Marice Graham stood backstage of Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas on Feb. 11, 2024, along with 92 other musicians from Jackson State University’s Sonic Boom of the South marching band who were about to perform. The 65,000 screaming fans in the stands roared with an energy that surpassed that of the past 10 days’ rehearsals, when producers used the dark of night to perfect lighting, backdrop and laser cues.

Fingers clenched around the trumpet at her side, Graham lined up, preparing to take to the field. Amid the bustling activity around her, her mind thought of the celebrities among the audience who may be watching. As she told herself she had all the time in the world to center herself and concentrate, her inner earpiece buzzed.

“Hey guys, we have three minutes,” a producer said over the comm.

“Oh my goodness,” she thought, taking a deep breath. “Three minutes, three minutes, three minutes.” In a blink, those three minutes dwindled to 30 seconds. In a blink, those three minutes dwindled to 30 seconds, and the Sonic Boom moved in to find their designated positions on the turf behind the Cirque du Soleil performers.

“Ten,” the countdown started.

The band members were adorned in custom-made blazers with matching pants, sunglasses and chains—an outfit Graham considered more comfortable and breathable than the uniform she normally wore. The blue-and-white patterns on the blazers’ lapels were an homage to “Thee I Love.”

“Nine, eight, seven.”

In front of her, Graham saw men on stilts make final preparations, and one performer proceeded to do a handstand atop another performer’s head. The stadium’s design caused the music they were hearing to echo.

“Six, five, four.”

The trumpeter’s mind briefly flashed to the encouragement that Grammy-award-winning R&B singer Usher Raymond, an artist she and her mother would often listen to in the car, had given the Sonic Boom as they played “Neck” and other arrangements during their rehearsals.

“Three, two,” the countdown continued.

Graham steeled her nerves. She had no need to be anxious. She had been practicing for this performance for months and practically knew it like the back of her hand. All she had left was to execute the fruits of those efforts.

“One.”

The Apple Music 2024 Super Bowl halftime show audio played into her ear, and the lights fell. Usher’s “My Way” began, transitioning into “Caught Up.” Graham watched Usher and the dancers glide across the field, moving from stage to stage as one song fluidly shifted into another. Videographers wearing headsets moved through the crowd, filming from multiple angles.

“We’re really here,” Graham thought.

Nielsen reported that Usher's Super Bowl halftime show, which included the Sonic Boom of the South, performance averaged 129.3 million viewers—the most-watched Super Bowl halftime show on record. Photo by William H. Kelly III/JSU University Communications

Usher went off-script to thank his mother just before leaping on stage with two Nupes to perform a section of “Love in This Club,” with the Sonic Boom of the South, including Graham, playing along and dancing to the music they were all creating together. Graham glanced up mid-show to see herself dancing on screen in the stadium, which she described as both exciting and surreal.

After the Sonic Boom cleared the field, Alicia Keys and Lil Jon took turns performing “My Boo” and “Turn Down for What,” respectively, with Usher. Then, the Mississippi-based band returned to play “Yeah,” the students following their marching drills so that their bodies spelled out Usher’s name for those in the stands to read.

As the show concluded, she and the other band members rushed to the stage and held their instruments high to the sky. Graham’s eyes misted over as the reality of this honor overtook her. The Sonic Boom’s participation in this year’s Super Bowl was a well kept secret from family friends and other band members for months, but many of them had just seen this proud moment on their television screens at home.

The adrenaline wore off, and Graham came back to Earth, soon returning to her hotel room to call her mother and grandmother to discuss the performance. The Sonic Boom traveled back to Jackson, Miss., the following day after the whirlwind experience.

“Honestly, I wouldn’t have had that experience if it wasn’t for the Sonic Boom, and I know that,” the trumpeter told the Crirec a week after the halftime show. “The Sonic Boom just helps make their kids’ dreams come true. Thank God for that and the opportunity.”

Toward the end of the Super Bowl performance, the Sonic Boom of the South band members ran towards the stage, holding their instruments high as Usher ended his performance with “Yeah,” featuring Ludacris and Lil Jon. Photo by William H. Kelly III/JSU University Communications

In January 2021, Graham, a freshman at the time, and the Sonic Boom of the South performed virtually for President Joe Biden’s inauguration. “The president may never get on YouTube and watch videos of what we do in the band and what kind of field shows we march, but being in that required people to notice who our band was and what all we were about,” Graham said.

This year, as a senior, she was able to perform in-person at the Super Bowl during Black History Month alongside Usher, who just received a Lifetime Achievement Award at this year’s BET Awards on Sunday, June 30, 2024. The artist’s latest studio album, “Coming Home,” released on Feb. 9, 2024, two days before the Super Bowl. His “Coming Home” tour sold out shortly after his performance with JSU’s Sonic Boom.

‘The Only Universal Language’

As a child, Marice Graham did not frequently attend sporting events at Jackson State University, despite her mother being an alumna. However, when she was 11 years old, her grandmother won four tickets to a game pitting Jackson State against Florida A&M University. Entering Veterans Memorial Stadium in Jackson, the family could not find many open seats, until a young Graham pointed out some near the Sonic Boom of the South, marking her first encounter with the marching band she would go on to join years later.

“At that age, I didn’t really think about the fact of ‘Why isn’t anyone sitting here?’ And it ended up being reserved seats, but those people never showed up,” she said. “So I just felt like that was God making sure that I felt and heard all of the band to heighten my interest.”

The trumpeter described the Sonic Boom’s sound as being encompassing, like the wind. “It’s everywhere, and it feels that way playing it or listening to it, that you can’t escape from the sound,” she said. “Music is the only universal language of the world. So, being able to reach people on that type of level … nothing is like that.”

Marice Graham compares the Sonic Boom of the South to the wind, their sound is an inescapable force no matter when you are within earshot. She feels the same way about the band’s sound now as she felt when she first heard them at 11 years old. Photo courtesy Jackson State University

After auditioning for and being accepted into the Sonic Boom of the South, Graham decided to enroll at JSU after graduating from high school.

“It’s not always about what the band is playing; it’s about how the band makes you feel,” she said of her choice. “When it came to Jackson State versus other university marching bands, the way Jackson State’s band makes me feel to this day is still the same way it made me feel 11 years ago.”

Through Graham’s years at JSU, the Sonic Boom of the South has received multiple honors and moments of national spotlight—in spite of obstacles the COVID-19 pandemic and the Jackson water crisis presented. Despite those issues, the band still performed, traveled and represented Mississippi and its capital city.

“I think that's what makes the rewards, the accolades and recognition that much sweeter. Everybody doesn’t have to see that side of what we deal with,” Graham said. “When the water goes out, we don’t stop having band practice. We don’t stop having football games. … We have to deal with all of those things while still trying to be the best of the best.”

‘Had To Be Perfect’

Following the September 2024 announcement that Usher would be headlining the 2024 Super Bowl halftime show, executive producer Jesse Collins reached out to friend and entertainment executive Cortez Bryant. Usher had requested a marching band for his act, and Collins asked Bryant if he had any suggestions. The CEO of the Blueprint Group/Maverick and former Sonic Boom of the South recommended Jackson State’s band and sent Collins clips of the group’s performances to show Usher. After getting the go-ahead, Bryant connected with Dr. Roderick Little, director of bands at JSU, to discuss details alongside Usher’s choreographer Aakamon Jones.

“It’s important for HBCUs to be (represented in) these platforms because in general we have a history of excellence, (but) people don’t necessarily know what’s going on in our HBCUs,” Bryant told WAPT.

Sonic Boom of the South Director of Bands Dr. Roderick Little chose 93 band members to participate in the February 2024 performance, deciding based on criteria like attitude, grades and performance. Photo by William H. Kelly III/JSU University Communications

Little accepted his current position in 2020 after an eight-year stint as assistant director. A three-time graduate of Jackson State, he played the snare drum for two years as part of the Sonic Boom and then became a drum major for two years before finishing his bachelor’s degree and later attaining his higher qualifications.

“A lot of people knew about Sonic Boom. However, I felt like more people could know about our program on a national scale,” Little said. “So again, I was charged to make sure that happened.”

When the Mississippi native took over the established program with a deep and storied legacy, his immediate focus went to improving the student experience in the band program. He worked to increase student scholarships and operational budgets so that more students would have opportunities to travel. He also aimed to widen the national footprint of the band program, a goal appearing in a Super Bowl halftime show helps meet.

Marice Graham said the band found out they’d be participating in the Super Bowl in January after the ESPN Band of the Year event in Atlanta, Ga., where they performed a field show dedicated to Usher. The band recorded background tracks used in the halftime show, but the students had no idea what or who the recordings were for at the time.

Dr. Little called a meeting in the bandhall about a special performance, leaving out the details. School was still out, so some band members had not returned to Jackson yet, joining the meeting through Zoom.

“When the Zoom meeting started, a lady (Krista Niesta) from the Super Bowl staff was on the call, and that’s kind of how we found out,” Graham recalled. “Dr. Little was like, ‘Y’all have been asked to participate in the Super Bowl, and everybody was like, ‘No way, no way, no way.’ It kind of made sense in our brains a little bit because we knew that the show we had done in Atlanta was a cool show.”

The participating Sonic Boom of the South musicians met Usher in Las Vegas on the second day of rehearsals. Usher advised the group to enjoy the experience and have fun, which Graham said helped relieve some of the pressure they felt—though some nerves returned the closer they got to Super Bowl Sunday when the magnitude of what they had been tasked to do set in.

“We felt like we had to be perfect,” the Brandon native said. “I mean the Super Bowl is the largest stage that an artist can be viewed on at one time. And every singer, rapper, artist, performer wants to be where we were, and I don’t think that really hit us until we got there and the pressure was kind of elevated. Taking the pressure off was kind of impossible.”

Band director Roderick Little was given the responsibility of creating the field performance. He enlisted the help of some of the students in the program to choreograph the dance the band performs during Usher’s “Love in this Club.” Photo by William H. Kelly III/JSU University Communications

Before their trip to Las Vegas, the students signed contracts under Roc Nation LLC and non-disclosure agreements that prevented them from telling friends or family about JSU’s participation in the halftime show. Graham found it challenging at times to keep such a secret, particularly since Usher’s performance required fewer musicians than the band had to offer.

“It was difficult because you wanted everybody to go, or I did anyway,” she explained. “I wanted everybody who had experienced all the things that come with being part of the Sonic Boom of the South to get that super reward.”

Still, the long nights and exhaustive practices felt worthwhile once she and the other band members heard the roaring applause of the crowd after they finished their performance with Usher, Graham said.

‘Wear(ing) My HBCU Lineage on My Heart’

Decked out in JSU-branded shorts, socks and T-shirt, Cortez Bryant leapt onto the metal coffee table in the living room of his Atlanta-based home and cheered as the first strands of Usher’s halftime show blasted from his speakers. He had planned to attend in person, but he fell sick just before Super Bowl Sunday. Nevertheless, he celebrated and texted his friends that his college band was performing at one of America’s largest stages.

“I was singing along and going crazy,” Bryant told the Crirec. “I was talking trash and texting my boys who went to other schools—FAMU and Southern University, especially. Some of my boys were in the band there. I’m still talking trash to this day.”

Jesse Collins, executive producer for the 2024 Super Bowl halftime show, contacted Jackson State University alumnus Cortez Bryant (pictured) to request a recommendation for a band to use during Usher’s performance. Bryant, a former member of the Sonic Boom of the South himself, said he would not recommend anyone other than “the baddest band in the land.” Photo courtesy Jackson State University

Healthy rivalries and loyalty to one’s alma mater are part of HBCU culture, he said. Bryant returned to Jackson State after progressing in his chosen field to start a music-business program. The co-CEO of Blueprint Group/Maverick credits JSU with many of the skills that have made him successful.

“I kind of wear my HBCU lineage on my heart as I've been in the music business for the last 20 years,” Bryant said. “So, when (Jesse Collins) reached out to me … I was like, ‘Of course I have one in mind. It’s the baddest band in the land, The Sonic Boom of the South.’ I’m not gonna suggest anybody else.”

Dr. Roderick Little choreographed the band’s field performance with only a few minor directions from Krista Niesta and production manager Kristen Terry. The band began practicing the performance on-campus before leaving for Las Vegas on Feb 2.

“I came up with the drill for the show,” Little said. “And then we had our outstanding students; we had a couple of students to come up with the choreography that (spectators saw) the band doing behind Usher on ‘Love in this Club.’”

Incorporating signature Sonic Boom elements into the performance was key, Little said. Although television viewers could not see it, the band entered the field using their traditional “Tiger Run-On.” The musicians also made their signature crown field design on the field behind Usher’s stage, a script of Usher’s name and a traditional band drill. The band’s J5 drum majors were front and center for most of the performance.

Jackson State University band members wore custom-tailored tuxedos that celebrity fashion designer “Rich Fresh” created. The uniforms, which students were able to keep, included shades, gloves and a chain. Photo by William H. Kelly III/JSU University Communications

One reason why Little was determined to have the choreography include recognizably JSU traditions was because the band members could not wear their usual uniforms. Instead, they wore tailored tuxedo-style uniforms with blue-and-white accents in the band’s traditional colors. Memphis designer Patrick “Rich Fresh” Henry, who has worked with other stars such as Kevin Hart, LL Cool J and Dr. Dre, designed the Sonic Boom’s custom outfits. Wardrobe took a little over two hours, but Marice Graham cited it as one of her favorite parts of the process—made all the sweeter since they were allowed to keep everything they wore that night.

“We also had a chain necklace and gloves,” the student trumpeter said. “We didn’t wear those during the performance because they didn’t want us to lose them, but we practiced in them every day. We got to keep that, too, and we got our Usher shades.”

“That piece they had on was probably a $2,000 to $3,000 suit,” Bryant said. “I saw some people in these groups talk about they didn't have on their uniforms, but to wear Rich Fresh’s brand, to be draped up in that and our JSU colors was a statement in itself.”

‘Turned the Whole Stadium Up’

After arriving on a chartered flight, band members checked into a hotel on the Las Vegas strip. They spent two hours each morning completing academic assignments and then five to eight hours in rehearsal. Staff took their phones during practice and put them in bags until they left the stadium, which allowed them to stay in the moment and focus on what was right in front of them.

When they weren’t practicing or in wardrobe, most of the band’s time was spent exploring Las Vegas. Marice Graham, not a seasoned traveler, had never been to Vegas before this trip, so she was in complete culture shock as she compared her experiences to her life in Mississippi. Everything in Vegas is open all day and night in contrast to how restaurants and other businesses shut down earlier in Jackson.

“They had us in the Luxor Hotel & Casino … right across from the strip. But that just kind of attests to how well we were treated,” she said. “And the experience, I honestly feel like it would have been just as grand despite where it was because of what we were there for.”

During her time in Las Vega, Graham ate at Mark Wahlberg’s restaurant, Wahlburgers; visited the “Bodies” and “Discovering King Tut’s Tomb” exhibits in her hotel; and ventured into a huge arcade with her band section. Band members did not have to pay for their travel and lodgings, and students received a daily per diem for meals and other small expenses.

“One of the most important things to me was to give our students the experience to be treated like professionals,” Dr. Roderick Little said. “They definitely had the opportunity of doing that while staying in a luxury hotel.”

During the second day of rehearsal, the Sonic Boom of the South band played a few tunes for Usher, including the band’s well-known arrangements “The Show” and “Neck,” which made the R&B singer smile and request they play even more songs during his first time meeting Jackson State University’s marching band. Photo by William H. Kelly III/JSU University Communications

Little aspires to do for his band students what Dr. Lewis Liddell did for Cortez Bryant many years ago when the latter was a member: open doors and provide opportunities. He is thankful that then-President Marcus Thompson and his administration gave the band their support. He also credits Dean Ricardo Chapman and Dr. Lisa Beckley Roberts for helping secure the opportunity for his students.

“First and foremost, I want to make sure that I transform students' lives in some type of way. Knowing that I allowed them to have something historic was a big accomplishment,” Little said. “Secondly, of course, placing Jackson State University on the national stage again. This was the largest performance that anybody, not just the band program, could do. We are talking about over 130 million people watching this particular performance.”

The band didn’t get much personal time with Usher as he was really in a zone preparing for the show. Graham could relate, she said, because she knows what it's like to be in a zone where you are working to ensure everything is as it should be. Being in his presence was good enough for her, she insisted, as it allowed her to see a different side of Usher, someone she describes as a “super cool, down-to-earth man.”

“You could kind of tell the things that he wasn’t as confident in, which that’s normal. Like the skating that he was doing—he was on skates all day. Before we even touched the field or even on breaks, he’d be on skates,” the band member recalled.

However, the Sonic Boom had the chance to meet Usher during their second day of rehearsal. The band was able to play a few chorals and tunes like “Neck” for Usher, the staff, dancers and extras.

“It was just a lot of smiling and a lot of ‘Play something else. Play some more,’” Graham recounted. “He was standing in front of us, and we were facing towards the stands.”

“(Usher) was interested in experiencing the HBCU culture, so the students were definitely excited about that,” Little said. “And we turned the whole stadium up. We played ‘The Show.’ ... The students had a crowd.”

Marice Graham’s favorite part of the process was wardrobe. The band had wardrobe fittings everyday they were in Las Vegas, sometimes taking up to two and half hours for all band members to get dressed. Photo by William H. Kelly III/JSU University Communications

The performance brought attention to historically Black colleges and universities as a whole.

“HBCUs are definitely one of the best-kept secrets that need to consistently be catapulted out there on the national (stage) because of the energy that we exude.” Little said. “I hope that because of performances like this, we get adequately recognized and funded for what our students do. I mean, there's no secret that all HBCUs are underfunded.”

Bryant said that although he is still enjoying ragging his friends that it was his college band performing with Usher, he recognized the significance of the moment. He said Usher told him that the elements of Black culture threaded throughout the show were purposeful.

“He (told me) he was very intentional about bringing Atlanta to the world and, more importantly, bringing culture to the world because people don't know,” Bryant recalled. “Having the ‘Divine Nine’ up there with the Kappas on stage with him and having Jackson State there—that was purposeful in his planning, knowing what he wanted and being very intentional because he knows that people just don't know, and they need to be exposed to it.”

This year’s Super Bowl performance was viewed more than 200 million times and continues to be streamed. The NFL’s video of Usher’s performance, featuring the Sonic Boom of the South, has garnered more than 28 million views itself.

“It only draws eyes and attention to our greatness—what we've been knowing for decades—and hopefully shines lights on HBCUs and (all) HBCUs can leverage this moment … to shine bright,” Bryant said.

The Sonic Boom of the South has been invited to march in the 2025 Tournament of Roses parade. You can help sponsor their trip by visiting their fundraising page here. Learn more about JSU’s band program at sites.jsums.edu/sonicboom. Keep up with Usher Raymond’s music, tours and other projects at usherworld.com.

Torsheta Jackson is MFP's education-equity reporter, in collaboration with Report for America. She is passionate about telling the unique and personal stories of the people, places and events in Mississippi. The Shuqualak, Miss., native holds a B.A. in Mass Communication from the University of Southern Mississippi and an M.A. in Curriculum and Instruction from the University of Mississippi. She has had bylines on Bash Brothers Media, Mississippi Scoreboard and in the Jackson Free Press. Torsheta lives in Richland, Miss., with her husband, Victor, and two of their four children.

Jackson, Miss., native Aliyah Veal is a proud alumna of Spelman College, where she earned her bachelor’s degree in English in 2017. Afterward, she attended the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism in New York, gaining a master’s degree in journalism in 2018. After moving back home in 2019, she interned at the Jackson Free Press, covering city council and Jackson neighborhoods before moving up to culture writer. Her interests include tattoos, music and food, really, really good food. She now writes about culture, music and the arts for the Crirec.