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The Devil’s Redemption: The Rejuvenation of an HBCU Marching Band

By: Jaylin R. Smith, Journalism Graduate Student

Pierre Chatelain, a percussionist for the Mean Green Marching Machine, prepares for the count of the director. Photo by Jaylin R. Smith.

Fi Fie

Fo Fum 

You’re looking down the barrel of the devil’s gun

Nowhere 

To Run
You’ve gotta take a stand against the devil’s gun

“Devil’s Gun,” written by C.J. and Company, a disco band in the 1970s, is the fight song for the Mississippi Valley State University marching band. Echoing across the campus, for some “Devil’s Gun” symbolizes the perseverance of the university during times of racial unrest and social uncertainty. The Mean Green Marching Machine (MGMM), a pioneer for historically Black college and university (HBCU) bands, was founded in 1960 and was the first Black band to be invited to perform at the Tournament of Roses Parade in 1965

Under the direction of Russell Boone the band went on to even more national recognition. In 1968, the MGMM participated in President Richard Nixon’s Inaugural Parade in Washington, D.C. The marching band would make several strides over the next half-century, proving its place as the self-proclaimed “Mack of the SWAC” – an athletic conference for HBCUs.

“We got to play for the President of the United States. We [were the band chosen] to play for the President in the state of Mississippi. I played for President George Bush, Sr.,” Kenneth Wraggs, a 1996 alum of the band, said. 

Challenges

Over the years, with changes in the band’s leadership, fluctuations in the university’s enrollment and economic challenges, the membership of the Mean Green Marching Machine has sometimes struggled.

Information provided by Dr. Sharon Freeman, Assistant Vice President of Institutional Research and Effectiveness at MVSU.

“From 2017 to 2021, admission rates at the university have been at a steady decline which have made band membership rates decline as well,” said Assistant Vice President of Institutional Research and Effectiveness Dr. Sharon Freeman. 

The university measures the number of band members by the number of scholarships awarded each fall semester. In Fall 2017, 127 band scholarships were given to students, but the with the onset of the COVID-19 epidemic, band scholarships declined to 74 members in Fall 2021. 

Melton Harvey, II is the current executive director for the band, He is hopeful that an upsurge is about to occur within the Mean Green Marching Machine. 

“The staff members are working really, really hard. You know, we have the top recruiter of “HBCUdom” on staff, Dr. Bonds. So just learning from him, seeing what he does as a as a director of bands and as it relates to the marching band, it’s yeah, like it’s going to be hot,” said Harvey.

Yet, Harvey knows the band faces challenges. 

“Resource wise, I mean, you know, money is always the best thing to have. It’s really just based off traditions and certain things that are needed or required to move the marching program forward,” Harvey said.

But the biggest issue is getting more players.

“Just getting the numbers back up to where it needs to be. That’s really it. The students have been working hard helping the staff recruit. We’ll go recruiting and we’ll use some of our tactics when we’re out,” said Harvey. 

HBCU Band Culture

As the band plans its return as a force to be reckoned with in the SWAC, one former director of bands at the university says it continues to serve a greater importance to the HBCU culture as a whole. 

“Band is everything. We don’t have an off season. So it’s definitely the entertainment value,” Dr. Kerry Anne Simon said. “It’s also an opportunity for students to go to school and get an education.”

Simon, a member of the Association of Black Women Band Directors, says the band also helps build relationships. 

“Pride is a big thing. Band people have pride for the school and for the band. The band alumni community is very tight knit. You may see someone playing an instrument and then you reminisce on when you used to be in the band. Then you go up to that person and introduce yourself and relive your glory days. That’s a new relationship and a new connection,” said Simon. 

Trenton Williams, a percussionist in the Mean Green Marching Band, has a strong connection with his section at MVSU. 

“My band brothers and band sisters know me just like my real family knows me, maybe even more. When you have struggled with someone and succeeded with them, there is a certain bond that is built. I’d do anything for the my section, and I know for a fact the feeling is mutual,” said Williams. 

Tija Johnson, a former woodwind player in a predominantly Black high school band, also feels that the connection of band sections makes the organization thrive as a whole. 

“We work hard to be the best section. When people think of the music for marching bands they only think of loudness, but the woodwinds are responsible for the intricate details that make you feel the music and not just hear it,” said Johnson. 

Greek Organizations

Band relationships are also often extended through Greek fraternities and sororities. 

Diavionne Ard, a member of the the Gamma Eta Chapter of Tau Beta Sigma National Band Sorority Inc., believes that her organization is vital to the band experience at MVSU.

“It is a group of people who aim to serve the band to the best of our abilities. We always want to make sure that we have a helping hand in how the flow of this band program goes,” said Ard. 

Curtis Bailey, president of the Delta Pi Chapter of Kappa Kappa Psi National Honorary Band Fraternity Inc. at MVSU, says the fraternity is focused on service. 

“[Kappa Kappa Psi] is an organization centered around meeting the needs of the band. The band can be a very challenging time for a lot of students just getting in college for the first time. Our job is ensure that their time in the Mean Green Marching Machine can be as best as possible,” said Bailey. 

As the Fall of 2023 quickly approaches, band leaders and players are working to grow the Mean Green Marching Machine. With the support of Dr. Jerryl Briggs, university president, and community leaders, funds have been raised to fully support the efforts of the marching band. After winning the McDonald’s Gospel Grant Competition of $75,000 and the added support of admissions and recruitment, the band is expecting a very large freshman class this upcoming fall. With hopes to continue its legacy as the “Mack of the SWAC,” Mississippi Valley State University’s marching band is aiming for a redemption story like no other. 

Fi Fie

Fo Fum 

You’re looking down the barrel of the devil’s gun

Nowhere 

To Run
You’ve gotta take a stand against the devil’s gun

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BFopCxUkbqo&feature=youtu.be
Mississippi Valley State University’s Mean Green Marching Band takes Rice-Totten Stadium in preparation for the Fall 2023 marching season. Video by Jaylin R. Smith.

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