adopting jazz, blues, dance, and hip-hop into their performances, like Beyoncé did when she took to the stage at Coachella. Over four million people live-streamed her performance. And while they definitely came to see her costumes, her dancing, her singing, and her showmanship, they also saw an expression of black pride. And between all the bops, Beyoncé made space for audio clips of Malcolm X and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie speaking about feminism and civil rights. Coachella—and her marching band—were Beyoncé’s camouflage.

Last fall, Roberts and Wilson collaborated with The Marching Cobras, a New York City-based troupe of step dancers and drummers, on a site-specific performance that addresses today’s racial injustices. In a video about the making of Marching On, which appears in the exhibition, Wilson articulates this fact: “To be black and to be in public these days, and walk on a sidewalk, is often seen as a threat.” The piece shows how marching and occupying space is still an effective form of protest.

The dancers file into Harlem’s Marcus Garvey Park dressed all in white, followed by the drummers, who wear Army-green uniforms inspired by the Harlem Hellfighters, an African-American military regiment that fought in World War I. They all wear capes printed with custom camouflage based on the pattern of the paving tiles in the park. A couple of minutes into their performance, they switch from traditional military drumming and marching into more rhythmic beats and dancing; the dancers dressed in white reverse their capes to reveal a vibrant pink, blue, orange, and lavender pattern. (This fabric is draped throughout Storefront’s installation.) They bow to their audience before exiting the park, once again in a single-file march.

The performance shows how marching is an effective medium for political protest by using space, music, and time to tell a story. To Roberts, the inherent multisensory nature of these performances renders the medium more impactful than a static work of political art.

“What’s powerful about performance is that anything ‘designed’ is inhabited by people that bring the specificity of the moment,” Roberts says. “As a spectator, you’re sharing the moment with the performers and you’re confronting the layers of life in the city you’re in. That moment can be powerful.”

The Marching Cobras, a band and dance troupe from New York, created a site-specific performance in Harlem’s Marcus Garvey Park for “Marching On.”
Jenica Heintzelman
The drummers performed traditional marching band beats and choreography along with modern ones influenced by hip-hop and R&B.
Jenica Heintzelman

Seeing the 30 performers high-kick, twirl, and promenade through the park, occupying and truly owning the space—and saturating the air with music—is a profound statement when all it takes to get arrested is to be black and quietly sit down at a Starbucks.

“We all think public space is accessible and open, but it’s not true,” Wilson says. “That access to public space has not been there for many, many people. The sense of being able to move freely and that we’re all citizens of the world and have rights to space are no longer true. Marching On is partially about taking to the streets—we’re not supposed to be here, but we will march on.”

Marching On: The Politics of Performance is on view at the Storefront for Art & Architecture until June 9, 2018. Visit storefrontnews.org for more.