It has been a week since Beyoncé hit the Coachella stage for the first of two history-making headlining shows at the Southern California festival, and people are still talking about April 14’s HBCU-inspired showcase.
Atlanta fans of the show quickly began recognizing moves — and band members with ties to the area — as Beta Delta Kappa marched their way across the Coachella stage for the two-hour event. Beyoncé was the festival’s first black headliner.
“It was an honor,” said Don P. Roberts, the DeKalb County School District’s music coordinator and a consultant who helped develop the band element for the Coachella show.
Show participants were under a nondisclosure agreement until the show’s end, but agreed to speak with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution if their comments would be withheld until the second of two scheduled performances ended.
Roberts said talks around the Beyoncé performance began taking shape earlier this year during the 16th Annual Honda Battle of the Bands. He soon began contacting musicians for a special performance about two months ago. But there was a catch.
“I had to convince them they were going out of town,” he said. “But I could not tell them where they were going.”
Roberts is known for his work with DeKalb County bands, along with his work as a consultant on the “Drumline” movies as well as BET’s “The Quad.” He started DRUMLine Live several years ago, taking a group of performers around the country for theatrical performances filled with high-energy dance routines and battles.
Matthew Ashraf, who got a last-minute invitation to join the ensemble, said the secrecy surrounding the assignment made for a more treasured experience.
“It was a big hush-hush situation,” said Ashraf, 26, a full-time musician from Atlanta by way of Buffalo, New York. “I got a call saying they needed a sousaphone player. He said, ‘How soon can you get to L.A.?’ I said as soon as possible. Mind you, I was at work. Literally 25 minutes later, my flight was booked.
“I found out it was for Beyoncé after I got to L.A.”
The goal was to incorporate much of what makes HBCU bands popular — high-stepping choreography done with precision — while performing with often heavy instruments -- and other surprise elements mixed in for dramatic effect.
Kadeem Chambers, a 2012 Southwest DeKalb High School grad, said he saw a note on Facebook from a fellow DRUMLine Live member asking for musicians “who could catch on quick.”
“The way Beyoncé is, she’s very about her business. Things could change on a whim,” said Chambers, 24, a musician who lives in Marietta. “She could hear something one day, and decide the next day she didn’t like it.”
It didn’t become real, he said, until Beyoncé joined the ensemble for full rehearsals.
“Seeing her and hearing her sing live, without a microphone ... that’s when it hit me,” he said.
Pulling talent from metro Atlanta was a no-brainer, Roberts said.
“In DeKalb County alone, we’re No. 1 for getting (music) students recruited to the best college bands,” Roberts said. “The foundation for music education starts in the high schools.”
Many former high school band members return to the city as band directors and music educators themselves, he said.
Ashraf said the once-in-a-lifetime experience of performing with Beyoncé helped put his own dreams into perspective.
“It kinda puts it to a level of when you have ideas in your head and it blows up to bigger things,” he said. It’s an explosion and going to this level, it all fits into the direction I’m trying to go.
“It shows me there’s limitless possibilities those ideas sitting in the basement can turn into.”
Roberts said the experience validated a conversation he had once with music producer Kevin “She’kspere” Briggs, who worked with Destiny’s Child nearly 20 years ago on their No. 1 hit “Bills, Bills, Bills.”
“I asked him who's some of the best people to come into the studio,” Roberts said. “He said Beyoncé. He said, ‘She comes in and she works, works and she works.’
“Here we are, many years later. She prepares. She's professional. There are not enough adjectives. Some people get their accolades through luck. There's no luck involved. She deserves it all. I've done a lot of studio work and seen a lot of people.
“She's the top of the line to me.”