How TSU’s Marching Band Shocked the Grammys With an Album of Gospel, Hip-Hop, and Good Vibes
On the eve of the 65th Grammy Awards, Nashville-based Tennessee State University’s Aristocrat of Bands was in Atlanta to compete at the HBCU All-Star Battle of the Bands against schools like North Carolina A&T, Alabama State, and Bethune-Cookman. The student musicians took the field at Mercedes-Benz Stadium for their turn and, before their high-stepping performance began, they quickly formed into the shape of a Grammy statuette.
It was a mighty flex, but they were certainly the only band in the building who could say they had a Grammy nomination. By the next evening, they had marched themselves into the history books when their 2022 album The Urban Hymnal won Best Gospel Roots Album, beating out heavy hitters like Willie Nelson and the Gaither Family Band in the process. The win made Aristocrat of Bands the first marching band of any kind to earn a Grammy. (They were also part of a second Grammy win for their contributions to J. Ivy’s The Poet Who Sat by the Door in the Best Spoken Word Album category.)
Video of the band members watching the pre-tel awards ceremony is like a hit of dopamine. A large group of students huddles together in front of a huge screen, nervous with excitement. When they hear their name called as the winner, the room erupts into celebration — leaping, hugging, screaming with joy.
“They were so nervous. In the weeks coming up to it, everybody was like, ‘Man, if we don’t win, we still got nominated.’ But now, there’s a fire,” says multi-hyphenate artist-songwriter Sir the Baptist, who co-produced the project with TSU assistant band director “Prof” Larry Jenkins and R&B mainstay Dallas Austin (TLC, Madonna, Drumline).
Sir and Jenkins were still on a wild ride of emotion days after returning from Los Angeles.
“It feels like I’m still in a dream, coming out of the moment,” Jenkins says, seated beside Sir in his office on TSU’s Nashville campus. “You recognize immediately the impact of what happened — culturally, historically — all of those things you recognize right there on sight. You wake up the next day and it’s a regular day but it’s far away from a regular day at the same time.”
“Every morning waking up since then, I wake up to where it feels like my being has been exhausted. It has sprouted,” Sir says. “It feels like every morning I’m able to look at a sprout.”
The Urban Hymnal was a labor of love for Sir and Jenkins. Sir approached Jenkins in 2019 about coming to watch the band perform at school, and Jenkins subsequently recruited him for an artist-in-residence program. Together they hatched plans for an album involving the sizable student band and started repurposing old spirituals as a history lesson in gospel music.
Sir called up friends and collaborators from the Christian music world including Jekalyn Carr, Fred Hammond, and Kierra Sheard to provide vocal contributions. Including the band, he estimates a thousand people were involved. Recording the 200-plus member band was no small feat — Sir had to manually move a microphone around the room to capture and highlight different instrumental sections while Jenkins conducted. Students often stayed late in the evenings after class and rehearsals to lay down their parts. Sir bought cameras and learned how to edit video to help with grassroots marketing efforts. When funding from the school ran out, Sir chipped in from his personal savings.
“It was a lot of working together and then surviving together,” Sir says. “HBCUs are so underfunded. College life is already hard. To go to an HBCU and to be alone and have to figure it out on your own, every dime, that’s harder. And to have some people randomly telling you that you’re gonna achieve something that doesn’t seem possible, that’s like, ‘Whatever!’”
The “Gospel Roots” category doesn’t get at the full sonic range of The Urban Hymnal. There are straight ahead, full-band renditions of “Jesus Loves Me” and “I’m So Glad” — the melody of which is employed in TSU’s school song — but also forays into hip-hop and contemporary R&B with more intricate instrumental arrangements and raps by artists like Dubba-AA. Rhythm sections are underlaid with thumping 808s, tubas are rounded out with electric bass, and synths add new texture to the brass arrangements. Refrains of gospel chestnuts drift through, as with the ecstatic rave-up “Dance Revival,” which ends with an interpolation of “Wade in the Water.” It’s uplifting, contemplative music that connects past and present.
“We were able to somehow dig ourselves into the roots of gospel and find Negro spirituals that survived from generation to generation,” Sir says. “It no longer became a religion thing, it became a historic thing.”
“We’re talking about cultural things important to the fiber of who you are,” Jenkins adds. “In order to make them, ‘relevant’ is a funny word…” “To restore,” Sir suggests. “To ‘restore,’ I like that word. In order to do that, we really bridged the gap between there and the present day.”
Jenkins views their Grammy win as monumental on multiple levels.
“This is something that will go generation to generation to generation and always have cultural relevancy and impact. This is one of the biggest — if not the biggest — wins I’ve ever seen,” he says, pointing out Aristocrat of Bands’ past experiences playing for President Obama and at the Rose Bowl. “To be recognized at the highest level musically by your peers, just really sets it apart from everything. Down the road [at Fisk University], Fisk Jubilee Singers won a Grammy [Best Roots Gospel Album for Celebrating Fisk!] a couple years ago.
“If you think about the history of [Nashville’s] Jefferson Street, Jefferson Street is where Jimi Hendrix used to live. Jefferson Street is where James Brown performed and all of the jazz greats,” he continues. “If you think about the magic that happens in this mile or couple miles on Jefferson Street, two Grammys at two HBCUs, the only two HBCUs in the world to do so — the reason we’re called ‘Music City’ is because of the Fisk Jubilee Singers. For this to happen on what we’ve dubbed ‘the Grammy Mile,’ it is culturally, historically, one of the biggest moments ever for TSU, for HBCUs, for marching-band culture, period. It’s a paradigm shift.”
To that end, part of the proceeds from The Urban Hymnal benefit TSU’s marching band foundation, so the album will continue to provide for Aristocrat of Bands in the years ahead. Sir also made the point about HBCU funding during his acceptance speech in Los Angeles and hopes this Grammy win can bolster TSU (and other HBCUs) for upgraded band facilities, musical gear, and uniforms. HBCU marching bands, though highly individual in character, are often the most visible components of their schools. “There’s a phrase we use here, we call it ‘the window to the university,’” Jenkins says.
Both Jenkins and Sir are struck by the magnitude of the achievement, including their struggle to get it across the finish line and keep its many individual pieces moving forward in harmony. They can’t help but feel like it was touched by something divine.
“My mom was like, ‘You got up there and you didn’t thank God,’” Sir says. “I said, ‘Well mom, God knows, because he got us there.’”