Dallas Austin, Sir The Baptist talk TSU marching band collaboration for gospel roots album ‘The Urban Hymnal’

The duo spoke with theGrio about being selected as Tennessee State University artists-in-residence, elevating the national profile of HBCUs and connecting gospel with the youth.

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When Tennessee State University (TSU) Aristocrat of Bands Assistant Director Professor Larry Jenkins approached Sir the Baptist about becoming an artist-in-residence at the university, Jenkins sweetened the pot by inviting Sir to the university’s homecoming game.

Watching more than 350 musicians and dancers marching before him at halftime, Sir “couldn’t stand still” as he was in awe.

I’ve met some of the greats and had a nice, decent career,” Sir told theGrio. “But there’s nothing like this. There’s nothing like an HBCU [Historically Black Colleges and Universities]. It’s nothing like a bunch of young African American, energetic, ready-for-the world musicians coming together and dancers coming together to make a moment.”

After the game, Sir and Jenkins ate at a Mexican restaurant where the plan for their collaboration was written down on a napkin. The goal: to incorporate gospel and contemporary music with the marching band to record and release an album.

The album, “The Urban Hymnal,” drops on Friday. 

“The Urban Hymnal” is a unique amalgamation of TSU’s celebrated, high-octane marching band sound with traditional gospel and spiritual lyricism and vocals, topped off with contemporary R&B/hip-hop production flourishes. Sir would be working with hitmaking producer-composer Dallas Austin, who’s worked with the likes of TLC, Michael Jackson, Boyz II Men and Madonna.

After collaborating for over seven years, the two already had a good working relationship. Sir says the TSU project was the perfect time to unleash what they had been building up to. Sir, Austin and Jenkins spoke with theGrio about the album, the artist-in-residence program and keeping the national spotlight on the importance of HBCUs. 

Obama Host Reception For Nat'l Museum Of African American History And Culture
The Tennessee State University Aristocrat of Bands marching band performs in September 2016 on the South Lawn of the White House during a reception in honor of the opening of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. The famed band is featured on a new album, “The Urban Hymnal,” that dropped on Sept. 16, 2022 and features the marching band sound merged with gospel, R&B and hip-hop. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

This was just an opportunity for us to really show people what we’ve had in our arsenal the whole time,” Sir said of his long-in-the-works collaboration with Austin. “We’ve had plenty of songs together and we were just like, ‘Oh, this is the perfect way to start.’ It’s not about working together, it’s about finding when your work has its place in the world.”

Austin’s marching band experience is extensive, from being part of the culture in his youth to executive producing the soundtrack of the 2002 film, “Drumline.” This was another full-circle moment for him to return to his roots and a chance to “do something we leave at the school” and “make it something that’ll last forever.”

Jenkins’ HBCU experience also runs deep. The TSU band assistant director was part of the school’s marching band when he attended the university in undergrad before moving on to Howard University for his master’s degree. Witnessing some of TSU band’s trailblazing moments, like performing at the White House, Jenkins wants this album to be another milestone. 

“Let’s do something that hasn’t been done,” Jenkins told theGrio. “Let’s push the culture beyond what the scope of the culture looks like. So that’s the space we’re in as well.”

“The Urban Hymnal” features an impressive list of collaborators. Appearing on the album are Fred Hammond, John P. Kee, Kierra Sheard, Take 6 and Louis York, who also contributed to writing and producing. The guest roster was assembled with the help of TSU President Glenda Glover. The university president gave them free rein to select whomever they wanted, but Sir says their collaborators had to meet particular criteria. 

“It was about seeing who fell in love with the project and who wanted to actually give back to HBCUs,” Sir said of the guest vetting process. “Fifty percent of everything that Dallas and I made, we’re giving back to the school. So they also have to understand that the percentages they normally would get, they can’t get this time, they have to give back. And all of these people that you see on here, everybody jumped in and really gave.

Global Citizen - Breaking the Silence: Beyond the Dream
Sir The Baptist performs with Donald Lawrence, Kierra Sheard and the Howard Gospel Choir during the “Global Citizen – Breaking the Silence: Beyond the Dream” concert in September 2017 at Riverside Church in New York City. He has recently collaborated with producer-composer Dallas Austin and the Tennessee State University Aristocrat of Bands on a new album that dropped on Sept. 16, 2022. (Photo by Monica Schipper/Getty Images for Global Citizen)

It’s a ripe time for the TSU band to incorporate spirituals into its music for the new album. Austin feels that the sight of numerous mainstream artists using religion and faith in their music signifies that the youth will be ready to receive the word more readily than ever. 

“I think right now with what Kanye’s doing, DJ Khaled’s “God Did” or Justin Bieber, there’s so many more young people who are getting closer to God than I think they’ve ever been, in my opinion, for music,” Austin said. He noted that the mixture of gospel artists with a contemporary sound and the marching band is what makes “The Urban Hymnal” stand out.

We’ve got contemporary gospel, but this is like sanctified church. This is different. This is taking them back to the roots and that’s why the record sounds so different and special,” Austin explained, adding how important it was to get the guest artists to buy into performing different styles as he and Sir were “taking the hard core parts of each thing and putting them together instead of taking the most commercial parts and putting them together.”

With the new album releasing and TSU submitting it for Grammy consideration this year, HBCUs continue to elevate higher into the public consciousness. Jenkins feels that the schools and students deserve the attention, given the role that HBCUs and the Black church have played in society throughout history.

The HBCU has been such an entity in our communities for so long,” Jenkins said. “Just as a Black church is a center for our community. That’s the place where we would meet up. That’s the place where the family reunion happened. HBCUs are serving that same state socially, with education, with producing so many of our professionals.

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