The steady echo of drum beats and shouting could be heard from blocks away. Curious onlookers saddled up to the park fences to watch the marching band, through headaches and the searing hot sun, perform in all their syncopated madness.
The Empire Marching Elite (TEME) band practiced in Saint Andrews Playground, located on Atlantic Avenue and Saint Andrews Place, on Saturday, August 1 and then with the support of Community Board 3, performed live music on the Black Lives Matter Fulton Street mural as part of a series of events to entertain the community.
Big Apple Leadership Academy for the Arts (BALAA) is a non profit organization founded last year dedicated to keeping the arts alive in underfunded and classically disadvantaged communities free of charge. They’re five main cultural, musical, educational, art, and dance programming targets children, women, men, and adults of all ages.
“This is not just a marching band, it’s a program if you don’t know how to read music, if you don’t know how to play an instrument, come and we will teach you,” said Marcette Lynch, Flag Instructor of TEME.
The TEME marching band, under the BALAA tutelage, consists of a complete horn section, tuba players, drumline, dancers, and flag twirlers who are primarily Black or Brown students. It is designed to encourage a sense of empowerment and pride through music.
The program is currently fundraising money for new instruments and uniforms, and are in dire need of financial support due to the COVID-19 crisis.
The band was once housed and supported by Dr. Susan S. McKinney Secondary School of the Arts on Park Avenue, which lent or donated all of the current instruments TEME uses.
Will Hylton, performance art director and co-founder of BALAA and TEME, was a band director at McKinney Secondary School when the idea came together for building a full after school marching band that incorporated enrichment and mentoring as well as instruction.
“We’re in the process of looking to get a permanent space because before we were housed at McKinney, but because of the COVID crisis we can’t be housed there anymore. We’re looking for a place, we can be socially distanced, and still get all of our programs up and running,” said Hylton.
Despite these financial struggles the band’s participating kids and teens, parents, and leadership continue to practice and perform outside or wherever allows enough distanced space for the entire ensemble.
“It actually ended working out for us in the end because now being that school’s about to come back performing arts isn’t going to be a top priority as far as them keeping it in the schools,” said Legend Parker, director of percussion and assistant director of Performing Arts at BALAA. “So kids need another place to go to get that kind of instructional training or that opportunity to do what you love.”
Friday and Saturday are usual rehearsal days. In between calisthenics and a strong sense of structure in every command and music note, the adolescents get a chance to socialize in-person with friends which can certainly be a rarity during COVID.
Mahli Mathias Sr., co-founder of BALAA, said that the band gives children something to put their heart and energy into. The arts, he said, take their minds off the negativity around them because it’s a family affair.
“Any form of art is important for our youth. People express themselves in different ways,” said Community Board 3 District Manager Henry Butler, “For these kids it’s probably through music and helping them get through these challenges that none of us have been through before.”
Butler said even with the devastation to the budget, if kids can participate safely in the arts it should be kept and supported.
Jada John, executive director of BALAA, said,“Our mission is not just to give them something to do but teach them traditional style [Historically Black College or University] HBCU marching arts in hopes that they are able to pursue and acquire scholarships.”
At least three students have been awarded so far in the year the nonprofit has been established.
“It became obvious that while we have many talented children in New York City many of them never make it to programs because their parents can’t afford it, and so my goal, was to create programming in the inner city in a way that their families can afford to send them and giving them the same quality,” said John.
She said she has mixed emotions as an educator about the school’s reopening because certain subjects require an in-person presence to learn. She does, however, understand the risk. “You can’t go over to their desk and crouch over and help them with a particular problem in this environment,” said John. “Dead smart children don’t benefit anyone, sick smart children don’t benefit anyone.”