NEW YORK—In East New York, there is a children’s marching band that has performed with celebrities such as Mariah Carey and The Sugar Hill Gang; they play at national competitions, the U.S. Open, and have traveled to Senegal, Gambia, and Panama. Yet, good grades are the sole criteria for joining.
“Let’s go! Start your homework!” said Kenyatte Hughes, a former Marine-turned-director of Soul Tigers, a Brooklyn-based nonprofit marching band.
Eyebrows furrowed, Hughes, 39, walks slowly through J.H.S. 292’s yellow-walled practice room, adorned with trophies and photos from their 2010 Gambia trip. There is a mandatory one-hour homework time before they can touch the instruments.
“We got to have a safe place for the kids,” said Betty Gibbs, a spindly woman of 77 who is the assistant manager.
She and Hughes have been nurturing children in East New York for the past 13 years, checking report cards, buying lotion, and bringing the older ones on college campus tours.
It is pertinent that the 47 band members, who vary in ages 8 to 18, meet for four hours a day, six days a week, for they live in a neighborhood where walking down the street next to their school could lead to a violent confrontation.
The Soul Tigers lost a former member to a gang: 18-year-old Dashawn Cameron died from a torso stab while getting dinner at a Domino’s Pizza in 2014.
According to community board meeting minutes, Inspector Peter Simonetti said there are several divisions of the Bloods and Crips gangs in East New York.
“You got 30 Bloods over there, and 30 Crips over there,” said Andrew Duhaney, 21, a Soul Tigers section leader who has lost seven friends to gang violence.
Places to Go
Put simply, the band keeps kids off the streets—keeping the older children too busy to get involved with gangs, and setting a good foundation for the younger ones.
According to a statement from a NYPD Youth Service officer, kids join gangs for a sense of belonging, protection, and money; Soul Tigers provides an alternative to all of the above.
Duhaney, a slim, good-humored young man of 21, first joined the band when he was in the sixth grade. It was a difficult period of his life.
In 2002, Duhaney moved from Jamaica to East New York to live with his father, although he had only seen him a handful of times. It was not easy to develop a relationship overnight, especially when his father had a new wife and newborn child.
Duhaney would misbehave in class, and the teachers, knowing he was in the Soul Tigers band, would call Hughes. Next thing he knew, Hughes was in the classroom reprimanding him in front of the whole class.
Duhaney laughs about the chiding today and said Hughes’s effort to look after him made a significant impact on his life.
Not to mention, the band took Duhaney out of East New York and into other places during performances, like an NBC studio in Washington, D.C.
“I knew that this band was going to take me to places I never would have gone otherwise in the ‘hood,” he said.
He didn’t have enough money to go, so he’s taking a year off to save for tuition. He works in construction from 9 p.m. to 10 a.m.—only to get up in time to volunteer at Soul Tigers band practice from 3:30 p.m. to 5:45 p.m.
“Band is like another home,” he said. “I used to cry when I couldn’t go to band.”
Shemar Stephens, 17, seconded that statement. “Even when I cut school, I wouldn’t cut band,” said Stephens, who grew up with the band and is also currently volunteering.
He plans on going to University of Maine to study music and art.
Lack of Funding
Hughes and Gibbs try to help out with the students’ tuition when they can, but it hasn’t been easy.
There were times when Hughes went home to a dark apartment because he sacrificed his rent and utilities money to repair snare drums, so that students could learn discipline in a fun way.
“Ms. Gibbs and I see a lot of hard times here to make sure these kids get to have what other kids have,” Hughes said.
“It’s fun. You get to learn an instrument,” said Nicholas Fonsesca, 11, a member of Soul Tigers.
But the instruments are costly. One set of pearl drums is $13,000.
For the past six years, through discretionary funding, City Council has been reimbursing Hughes $30,000 a year for the money he has spent on the band, but only after he spends it.
“We’ve done all this with little or no funding at all,” Hughes said. “Just imagine what we could do with funding.”
During large performances, Hughes invites the high school students who get too busy to attend daily practice, and their group can add up to 100.
He said he keeps in touch to “push them out” of East New York and into college.
Every year, Hughes takes a group of the older ones to visit universities. “We’re the babysitters, the surrogate fathers,” he said.
Earlier this month, Hughes took 15 students on a college visiting trip to Clark Atlanta University, Georgia State, Morehouse College, and Spelman College—many of which are Historically Black Colleges (HBC) that gave birth to the culture of drumlines and marching bands.
Later this month, he’s planning another trip to take the teenagers to Ivy League schools such as Yale and Princeton, as well as more HBC’s.
Such trips can be costly. Hughes is paying $1,900 for transportation and $900 for hotel. For the two-day trip, he only asks the parents to pay $200.
It’s worth the money, he said, as he flipped through one of their annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade photo albums, pointing to all the band members who left to go to college.
“It’s motivating. They make us think about our future rather than short-term goals,” said Precious Joseph, 18, who currently teaches the cymbal section. She joined Soul Tigers when she was 11 years old.
Joseph plans on studying forensic science at SUNY in Albany.
“It helped me with my anger. I got angry over everything when I was a kid,” she said of her involvement in Soul Tigers.
“I have a seventh-grader. She turned her life around with the Soul Tigers,” said Tyisha Graham, a parent whose daughter had attempted suicide before joining the band.
Fun, Cultural Education
One of the reasons the band is so attractive to children is that it provides an opportunity to see the world.
In 2010, Hughes took 10 children on a West Africa trip to Senegal and Gambia, a trip paid for by a celebrity charity auction.
In Gambia, they visited Juffure, the village where the protagonist from “Roots: The Saga of an American Family” was born.
Hughes is currently working on raising $25,000 to take 13 students to South Africa. “We talk about how music and the arts affected the civil rights movement, how it affected apartheid,” he said.
After homework hour is over, a flurry of scrambling ensues. The children get out their drums: snare, bass, tenor—whose beats are attenuated by the bright clashes of cymbals. Young dancers line up with their red feathery pompoms.
The children are preparing for a competition on Feb. 28 at the C-PAC Performing Arts Center in Flatbush.
Gibbs, the 77-year-old assistant manager, goes around asking each child and teenager how his or her day is going.
“Some kids have issues at home. They come in with a bad attitude,” she said. “We have to clear that up and talk about their problems.”
She stops to march with the cymbalists. Gibbs seems out of place at times, especially when R&B artist Usher blasted in the background during bathroom break. “You have to keep the kids interested,” she said.
Hughes and Gibbs are very dedicated, for they do not get paid.
Gibbs relies on her retirement pension while Hughes makes a small salary from running other after-school programs.
“Anybody who is educating kids understands the payoff is not in the check,” said Hughes, who is 30 credits short from a bachelor’s degree in business and communications. “It’s to see the kids doing better than you are doing or have done.”