Nikole Roebuck Becomes First Black Female Band Director at Grambling State University

Grambling State University (GSU) in Grambling, Louisiana announced the appointment of Dr. Nikole Roebuck as the new Department of Music chair and director of bands beginning June 1. Roebuck will be the first Black woman to lead the band program at the historically Black university. She will also lead the critically acclaimed and internationally known Tiger Marching Band, which was founded in 1926. Grambling’s President Rick Gallot said Roebuck is the ideal candidate to lead the band, stating that “Dr. Roebuck is one of our most dedicated and humble leaders and a proven gift to our students, community and all who support the world-famed sound of Grambling,” according to KNOE News 8.

Roebuck has served as GSU’s assistant band leader for the past 12 years. Under her tenure, the band has performed on ESPN, for the NBA, at presidential inaugurations, and for national brands. The high point of Roebuck’s career is a recent collaboration between Beyoncé and Adidas, in which the marching band made an appearance. In April, Beyoncé held a launch party for the clothing collaboration, and the Grambling dance team was chosen to perform at a private event with Beyoncé, according to WBRZ.

Roebuck’s duties will be varied. The Grambling Department of Music offers more than 100 majors, and 14 faculty, seven adjunct and seven full-time staff. Areas of concentration include liberal arts, music education-instrumental, and music education-vocal. Although Roebuck will be the first female band director in Grambling’s history, she is not the first at a historically Black College and university (HBCU). In fact, she is the second female band director in the Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC). Roebuck is part of a fairly recent trend of hiring women to direct marching bands, a role traditionally reserved for men. Tomisha Clark was appointed director of bands at Clark Atlanta University in 2017, and Dr. Kerry Anne Simon assumed the same role at Mississippi Valley State University in May 2019.

A native of Minden, Louisiana, Roebuck received her undergraduate degree in Music at Grambling in 2001. While attending Grambling as a student, Roebuck served as a section leader drill sergeant and student director of the band. She received her Master’s of Music from the University of Louisiana at Monroe in 2005. Her doctorate in music education was earned at the University of Memphis in 2009, according to HBCU Sports.

Black marching bands have a prominent place in HBCU iconography and are a staple feature of halftime concerts at sporting and homecoming events. Unlike the formulaic style of traditional marching bands, Black marching bands have infused their routines with R&B, funk, soul, and, most recently, with hip-hop infused melodies, dance steps, and formations. Although Black men have been prominently displayed as band leaders and directors, Black women have also been essential in shaping this tradition.

In addition to the traditional brass, woodwind, and percussion elements, Black marching bands have reimagined the role of the majorette, which refers to the women who walk in front of the band twirling batons and dancing. The majorette is an important and iconic space from which Black women have shaped and profoundly influenced this tradition — most recently on display in Beyoncé’s Coachella performance, Homecoming. These all-female troupes infuse the energy of the live performances of Black marching bands with West African, jazz contemporary, and hip-hop choreography.

An integral part of the marching band experience, the hip-hop majorette has become a catch-all phrase to describe a tradition which precedes the hip-hop era and dates back to the 1960s. Initially limited to viewership at HBCU games, the advent of television altered the playing field and gave greater exposure to these dancers. Alcorn State University in Lorman, Mississippi was one of the first colleges to debut majorettes; their Golden Girls dressed in bright gold outfits at the Orange Blossom Classic in 1968. Perhaps the best known are the Dancing Dolls from Southern University in Louisiana, who made their debut in 1969 and pioneered the “setting” movement, which involves putting down the batons in a sitting motion. This style has also been described as balletic. They privilege port de bras or arcs and struts and other forms of balletic movement.

This style contrasts with that of the Jackson State’s J-Settes, who prefer a more explicit, flat footed movement. They pioneered the “buck,” which is a movement in which the pelvis is thrust forward and is viewed as sexually suggestive. Bucking is an inversion of twerking. These innovations in the style and form of the marching band have been essential in exposing these forms to wider national and international audiences, according to BuzzFeed News.

About the Author

Stephen G. Hall is a sections editor for The North Star. He is a historian specializing in 19th and 20th century African American and American intellectual, social and cultural history and the African Diaspora. Hall is the author of A Faithful Account of the Race: African American Historical Writing in Nineteenth-Century America and is working on a new book exploring the scholarly production of Black historians on the African Diaspora from 1885 to 1960.