Published on 09.15.2021

Inspiring Growth On And Off The Field

As director of bands at Jackson State University, Dr. Roderick Little inspires countless students to consider their presentation — not only with a high caliber of music, but of character. It’s his goal to help them grow as people on and off the field.

When did you first know music was in the cards for you?

I come from a musical family, so I inherited that gene. My mom sang. My dad and brother played the saxophone. My sisters played the violin, clarinet, and piano. I joined the middle school band and became a “band head.” I would look at tapes and download different tunes, and just listen to all of the HBCU schools. Jackson State, A&T, Bowie State, Norfolk, Virginia State. I fell in love with the literature they were playing, and the way they were playing it.

What is it about HBCU music that really drew you in?

What always struck a chord with me is the energy and the passion of HBCU music departments. In Black culture, we can take anything that was mundane and turn it into something masterful. It really enticed me to continue my musical endeavors there. Once I started to get involved with teaching people, that's when I knew I wanted to direct. I wanted to give all the same opportunities to students who look like me and come from the same background. I grew up in an underprivileged household and an underprivileged environment, and music was my conduit for change — it literally changed my whole landscape. So I understand exactly what they're going through.

How do your students affect the way you teach?

My students come from all over the nation and have seen things, dealt with things, that gave them an early sense of adulting. For instance, they may have had to watch younger siblings because their mom had to work two or three jobs. You just can't help but to listen to them and relate to them, and learn from them. I try to appreciate each individual for who they are as I guide them. Once you’ve prepared the students to the best of your ability, you know within yourself that they're ready to go and do their job, be ambassadors for the university, and just, overall, have fun.

“In Black Culture, We Can Take Anything That Was Mundane And Turn It Into Something Masterful.”

How does style and presentation come into play?

When a person looks nice, they feel better about themselves. So I've always been a person who pays close attention to my appearance, in the sense of building my self-esteem. You could call my style “comfortably professional.” Then as a teacher, it was just elevated. I became an example for my students. Every time they put on that uniform, they are ambassadors of goodwill for Jackson State. You can see this in our band program, too. We're right off the Mississippi River, the home of blues, that old Southern style of entertainment and music. It’s really all about continuing that legacy of the “Sonic Boom of the South.” Staying classy and professional in everything we do.

Why is that signature sound of Jackson State important to maintain?

With anything that African Americans put our hands on — be it football or basketball or whatever — we connect with each other. We came up with the beautiful art form of jazz. When you listen to jazz, you just don't listen to jazz, you connect to jazz. It’s the same with the HBCU sound. It’s not just something you listen to, it's a whole experience. You find a deep lineage of connection when you hear us. You're captivated behind the sounds, because it’s who we are as people. It connects to hip-hop, R&B, jazz. It’s all mixed in.

Are there barriers that stop HBCUs from sharing their culture?

A lot of times, what we do in HBCUs, and the way we approach music, is frowned upon. Most of the national bodies of music education offices and boards are headed by Caucasian males and females. We don’t always have materials and resources that we need and often have to work ten times as hard as somebody that may have a state-of-the-art facility and instruments. We shouldn't have to work so hard to put out our product. As African Americans, we are often taught to make do. And that can be a very good thing, life can be very challenging. Sometimes you have to make do with what you have. But you also can't be afraid to ask for more, and dare to dream for better.

“When A Person Looks Nice, They Feel Better About Themselves. So I've Always Been A Person Who Pays Close Attention To My Appearance, In The Sense Of Building My Self-Esteem.”

Have you noticed progress in recent years?

I think people are starting to realize that we built up PWIs (Predominantly White Universities). When you look on those football fields and you look on those basketball fields, you see us. We’re putting those butts in the seats, and we are generating those dollars. But what if we took that same talent, our talent, and invested in our own? It’s like supporting black businesses. We'd see a reputable change. We can get those resources and those things that we wanted way back in the '60s and the '70s. We can ask for better things. Not because we can't deal with what we have, but because we're worth more.

What advice do you have for other HBCU educators fighting for change?

My suggestion to them would be, don't forget where you came from. Nine times out of ten, a HBCU educator came from the same environment as their students. But a lot of times when we grow to be adults, we forget that we were in their place. We forget that we made mistakes. And we forget that there were things we needed to learn. It's my belief that if you focus on the person, everything else will fall into play. So always keep the students in the forefront, like a third eye, to help navigate themselves through their profession. Think about them, help them at any turn, in any way you can.

Lastly, what legacy do you hope to leave with your students?

I’d like every student that participates in the “Sonic Boom of the South” to be a success story. That they are elevated over the poverty line, and grow as people. Students don't know the power that they have. When evolution started to happen after George Floyd's death, who did we see? We saw young people, college students for the most part, out there protesting and speaking up about injustice. They will be the people to provoke true change in our world. Without them, institutions across the nation wouldn’t exist. Their voices matter.

“Sometimes You Have To Make Do With What You Have. But You Also Can't Be Afraid To Ask For More, And Dare To Dream For Better.”


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