The story behind the Human Jukebox’s presidential inauguration performance

Kedric Taylor was scrambling.

The Southern University band director found out on a Thursday that the Human Jukebox was selected to perform (virtually, of course) for the 2021 presidential inauguration—and had until the following Tuesday to put the whole production together.

The school was on its holiday break, and the 260 band members were all scattered back to their respective hometowns. So Taylor recruited as many students as he could to get back to campus and wound up with 72 band members.

The group may have been small in numbers but certainly not in sound.

They re-learned the songs, perfected the drill and nailed the video shoot all in one day before sending it off to the Presidential Inaugural Committee to be used during the ceremony.

“I was drawing up whatever we could do with that amount of people in that time,” Taylor says. “It’s a lot of work because to be a cohesive unit, you definitely have to be on one accord. So you practice for perfection. [The students] worked very hard, and just to see the work that they put in and the results they were able to receive from what they put in was nothing short of amazing.”

The Human Jukebox performed two songs for President Joe Biden’s inaugural festivities, both with powerful, purposeful messages.

The first was a song by Maze featuring Frankie Beverly titled “We Are One,” which was also the name of the initiative that allowed Southern to be selected to participate in the inauguration. Several Historically Black Universities and Colleges (HBCUs) participated in the program and applied to be a part of the inauguration day ceremony. Southern was one of just seven universities selected to perform.

Taylor says they chose the song not only because it fit with the program but also because of how impactful the lyrics are in today’s volatile world:

“Can’t understand
Why we treat each other in this way
Taking up time
With the silly, silly games we play
We’ve got our love
And no matter how it’s said or done

We are one no matter what we do
We are one our love will see us through
We are one and that’s the way it is
We are one.”

“The message that we want to send to everyone is we all are here together,” Taylor says. “We all are one, and we can make this place better by being one. So by the theme being ‘We Are One,’ we thought it’d be great for this event that we know a lot of people will see. We just want them to know that, ‘Hey guys, we are all here together.’ Strength is in numbers, and we understand that. So that’s one of the things that we wanted to implement in our show.”

That message was well received. The performance was streamed on President Biden’s official inauguration website, as well as more than a dozen other digital networks.

Taylor says the Human Jukebox received tremendous feedback from the hosts of the event, Louisiana state representatives and countless other members of the local community who saw the performance.

The band even received praise from Grammy-nominated singer/songwriter Charlie Wilson, who re-posted the performance to his Facebook page calling it an “OUTSTANDING performance.”

“To see people saying that they’re in tears and to see people saying that it touched their hearts—that’s what it’s all about,” Taylor says. “And for [Wilson] to retweet it, it meant a lot to us. He’s one of those guys that has been in the game a long time and made a lot of great music. So to have him to put his stamp on something that we’ve done, and that we were able to do it justice for an event of this magnitude [was awesome].”

During the first number, The Human Jukebox went into formation spelling out “JB 46” to honor Biden as the 46th President of the United States.

They then displayed “KH VP” for Vice President Kamala Harris while playing the song “Outstanding” by The Gap Band. It was another hand-selected song that delivered a strong message to the audience.

“That was [us] saying that it’s outstanding for her to be in the position she’s in,” Taylor says. “It’s outstanding to be a woman; it’s outstanding to be African Americans; it’s outstanding to be able to uphold a position like that. She’s outstanding, and everything is outstanding, given the circumstances and where we are and where we’re going. We thought that’d be great to represent the vice president.”

It was the fourth time Southern has been asked to perform at the presidential inauguration. The first was for President Ronald Reagan in 1981, followed by President Bill Clinton’s inaugurations in both 1993 and 1997.

The video the university put together for the 2021 inauguration paid homage to those past appearances, showing old clips from those events as well as a metaphorical passing of the baton from former drum major Terral Jackson Jr. to current drum major Jared White.

“It was kind of like saying, ‘Hey, this is our fourth time being a part [of the inauguration], and each drum major that led the parade was passing the baton to the next one that passed the baton to our current drum major, to lead his virtual experience,” says Taylor, who added that the Human Jukebox’s experience in other big shows helped rid the group of any nerves they had performing for the White House. “Not to sound like we’re bragging or anything, but we’ve been on the big stage a lot. The pressure has always been to be better than our last performance. We try to pride ourselves on being better in the next performance.”