The Human Jukebox

Southern University Marching Band

My Rouses Everyday, September/October 2017

Tens of thousands of students, alumni and other fans converge on the Mercedes-Benz Superdome each Thanksgiving week for the Bayou Classic, one of the Southeast’s great annual college football games.

And the gridiron battle between the longtime rivals — the Southern University Jaguars and the Grambling State University Tigers — is only part of the show. For many, the school’s marching bands, Grambling’s Tiger Marching Band and Southern’s Human Jukebox, are at least as mighty as the teams that have been meeting on the field each November since 1932.

Lawrence Rawlins, a 1994 Southern graduate and the band director for McDonogh 35 High School in New Orleans, comes from a band family. His older brother, Wilbert Rawlins Jr., who also attended Southern and marched with the Human Jukebox, directs the marching band at L.B. Landry-O. Perry Walker College and Career Preparatory High School; sometimes the brothers will lead their separate bands down St. Charles Avenue in the same Mardi Gras parade. Their love of marching bands comes partly from their musical home — their father, Wilbert Rawlins Sr., played drums for soul singer Irma Thomas for 27 years — and partly from time marching in their own middle-school and high school bands, said Lawrence Rawlins, who played mellophone and French horn.

“When you’re real, real small, you think maybe you’ll be a police officer, an astronaut,” he said. “But by the time I was in junior high I realized I wanted to be a band director.”

That dedication and drive was focused even more by his time in the Human Jukebox band, and the lessons he learned there still help him in his classroom today. “It’s the discipline,” he said. “One of our mottoes was ‘Be in the right place at the right time with the right equipment, ready to work.’ And ‘If you’re early, you’re on time. If you’re on time, you’re late.’ And the culture. We had some brilliant, brilliant instructors and upperclassmen keeping it in line. It’s like a fraternity.”

By the time classes start for normal Southern students, band members will already have been on campus for two weeks of “grueling, all-day rehearsals,” said Nathan Haymer, today’s Southern University band director. “That’s how we get in shape,” he said. It doesn’t end with band camp; members must also attend practice for about three-and-a-half hours daily, he said, while maintaining at least a 2.0 GPA with a full course load and also being available to travel on the band’s busy schedule. That’s not just for college ballgames; the Human Jukebox regularly gets invited to appear at NFL games and other special events, including three presidential inaugurations, five Super Bowls and in two Spike Lee films over the years, plus international appearances like a 2011 trip to Morocco and Nigeria.

The Human Jukebox’s rigorous work ethic and vibrant culture have made it one of the most celebrated university marching bands in the world. At the beginning of 2014, the National Collegiate Athletic Association ranked it at number two in the country, behind only Ohio State University. A few years before that, the group’s hyped-up, high-energy marching choreography was praised in a long feature story by the New York Times’ dance critic. The band played the NFC Championship game that, in 2010, sent the Saints on to the Super Bowl; perhaps more poignantly, they played at the Superdome in 2006, when the Saints returned for the first time since Hurricane Katrina. The Human Jukebox appeared prominently in a 2013 music video by the pop trio the Jonas Brothers, and was billed alongside legendary DJ Mannie Fresh for a 2017 NBA All-Star Weekend party thrown by Solange Knowles’ Saint Heron brand, in partnership with Nike and artist Brandan “BMike” Odums. On social media platforms like Instagram, Facebook and SoundCloud, they have tens of thousands of followers — more than some rock stars.

And indeed, they play like rock stars, with a repertoire befitting their name. The staff keeps up with popular hits, listening to the radio and consulting with students to choose hot, current songs to add to their roster along with the classics. (A video of the band playing Adele’s “Hello” garnered over one million views on YouTube; tributes to Prince and Michael Jackson have also gone viral online.)

“It’s nothing for us to play the latest rap tune and turn around and play ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ by Queen,” Haymer said. “And then some Earth, Wind and Fire, and then a gospel tune, all in one setting.”

“We play it all,” said Haymer. “That’s why it’s called the Human Jukebox.”

Haymer took the reins of the band officially in 2014 after eight years as assistant director, having studied with and worked with both Dr. Isaac Gregg and Lawrence Jackson, former directors who are credited with shaping the band’s unique, electric style and image. He’d studied at Southern himself — and played in the band — as part of a long-held goal.

“My goal since I was seven years old was to be the band director at Southern University,” he said. His peewee soccer team practiced on Southern’s campus, he explained, on a field right next to where the band rehearsed.

“My coach had to keep running over [to the band] to grab me and bring me back to the soccer field,” he said, laughing.

Now, leading a staff of all-Southern alumni, Haymer’s dream has come true. Even after all the preparation, he said, nothing quite prepares you for stepping into the role.

“The job fell on my shoulders with its full weight,” he said. “The legacy is so rich, and so strong.” It was almost overwhelming. But then he realized that, just like when he was marching in the 200-member ensemble, he wasn’t alone. He had his team, and the words of his mentors, and the institution’s long and storied history to bear him up.

“It’s like I’m standing on their shoulders,” he said.