Sousaphones, screaming trumpet charts and a drum major to whistle it all into place. That is all that comes to mind when you think of Coachella, right? After Beyoncé’s incredible headliner performance, that may not be totally out of the question.
The superstar made massive waves by becoming the first Black woman to headline the festival. She shared the stage with Jay-Z and Solange, reunited Destiny’s Child and gave her always-poignant historical and political messages. Through it all, Queen Bey was backed by a huge marching band, in an epic nod to the Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) who arguably own the marching band scene. In her inaugural headliner concert, Beyoncé told Coachella that she was there to do her thing, and hers alone.
The HBCU experience is not complete without its impressive marching bands, whose synchronization and sound add as much life, if not more, to a football game as the athletes. The band in Beyoncé’s set, clad in yellow sweatshirts with a “Beyoncé University” coat of arms, gave her songs new energy and brought New Orleans jazz flair, big band swing and ferocious stomp, as well as the flamboyant discipline that only a marching band possesses. A dozen tubas thudded the bass lines while crisp, pitch-perfect trumpets and trombones sang out her melodies and the drumline shook the festival grounds. Even the dancers took part, playing the cymbals as they moved. They were later joined by a string section, while Beyoncé performed sensitive work, such as a “Lift Every Voice and Sing”/“Freedom” medley. One of the trademarks of a Beyoncé concert is her willingness to remix her own songs, and the band did just that.
It’s unclear if the band was from one school, or rather pulled from a variety of places, but their performance was cohesive and undeniably impressive. A regular halftime show might last fifteen minutes, and at the end of that, brass players will often rub their lips, remarking about how their “chops are dead,” a common phrase that tells everyone just how hard you played. This band persisted through the nearly two hour set, turning up the volume while Beyoncé, Solange and dozens of yellow-leotard-clad dancers let loose.
Beyoncé’s renowned dance style has long echoed the HBCU-famous “J-Setting” choreography, which takes over the stands at football games. Coachella was no exception. The stage was set up to resemble bleachers, with the band standing at the back and dancers at the front, resembling a color guard, or majorettes. Beyoncé created on that stage a homecoming pep rally, a fraternity rush and a halftime show to put even her iconic Super Bowl performance to shame. She really seemed to bring it all home.
From its beginning count-off to the finale, Beyoncé owned her Coachella performance. And yet, she shared it almost equally with her crew of dedicated and insanely talented dancers and musicians. Beyoncé’s nod to HBCU culture proves, as so many of her actions do, that she is thinking critically about the message that her music tells, but also about what her performances mean. You would be hard pressed to find a band member or former band member who didn’t hear the power onstage and get goosebumps, or who wouldn’t give anything to slam out a bass line behind her.