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A Few Reflections on Robert Champion’s Death, Hazing and HBCU Bands

Those who know me know that my life has several different streams to it – I’m a band director, choir director, DJ, emcee, graffiti artist, been a dancer, been in marching band, member of a black greek fraternity, Christian apologist, small-time conference speaker and a few more things. The people I get exposed to allow me an opportunity to ‘examine life’ in light of other things. This is why I’m perfectly at home discussing reformed theology with a bunch of people who don’t look like me, don’t have my cultural background and I’m equally at home discussing most aspects of 70’s-90’s black urban culture including the origins of hip hop.

So this is one of those ‘stream crossing’ moments.

Robert Champion, freshmen drum major at Florida A&M University, passed away over a month ago immediately after the Florida Classic. That evening, twitter and everyone’s FB page was alight with speculation (later confirmed almost to the letter) that hazing was the cause of his death. The band director, longtime (since 1973) faculty member Dr. Julian White, has been served a termination letter for “gross misconduct and/or incompetence in handling confirmed reports of hazing” in the music department and specifically in the FAMU Marching “100” (the name of the band).   Dr. White’s lawyer has shot back with 150+ pages of documentation showing that White wasn’t the one dropping the ball on handling hazing allegations – it was the university. He also demanded that the letter be rescinded.

Meanwhile, it seems like everyone put their beef aside for a day to lay Robert Champion to rest.

To properly frame this, a little education may be in order for those whose conception of  band members is ‘band geek’ or some random throwaway line from American Pie.

At most historically black colleges and universities like FAMU, the band is revered either as much as or more than the football team, basketball team or any of the athletics. Unlike most white colleges and universities, HBCU marching bands are, to a point, a fraternity/sorority. People come to football games at most HBCU’s just as much for the bands as for the football teams – in some cases, more.  There is an appreciation among groups, as we all ultimately see ourselves as equals and family based on these shared experiences, no matter which program we marched for.

The work to be a part of the group itself is equal to or greater than any athletic team, physically and mentally demanding and would very easily ‘break’ most of the people who stand back and make jokes based on their limited experience. Making ‘the group’ and doing well at it is a badge of honor that many (including myself) carry and wear proudly. Even at schools with smaller programs (like my alma mater, Bowie State University) during band camp, members train physically at 5-5:30 – 8 before going to breakfast, spend 9 am – noon on the field learning drills and precisions maneuvers to create the great formations you see on the field, eat lunch around noon, hit afternoon rehearsal from 1-5, dinner at 5:30 and then evening rehearsals which incorporate music, field routines, the drill, dance routines and much more until 10-11pm then head to sleep and do it again. So think a bit beyond ‘Drumline’ and ‘American Pie’.

Third, bands like FAMU, SU, GSU and some others travel far and wide around the world. There’s a reason Prince (SuperBowl XLI), Barack Obama (2008), Bill Clinton (1994), and the city of Paris (1989) chose the ‘100’ to come and perform as a part of their festivities or as the main entertainment.  Southern University was chosen during the mid 90’s to represent the US in China. Tennessee State and Texas Southern have travelled to Japan on good will trips (maybe I shouldn’t mention TxSU….old joke). TnSU has also travelled and performed in Switzerland. Morgan State and Bethune-Cookman in the Bahamas. Bowie State University in Canada at halftime for some CFL games. Coming up in just a little under two months is the Honda Battle of the Bands, which fills up most of the GA Dome (which seats a bit over 71,000), draws folk from all over to watch 10 HBCU bands perform…and this is the 10th year of the event.

So these bands are, for the most part, an institution at these schools just as much as any athletic program would be at your average Ivy League school, Big Ten school, etc…

With that, comes long lines of tradition – sometimes spanning over decades.  Incorporated in some of that tradition may be hazing ranging from simple things like instrument cleaning (which in my opinion isn’t hazing…take pride in your section and your group), silly skits for entertainment for older members of the group to verbal abuse to physical abuse (which I definitely disagree with). “We did it…it’s part of the identity of who we are.”

Having pledged a fraternity, I understand exactly how things have developed up to this point. Some of the things we see from the program outwardly (and I’m referring specifically here to some of the visual things we see like people moving in sync almost perfectly, doing certain moves certain ways, etc….) may have been ‘taught’ via hazing.

“This is the way we’ve always done it. When we’re done, you’ll understand why.”

There is the argument that having gone through a ‘shared experience’ (it happened to me, so I understand it, you will too afterward, you’re being brought into a ‘family’), there will be built a feeling of family and the establishment of a line of tradition exclusive to only a few people and YOU will be part of that line of tradition.  This shouldn’t be a hard point to understand, as we see people use this same line of logic with why they have their kids play football (because they played football and credit it with giving them a different perspective on life, helping them to become a better person, etc….).

Human depravity takes a good thing and twists it. Always. There are good ‘hard work’ traditions that should remain in place and be ‘standard’ everywhere. There are life-lessons to be learned in good sports experiences, good music programs, clubs and other organizations as a whole.  The military, as a whole, has codified most of this as basic discipline (attention to details of uniform, learning facial commands, learning to do things together in unison and as a team, physical training to help prepare the body and mind for the tasks of a military life, etc….).  Even in the early days of fraternity and sorority rituals, pledging activities (many of which are now defined as hazing) all had a purpose which related to the individual’s life experience and ultimately proved to be something an individual could look back on and use as ‘fuel for life’. I speak for myself here, reflecting back on many activities (even recently) in which I had to put on a ‘pledge mentality’ and trudge through whatever it was I needed to get done and get it done.

So it’s with great sadness that I see something as useful as a ‘process’ or the concept of a ‘process’ being reduced to a simple tradition of brutality…and all for the purpose of being a member of a certain bus (bus C).  Since the start of this article, Robert Champion’s death has been ruled a homicide and 30+ individuals have been interviewed….charges coming. Dr. White has his job back, albeit he is still on administrative leave without pay.

Dekalb County, where Champion as a drum major at Southwest Dekalb High School, has suspended all marching band related activities at all schools – primarily due to many ties with FAMU and allegations of hazing by parents regarding the student band culture in the district.

A few of us over at The 5th Quarter began some conversations regarding alternate non-hazing ways of having people earn their way/work their way into HBCU bands, learn the traditions and grow an appreciation for the organization. I can definitely think of ways to do this, but appreciation is something that comes with time and wisdom, not simply via a hard entrance process. I know, for example, too many of my frat brothers who ‘pledged hard’ and have gone inactive…but they pledged hard! (eyes rolling). I also know some of my frat brothers who did not engage in a pledge process, but have grown to love the frat just as much as those who came into the organization via a process.

I can’t justify hazing in light of Matthew 5. Apprenticing new members of an organization so that they learn the ins and outs of the organization is a different story.  And even in that process, the dignity of the human being, made in the image of God, must be preserved. The individual must be made to work (for human beings were made to work), but must not be made to feel less than human.

A sad ending (forthcoming with charges) to a sad story.  One man’s life lost, several other lives about to be ruined, a legacy all but destroyed (I’m not the only person who sees a temporary – for YEARS – disbanding of the 100 coming….), dreams shattered, opportunities evaporated, families brought to mourning over something senseless and downright silly in the grand scheme of things.