Joshua Kissi documents African American high school marching bands in New Orleans’ Mardi Gras parade

The Bronx-based photographer captures the musicality of the marching bands while honouring the political importance of the groups, dating back to the American Civil War.

5 March 2020

As a first generation Ghanaian American, Joshua Kissi has always been interested in exploring themes of identity through creativity. Last year, we covered the Bronx-based photographer and creative director’s series, Jump Ball, a celebration of the relationship between basketball and the African diaspora made in collaboration with Josef Adamu of Sunday School. By examining his own roots and in turn, the importance of figures like Michael Jordan, Hakeem Olajuwon and Dikembe Motumbo in the sport, Joshua and Josef documented the cultural importance of basketball in their surrounding communities.

It’s a series that’s propelled the photographer to new heights, having shot his first campaign for Nike at the start of this year, titled Until We All Win. “It was my first out of home campaign that was on billboards in both Los Angeles and New York City,” Joshua tells us proudly, going on to say, “When ‘big’ moments like this happen, I try to be present and continue to remember what got me here in the first place.” Amongst the bustling hubbub of commercial projects, for Joshua, it is imperative to continue working on the projects that are close to his heart. He describes it as a “self declaration to keep telling stories no matter how big or small”, amplifying the fact that no matter who or what you are, “each of our stories matter.”

It’s an earnest message exemplified in Joshua’s latest series Banded. Here, he documents Mardi Gras marching bands in the famous New Orleans parade. Hundreds of high school marching bands travel from all over the country to play in the parade, demonstrating their collective and individual personalities through their performances. Of the series, Joshua explains, “After experiencing Mardi Gras for the first time, one thing that stuck out to me in particular, was the beautiful sound of the marching bands.” He recalls the impressively pristine uniforms, the shiny brass instruments polished and shined for the procession, and the distinctiveness of each illustrious head piece.


Joshua Kissi: Banded

Surprisingly however, the original purpose of Joshua’s trip to New Orleans wasn’t to photograph these marching bands, but to capture a profile of someone in the Louisiana city. Mesmerised by the skill of the young musicians and their force in numbers, Joshua decided to shoot the project on the side. The first band he photographed was the Holmes County Central Jaguars, originally from Lexington Mississippi, about four hours by car from New Orleans. “They wore this fantastic shade of red and marching on the ground with excellence like it was the last performance of their lives,” remembers Joshua.

“The showmanship behind every move and sound was astounding, it was shocking to think that all these people were younger than 18 years old,” he continues. It wasn’t just the masterful sound that attracted Joshua to photograph these groups though, it was also the marching band’s political roots. The marching bands are the soulful heartbeats of the parade, but originally, before they were used to musically support sporting events, for African Americans in particular, the marching band was a symbol of unity and strength during the era of the American Civil War.

Today, modern Americans view the marching band as a key cultural role in university sporting events, but this is only one aspect of its history. During the civil war, the marching band played an important part of boosting morale in the soldiers. Before saxophones and French horns were added into the equation, bugles, drums and fifes played alongside the tired footsteps of soldiers.

But over time, as that war subsided, marching bands eventually evolved with the times, in turn, adopting jazz, blues, dance and hip-hop into their performances. It’s a melodic expression seen throughout Banded, highlighting the care and the power of the young musicians while, at the same time, paying respect to the history of the art form.

GalleryJoshua Kissi: Banded

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Joshua Kissi: Banded

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About the Author

Jyni Ong

Jyni joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in August 2018 after graduating from The Glasgow School of Art’s Communication Design degree. In March 2019 she became a staff writer and in June 2021, she was made associate editor.

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