Like a lot of great projects, the idea for the Grammy-nominated album “The Urban Hymnal” was first sketched out on a paper restaurant napkin.
Gospel songwriter and producer Sir the Baptist had come to Nashville in October 2021 to hear Tennessee State University's Aristocrat of Bands perform during homecoming at the invitation of assistant band director Larry Jenkins.
Baptist “fell in love with the band" at the historically Black university. Later that night, over tacos and pollo enquesado, the two preachers' kids bonded as they discussed a collaboration.
“I was fighting for gospel, and he was fighting for marching band. Right?" Baptist recalled in an interview. “And what all HBCUs have in common is this connection to their roots, which is gospel, right?
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“We said, ‘OK. You know what? This is an essential for our culture. Let’s do it.’”
The record's nomination for best roots gospel album marks the first time a college marching band has been nominated in that category. It is especially significant that the honor goes to an HBCU — a historically Black college or university — where marching bands are often an essential part of the schools' identities and culture.
Tammy Kernodle, a distinguished professor of music at Miami University who specializes in African American music, understands the importance of marching bands at HBCUs from personal experience.
At Virginia State University, an HBCU where she earned her undergraduate degree, the marching band was “the epicenter of student life, especially during football season,” she said. “You went to the game not so much to see the football team as to see the band,” and the halftime show was “the moment where everything stopped.”
Even when there weren’t games, the drumline or horn sections practicing in the evenings formed the soundscape of university life, Kernodle said.
In the culture at large, often HBCU bands are thought of primarily for “the pageantry, the high-stepping style, the dance style,” Kernodle said. But this album “reminds us that a major part of that aesthetic, and what helps define the essence and the uniqueness of that aesthetic, is what these bands play — the musicianship, the range of repertory that they mine, and how they bring a full scope of Black music history to those performances.”
While the instrumental musicians on the album are from TSU, the vocalists include an all-star ensemble of chart-topping gospel singers like Donald Lawrence and Fred Hammond. Together, they perform a range of songs and styles — from a simple instrumental version of “Jesus Loves Me,” to the R&B-inflected “Blessings on Blessings,” to the inspirational pop ballad “Going Going,” with soaring vocals by Kierra Sheard and accompanying melodic rap from TSU alum Dubba-AA.
Some songs are new arrangements of classic hymns. Others were written especially for the album, like “Dance Revival,” which features a foot-stomping, hand-clapping backbeat behind the electrifying voice of Jekalyn Carr. But even that new song finishes with a segue into the old spiritual “Wade in the Water.”
The offerings are so diverse that Baptist, who is himself a voting Grammy member, was concerned the album wouldn't be accepted in the roots gospel category. Asked how they chose the songs, Baptist and Jenkins said they wanted the album to tell a story about Black history.
"These hymnals brought us from slavery to the White House," Baptist said, noting that many Black leaders have also been preachers, like the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
“Even to go from a band perspective," Jenkins added, “in all of our HBCU bands, I promise you, you can go to any game, every HBCU band has a version of ‘I’m So Glad’” — a Christian hymn with the lyrics, “I'm so glad Jesus lifted me.”
“At TSU, we take it a step further. ‘I’m So Glad’ is literally the fight song," Jenkins said (The lyrics are tweaked to “I'm so glad I go to TSU”). "So many of these things are infused into the culture."
Appropriately, it's the song that leads off the album.
The duo also wanted “The Urban Hymnal” to speak to the young students, some of whom are not Christian or were not raised in the gospel tradition.
“I think it’s amazing that we were able to bring rapping to the roots of gospel,” Baptist said. “Because in order to make this more urban, we had to connect it to the students. And if we couldn’t connect it to the students, I don’t think the story would have aligned as perfectly."
One of those students is 21-year-old senior Logyn Rylander, who said she almost cried when she first heard the album. She loves the way it blends old and new while staying true to the spirit and culture of TSU, where she is a music business major and saxophonist in the Aristocrat of Bands.
“Staying original, staying true to yourself: If I’m being fully honest, that’s what being an Aristocrat is about," Rylander said. "We don’t ever switch up what we’re doing because we see another school doing it. We always stay true to who we are. And that’s something the album has allowed us to represent on a global scale.”
Rylander hopes for a Grammy win when the awards are announced on Feb. 5 but said she was “ecstatic” just to be nominated along with her fellow musicians.
“Even if we don’t win that Grammy, we know people saw what we can do," she said. “I look forward to seeing what opportunities come knocking at our door. ... Grammy or not, we’re still going to be the Aristocrats at the end of the day.”