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From a Crown Heights Corner to the Met Gala: Brooklyn United Marching Band Makes History

The young drummers of the Brooklyn United marching band were the first performers to ever open the Met Gala
Screen Shot 2021-09-17 at 5.19.58 PM
Brooklyn United marching band recently performed at the Met Gala. Photo: Instagram / Brooklyn United

Imagine doing something so monumental that, the next day, while on the train to school or work, you wouldn't be surprised to see your own face pop up on another commuter's phone.

This was the experience of some of the young drummers in the Brooklyn United marching band who opened the Met Gala this week.

"Going to school this morning on the train I thought, 'It's crazy, all these people are just standing next to me, and I was just at the Met Gala!' They don't even know," Bed-Stuy's Makhi Crosland, 14, said.

The first

The marching band, which practices on a corner in Crown Heights, made history on Monday when it became the first group to perform on the Met Gala's red carpet.

A group of 21 performers aged 14 and up took the event by storm with a rousing performance of sound and movement including songs from Alicia Keys and Bruno Mars, and a dance routine by gymnast Nia Dennis.

The group wore jumpsuits in red, white and blue, designed by fashion designer Stella McCartney, the daughter of Paul McCartney.

Band leader Ty Brown said the group had been practicing for the event on their usual Crown Heights corner for about six weeks, but under strict conditions of secrecy.

"The secret is out the bag now."

For 18-year-old East Flatbush drummer Paris Leonce — who loved drumming so much as a kid that he used to tie a wire to a butter can and "play on it all day" — the experience was something hard to believe.

"It opened me to different things I don't usually see in person," he said.

"Seeing all the cameras and TV channels just lined up on the stairs as you walked up, and all the flashing lights... if you would have told me I would have been in the first marching band to open up the Met Gala in my future, I would have thought you were crazy."

Drummer Rodney Smith Jr., 28, is a Brooklyn United alumni. He said he got a call from Brown a couple of months ago telling him, "Yo, we got the Met Gala, you vaccinated?"

"And I said, 'Oh yeah, I'm vaccinated, I'm there. Then, I'm like, 'the Met Gala?' At first it didn't really dawn on me."

Over the years, Smith has played with Brooklyn United at the Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall, for the Nets and the VMAs. But he said the Met Gala took the cake.

"I heard the tickets was like $35K. For people of our age and our color and our ethnicity, that's not the venue that we attend on a regular basis," he said.

Now, when he opens social media, he sees photos of himself conducting the band — the group has gone viral. "It's just a blessing, we really don't take it for granted."

The first phone calls

Brown said he remembers getting calls from the McCartneys and Vogue enquiring about the band for the specific dates, and then putting two and two together.

"For a little guy like me to get these big phone calls, my personal feeling was amazing. It's a testament to the work we've done with these young people from Crown Heights, with regular kids from the neigborhood.

He said, while other bands might do it for a grade, the stakes were higher for his kids. "We're doing it to stay off the streets, to duck guns and violence and drugs."

He pointed out that the same place they practiced for the Met Gala is the corner where yellow police tape was hanging just a couple of weeks ago. "We practice amongst gunshots, which it shouldn't be, but we still produce performances for these top-notch situations."

Before the Gala, Brown was asked if they could deliver diversity, and if they had any problem representing the Met Gala 2021 theme of "American Independence."

Brown said the theme felt in line with what he was trying to teach as the head of BU. "We know what's going on: We're coming out of a presidency that divided us, an era where racism and bigotry is pulling to the forefront."

Racism is something his kids face on a daily basis, especially when they're not in uniform.

"The truth is, Black male teenagers are still portrayed as scary.  I would love a world where no matter they go they feel they have right to be there, without the stereotypes."

The reality

After the success of the Met Gala performance, Brooklyn United went viral, with their performance seen all over the Internet and top fashion magazines.

However, there was still that small group of people who brought hate.

"There are still those bigots out there who say, 'Oh, Met Gala just went ghetto," Brown said. "What's ghetto about seeing four Black boys leading a musicianship?"

No matter the haters. The Met Gala was an experience nobody can take away from Brown and the young performers, and a sign of things to come.

"I definitely had the goosebumps," Brown said.

"As I heard that music, that moment, it was like, 'You're about to make history.' And as I left my team to do what they needed to do I walked away with a tear in my eye, like, 'What's next, God?"

Jessy Edwards

About the Author: Jessy Edwards

Jessy Edwards is an award-winning news and feature reporter whose work can be seen in such publications as NBC New York, Rolling Stone, the BBC, CNBC and more.
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