In the past two years, the Howard University Showtime Marching Band has gone through a subtle transformation in the gender makeup of the group. Reflective of the demographics of the University, the band now is 75% female, making it perhaps the only one in the country where women dominate and are transitioning it into something new and different.
Kathryn Boxill has been a part of the band program since 1984. She has served as alumni band coordinator since 2001 and has noticed the shift, especially during the recent MEAC/SWAC Challenge in Atlanta and the HBCU/New York City Classic.
“You would not know whether it is female or a male unless they take off their hats. It’s all about showmanship, style, and marching,” Boxill says.
Georghette Conaway is one of the many freshmen in the band. “I grew up in the South and have always loved marching bands," professes Conaway, political science major from Fairfield, Alabama who plays saxophone. “As a freshman, [I] don’t necessarily look at [gender makeup] as being a factor. It is like a family, and we are all striving to take advantage of the uniqueness,” she say.
Kelvin Washington is in his third year as director of bands and 15 years overall with the band. “We have to recruit students who not only meet the academic requirements, but at the same time they are musically inclined and love being in the band,” he says.
Washington adds that being in the band means more than just being able to play an instrument.
“We have band camp … like football and other sports,” Washington says. “We pride ourselves on being musicians, and, at the same time, they are required to be students in the classroom. And then when you add the demands of travel, it takes special people to meet all those demands.”
The band has performed over the years at numerous high-profile events and venues. But none has been as important as the invitations to perform at the inauguration celebration with Howard alumna, Vice President Kamala Harris.
By having more women, we seem to have better options, better creativity.”
One of the attractions for prospective members of the band is the rich history of successful alumni. During the pandemic, the band, like all other parts of the University, was greatly impacted. The numbers dropped, and it affected performance. Then, in its rebuilding phase, the band received a huge assist from alumni, adds Washington.
One such alum is dean of the Chadwick A. Boseman College of Fine Arts, Phylicia Rashad.
“She is a godsend,” says Washington, without hesitation. “She understands the dynamic of being an artist and student. Her support has been tremendous for this program.”
The roles that were once filled by males has shifted. In fact, the drum major, which was a traditional role for males throughout the history of the band, was filled by a female for the first time in school history last year.
This year’s drum major, Keanu Powell, has been watching the change in the band since his freshman year. “It has been a progressive change,” he says. “By having more women, we seem to have better options, better creativity.”
Edward Hill Jr. is a retired sports information director for Howard University.