Oprah Winfrey. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Jerry Rice. Spike Lee. Samuel L. Jackson. These influential people have all attended historically black colleges and universities and have gone on to become superstars in their respective fields. As a spring 2013 graduate of Norfolk State University—an HBCU in Virginia—I felt energized watching Beyoncé bring HBCU culture to the mainstream through her concert film, Homecoming, which documents her legendary 2018 Coachella performance.
Beyoncé’s Netflix Documentary ‘Homecoming’ Reminds the World of the Importance of HBCUs
Queen Bey shows the world (again) the value of historically black colleges and universities
Revisiting that jaw-dropping performance gave me a deeper appreciation of the spellbinding lifestyle that is a cornerstone for so many black creatives. At a time when people’s acceptance into Ivy League schools is paraded online, Beyoncé became the face and voice of the proud HBCU attendees who need to remind America that this culture must be protected at all costs. Homecoming also opened the door for the next generation of gatekeepers and cultural tastemakers.
For many, Homecoming is an introduction to the traditions, energy and details of HBCU life. Wanting to relive her childhood memories of attending the Battle of the Band competitions that took place at Prairie View A&M University near her hometown of Houston, Texas, Beyoncé recruited a large ensemble of musicians and dancers from marching bands at Southern HBCUs.
The Battle of the Bands events that occur primarily in the Deep South are not your typical marching-band face-offs. They have a unique energy, and spectators get to fall in love all over again with the music they grew up listening to. Each band gives the people a show worth their money with performances full of personality, swagger and soul. While the competitions are often judged by experts, many feel that the real judges are the fans in the stands.
Looking for a break from studies? Need something to look forward to on a weekday? Then the student activity building is the place to be on Thursdays and Fridays. During my years at NSU, the Student Government Association hired a DJ to create a party atmosphere. It was the perfect opportunity to dance away stress and for the fraternities and sororities to showcase their signature dance moves known as “strolls.” But the icing on the cake of an HBCU campus experience is homecoming, which is the cultural moment Beyoncé pays the most attention to.
Homecoming typically kicks off on a Friday. When I was at NSU, the first sign of homecoming was when the student activity hour was flooded with not only students but also alums dressed to impress while scoping the energy of the campus. Food trucks would show up, and carnival companies would set up inflatable obstacle courses for the local children who came to enjoy the scene with their parents. Special dance competitions were held, and party promoters got the word out about events happening that evening. Unauthorized beverages circulated, #squadgoals photos were snapped and everyone enjoyed the beautiful weather as the DJ created a nostalgic vibe through his music selections.
From football games to huge tailgating parties hosted by the Greek organizations, an HBCU homecoming is a celebration people look forward to, with alumni coming back year after year.
Above all else, Beyoncé’s Homecoming brings this kind of experience in front of a global audience via Netflix. Beychella was a once-in-a-lifetime event that many of the people involved with the show will cherish forever. Just ask Alex Blake and Jamal Josef, two of the show’s performers.
Prior to joining Beyoncé at Coachella, they both accomplished some major feats in their young lives. Blake was part of a traveling production called DrumLine Live, a show that features an ensemble of 40 to 45 musicians dressed in HBCU marching band uniforms to put on a “halftime show” in the HBCU tradition, with music ranging from swing, gospel and jazz to funk, R&B and hip-hop. Meanwhile, Josef has worked on many great projects such as LeBron: The Musical, Saturday Night Live and season one of NBC’s World of Dance.
“The people are the ones who make the experience. I’ve been performing since I was a kid and I’ve done it at big competitions". The Brooklyn bred drum major went on and said, "I even actually did Coachella the year before.”
Josef, a graduate of Voorhees College, brought some of his Greek flair to the performance, adding some of the moves and steps he perfected as an Alpha Phi Alpha brother. Wanting to be in tune with the kind of stepping associated with the “Divine Nine”—a nickname for the national black Greek organizations—he collaborated with fraternity brother Joe Brown to create a routine of dance moves for Beyoncé to perform.
Greek organizations aren’t allowed to wear letters while doing stuff like Coachella or being in movies such as Stomp the Yard. We tried to keep the step moves authentic without taking too much from the actual Greek traditions.
- Jamal Josef
What Beyoncé reveals about the black experience and HBCU culture made me feel proud to be an alumnus of an HBCU institution. It reminded me of the superb job my school did educating me and teaching me life lessons that will help me reach success at every stage of my career. Her exhibition of determination, resilience and strength are among the reasons she is considered an icon of this generation. But her revealing how the world needs to protect HBCUs is a living testament of the prize we won. That ultimate prize is knowing in your mind that you are the walking embodiment of greatness because you are surrounded by it.
I’m thankful for the experience of attending an HBCU and witnessing so many extraordinary creatives grind it out to get to the top. Beyoncé herself is proof that my theory of foreseeing success in life is an accurate one, and the theory is that there’s “beauty in the struggle.” If you trust your process and trust your journey, then you will reap the benefits one day.
Beyoncé and her talented musicians demonstrated this to everyone, while reminding the future of black creators that they must continue to live out what actress Danai Gurira says in a sound bite featured in the documentary:
“The youth need to see greatness reflected in our eyes. Go forth! Let them know it’s real.”
Let us march on until victory is won.
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