TSU’s Road to the Grammys: AOB game changing album brings Black History Month full circle, adds mystic to Music City and beyond

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (TSU News Service) – Gospel music has the power to inspire change, unite communities, and serve as a voice for the marginalized. Oftentimes, the concept behind a soul stirring song or project can be just as profound. As the case for Tennessee State University’s Aristocrat of Bands Grammy-nominated album. It all stated from an idea written on a napkin. 

In February 2022, Professor Larry Jenkins, assistant band director for the Aristocrat of Bands, met with Sir The Baptist to brainstorm ideas about what’s next for the world-renowned AOB.

L-r : The Urban Hymnal was executively produced by, Assistant band director professor Larry Jenkins, AOB Band Director Dr. Reginald McDonald, platinum recording artist, TSU alum Dubba-AA. Grammy award-winning songwriter and artist Dallas Austin and two-time Grammy award-nominated songwriter and artist Sir the Baptist

The two-time Grammy award-nominated songwriter and artist liked everything Jenkins shared during their meal. In this musical meeting of the minds, the concept for the album was born on a napkin from a Mexican restaurant. 

“It just hit me, we should do a whole album,” Jenkins said to Baptist.

His response: I was waiting on you to say that.

Fast forward a year later, Baptist is a TSU alumnus and AOB is going to the Grammys after being nominated for their 10-track album The Urban Hymnal in the Best Roots Gospel Album category. They are the first collegiate band in the history of the Grammys to receive a nomination. 

Jenkins, who is a co-executive producer of the album, said this accomplishment will change the trajectory of Nashville’s Music City reputation. 

“You have an HBCU band doing an album … which is something that has never been done to this capacity,” Jenkins said, noting that this opportunity was a cultural shift. “I hope this sparks another resurgence of the impact and importance of music. Not just Nashville, but north Nashville and Jefferson Street and how legendary this air is here.”

Jenkins is referring to the historic aspect of Jefferson Street and its longevity of cultural African American music. Not even a mile away from TSU, is the reason why Nashville has been coined as, ‘Music City.’

The Urban Hymnal album cover. (Photo by Garrett Morris)

The Fisk Jubilee Singers, founded in 1871, performed in front of Queen Victoria. A performance that established Nashville as a musical hub and contributed to the city’s reputation as a center of musical excellence. 150 years after being founded, the Jubilee Singers won their first-ever Grammy Award in 2021.

“We call Jefferson Street the Grammy mile,” Jenkins said. And AOB being nominated for a Grammy in the category of Best Gospel Roots, the same category as Fisk Jubilee Singers, isn’t a coincidence. “Being a mile away from each other with so much history being packed into the biggest musical organization on both campuses is amazing.”

TSU alum Aaron ‘DUBBA-AA’ Lockhart, a platinum recording artist, and one of the executive producers for the album, said this award will mean more to just the university. “This is a cultural award for Nashville in itself. This will solidify Black music in the city,” Lockhart said.  

“Starting off at Fisk and ending off with TSU … this is something the culture needs.” Lockhart said he looks forward to honoring this award for ‘the roots that birthed us,’ and ‘being able to pass the torch,’ to future music students, AOB members and beyond.

Music education in many schools and institutions often prioritize the study of Western classical music, something that may result in a lack of cultural relevance and diversity in music. AOB band director, Dr. Reginald McDonald, who is also a co-executive producer for the album, said there is rich musical history and R&B moguls that orientated right in the heart of north Nashville.

TSU drum major, trumpet soloist Curtis Olawumi during a Fall 2022 performance. (Photo by Aaron Grayson)

“There is more to the city of Nashville and the state of Tennessee than country music,” McDonald said. “For Tennessee State University’s AOB to have produced an album to tie together two of the biggest music genres within the African American community, (gospel and HBCU marching bands) is extremely significant,” he said.

“You start bringing awareness and bringing on the Black music scene.”

Currently, there are more than 280 AOB members. Bringing a Grammy back to Tennessee will be yet another one of the Aristocrat of Bands historic accolades, and a great way to kick off Black History Month.

The Grammys will take place this week, Sunday, Feb. 5, at the Crypto.com Arena in Los Angeles, California. Listen to The Urban Hymnal album on all music streaming platforms such as Apple Music, YouTube, and or Spotify.