MONTGOMERY, ALA. – It’s dusk and just outside the windows of Room 107 at Jefferson Davis High School in Montgomery, Alabama, the final remnants of the band are leaving practice the same way they came: blaring and filling the now chilled crisp of the December air with the powerful and royal tones of brass.
Justin Heideman, better known as “Vanilla Funk” or “that boy John,” shifts his position in his chair and postures up from a slouch, clutching the ever so familiar mace drum majors wield. There is a calm intensity that covers him as if he is still in front of his band – as if he’s still in control.
That’s because he is.
Heideman raises his hand, as if to say, “Hold on one second,” reaches for his iPhone and dials the number of his band director Brandon Howard.
“Can you tell the guys outside to be quiet? They are interrupting what’s going on in here.”
He hangs up, slouches back, tilts his head toward the tiled ceiling and takes a breath before moving his fingers through his hair against the grain. Now, back in his position of comfort, Heideman focuses in; it’s time for another interview.
This is his life now, but he hasn’t changed a bit, despite the few who misunderstand who he is and what it took for him to be in the position he is in now.
This isn’t a game for Heideman. It never has been.
Music is his passion, and before he went viral in October, a white boy leading an all-black band, Heideman carried out his job as head drum major the same way he does now: with discipline, fervor, an intense desire to learn at all costs and a dedication to uphold the legacy of Jeff Davis drum majors who came before him.
But, Heideman’s existence is not and was not about clicks, laughs, followers or being invited to the proverbial “cookout.” It’s about being a Jefferson Davis “Intermission Magician” from his first breath to his last, and he’ll stand for that in the face of prejudice and those suggesting he’s a talentless token who doesn’t belong.
“They say it’s ‘white mediocrity,’” Heideman said. “I don’t care if I’m white, I don’t care if I’m Asian, Hispanic, black, whatever. I don’t care if I’m in the front, in the back, 5 miles behind … mediocrity is not the word.
“I don’t care if you call me white. You can call me white all day, you can call me a cracker, but as soon as you call me ‘mediocre,’ don’t come after my craft, because I have worked tirelessly to perfect this craft.”
A viral video changed his life
Oct. 5, 2019, was the day Heideman’s life changed forever.
It was Saturday, the day after JD’s band conducted its annual homecoming parade around the school, when social media personality @PubbyLongway released a video commentary of Heideman leading the JD band.
It went viral.
“The first thing that I thought was, ‘This is hilarious! He’s talking about us!’” Heideman said, without realizing how popular @PubbyLongway was. “When I looked at his profile, he was really popular on social media. I was like, ‘He’s actually really famous on social media; this might go viral!’”
By the end of the weekend, the video had amassed hundreds of thousands of views on Instagram and Twitter, each.
Heideman’s fellow drum majors, Xavier “Cruise Control” Jackson, Dominic “D-Willy” Williams, and Jaylon “Freak Nasty” Jones, said they had the same reaction.
Jackson and Williams reached out to Heideman as soon as they saw the video picking up steam, but he played it cool, Jackson said.
“I saw the video, and I busted out laughing, that’s all I could do,” Jackson said. “Then I went to Justin and said ‘Justin, did you see this video? and he said ‘Yea, I been seen it.’ And I’m looking like, ‘How did you feel about it?’”
Heideman’s response: “I just busted out laughing, I can’t feel no way.” There was a collective feeling of disbelief, Jones said. The group didn’t expect it to “blow up” and when it did, it became “surreal.”
When the four got to school on Monday they were met with praises and the most popular lines of the video’s commentary, ‘Slideee, to the Sky!’ and ‘Where that boy John at?’ Williams said.
Heideman was a celebrity.
The viral nature of the video was exciting, but Howard, the band’s director of nine years, said he was afraid his band would be viewed as a joke, among other things. He was concerned about the image of the band and protecting his kids from the horrors of the comment section online – an intuition that became a reality.
“When I saw it, of course it was pretty funny,” Howard said. “But when I was watching the video I was like ‘Man, how are you all going to catch this video?’ This was probably the worst video that I wanted put out there of my group.”
There were a lot of variables to consider for Howard: His band wasn’t completely dressed, as it was a minor parade JD does every year for homecoming where they march from the school to the elementary school across the street and back; Heideman had a ponytail at the top of his head, put in by his girlfriend, Jenilyn Davis, as a joke, “that no one would notice,” according to Jackson; and the focus of the video was placed solely on Heideman.
“It’s funny to put them on display like that,” Howard said. “But I don’t want my band to turn into a joke. I don’t want him (Heideman) to turn into a joke.”
That wasn’t the intention of Pubby Longway’s post. He said he was impressed and that Heideman deserved the attention. However, Longway didn’t account for the seeds of hate that would sprout in response. No one really did.
Longway stumbled across the initial video of Heideman performing, while browsing on Facebook. He said he was thoroughly impressed because had never seen a white drum major lead an all-black band.
“I was just chilling, and I had videos just running,” Longway said. “Next thing you know I left the room, and I heard some band stuff playing, and I like band music, because I was in band myself. So, I said, ‘Let me go back and listen to that.’ I ran back to my room and I saw Justin. I was like ‘What!? It’s a white boy leading the pack.’”
That was enough for Longway to record one of his famous voice-overs, and the internet took care of the rest. Longway said he expected to get a little more views than he usually does, “50K maybe 100K,” he said, because of the unique nature of the content.
It blew up beyond expectations, and today the video sits at 4.4 million views.
Even with the praise and positive social engagement, hate, ignorance, and prejudice countered with a punch of its own.
I’m Sorry!!!.. The “Sonic Boom!” Is A Very!! Rich Black Legacy!!.. I’ve Been Gone Many!!, Many! Years But, To See How This White Kid Is All!! Up Front!!????.. He CAN’T!!! Do ANY!! Of The Moves Or, Steps Right! He’s Stiff!! ..It’s A Slap!!! In The Face!! To Black People!!! …The College That’s The Originator!! Gets Sometimes NO!! Hits Or, Very Few!!!… & Last!!.. It’s The Left!!! Side Whites!! In Government!!& Hollywood!!.. Ect… Pushing This Crap!!! NOT!!! The Right!!! & It’s Been Going On Ever Since Blacks Have Been BS! Played By The Left!!! It’s Been!!! Done In Hollywood!!! All The Time!!!… Put This Kid Back!!! In The Band WITH!! A HORN!!…The “White Bitin!??” Has To STOP!!!.. (Stephen Herron, YouTube)
A slice of the African American community saw Heideman’s lead as a crime. Comments poured in on Instagram, Twitter, YouTube and other online forums incriminating Heideman of not being worthy to lead the band.
“They don’t know the full story behind that, you can’t just go off what you see,” Jackson said. “I feel like people are saying that because he’s the first person you see and then you got us behind him. No, it should all just be about that one band, because it’s one band.”
Others suggested there was something heinous about a group of black children following the lead of a white boy and expressed that Heideman took the attention away from the three other drum majors:
Ya’ll (sic) the reason we can’t get ahead as people!!! Do not share or praise this fellow ALL THE WHILE IGNORING THE BLACK DRUM MAJORS DOING JUST AS GOOD IF NOT BETTER! I have nothing against him personally but stop praising white mediocrity. (username: tsugraytiger, hbcusports.com forum)
“I saw all the slander,” Longway said. “I even got some slander off of that, because it’s a lot of people that are real pro-black now, and they were like ‘Yea, you’re just helping another white dude get on. He’s just on your back and he gonna ride ya.’ And I saw Justin was getting the lash of a white boy being in that position, while black people been doing it for so long and he’s getting recognition off of it like it’s just something brand new.”
However, “I don’t even think it phased him really,” Longway said.
That wasn’t the case, the words cut deeper than Heideman let off.
Howard said Heideman ultimately came to him considering quitting, all the while letting on that he was fine. Howard wasn’t having that. Thus, Heideman told Howard if quitting was “too far of a step,” then let’s shake up the formation. “Put Xavier in the front, Dom can take his spot, Jalen can take (Dom’s) spot, and I’ll sit in the back, since everybody wants to talk about how I don’t deserve to be in the front.”
The public backlash from a select group of people was an “eye-opener” for Heideman, Howard said. “He didn’t realize people would approach it that way. But a high school kid, really? This kid is 17 years old, he didn’t ask for this.”
Those commenting saw their words as a protection of the culture – a culture that African Americans fight to preserve daily. Yet many did not give Heideman the benefit of the doubt. Rather, he was viewed as an invader, someone that encroached on a piece of black culture that they weren’t willing to surrender as so many other things.
In many ways, the opposition that Heideman faced is an age-old story blacks have been up against for years when attempting to enter a space not everyone agreed they belonged in.
“I just feel like he’s in our shoes a little bit, like in a black person’s world,” Longway said. “You know how black people try to get into a sport or something new like hockey or something? Or anything like polo, you know you’re the first black to do something? In high school, I’ve never seen a white drum major do anything like that.”
What’s not understood by some onlookers is Heideman’s journey and the work he put in to achieve this status, as alluded to by Longway. Some have not taken a look beyond the viral nature of the video, or the idea of Justin as just another white person trying to be cool. But the ones closest to Heideman say it’s beyond that.
It’s about the band and functionality thereof. It’s about Heideman earning his spot just like every other drum major that came before.
“They just think he just gets out there and just dances,” Williams said. “It’s bigger than that.”
Race is not the whole story, they said though the viralization of Heideman’s existence made that his narrative.
“When you get to looking on the internet, everybody is slandering him,” Williams said. “Saying, ‘What is he doing as a white head drum major leading a black band?’ To me, (his race) really doesn’t faze me, but as to see people talk about him, it’s stupid. Justin, all the things he went through, all the trials and tribulations that he took to become the person he is, a lot of people don’t see that side of him, because they just see him on the internet.”
For starters, Heideman has been the head drum major at JD the past two years, and America is late to the party.
Furthermore, the process of becoming a drum major is a rigorous task. Howard takes those auditioning through a one- to two-month process of punctilious training before auditions start.
This process starts with about 15 individuals. Practices last hours and extend to the weekends, weeding out the unqualified. The number of participants dwindles with each week, and by audition time there are usually about four or five, “because everybody can’t really hang,” Howard said.
Once the audition gets underway, those remaining are graded on a 80-point scale by judges on stationary points (detailed body control and executing specific movements), conducting, facial and whistle commands and a small routine they must execute.
“A lot of people think, ‘Oh, you pick your drum majors because they can dance,’” Howard said. “No, we pick them because they are meticulous in the way they do things.”
Of those 80 points, the year Heideman auditioned, he scored a 78 out of 80. The highest score.
Earning his keep: The birth of ‘Vanilla Funk’
Unlike most white children in Montgomery and the surrounding areas, Heideman attends one of the city’s traditional public schools, instead of one of its magnet or private schools.
Demographically, JD is roughly 91% black and 6% white, according to the Alabama Department of Education report card. So, Heideman was always going to stand out, but his parents didn’t think this was an issue.
“His mother and I both went to public school here in Montgomery,” Eric Heideman, Justin’s father said. “To this family, color is not an issue. We don’t look at race. We look at the quality of the person.”
Heideman was hesitant about many things his freshman year, which included joining the band. It all was foreign to him.
Heideman attended the first practice but didn’t return at the request of his parents who wanted him to spend the first semester of school focusing on his grades.
When he got his shot to join again in the spring, Heideman was still unsure.
“I didn’t know what to expect,” Heideman said, “didn’t know anything about the SWAC or HBCU show style-bands.”
His hesitancy quickly turned into love, and Heideman made the decision to give all that he had to band: “back-breaking work,” he described it. Nonetheless, there were still some obstacles to be scaled and questions to be answered.
One of those questions was posed by fellow drum major Jackson and trombonist at the time: “Is he going to be able to keep up? Will he be able to do this how we do this? I wasn’t quick to judge, I gave him a shot,” Jackson said. “I just couldn’t seem to wrap my head around him.”
However, Jackson and others soon found the character ultimately unearthed was of an individual who wants to be the best, learn as much as he can, and yearns to lead. Heideman pursues those things unrelentingly, and he meticulously studies his craft.
“He might be one of the most passionate kids I’ve had here at Jeff Davis,” Howard said. “From the time he stepped foot in the door, he was excited about playing his (trumpet). He wanted to be the best player. Then he noticed the drum majors, and he wanted to be the best leader.”
By the summer of 2016 that’s what Heideman set his sights on.
“It was instinctively inside of me saying, ‘If you work hard maybe others will see it, and try to outdo you, and then you can try to outdo them. Iron sharpens iron. So, then I worked harder and harder, and I told myself, ‘I want to be drum major.’”
He’d only been with the band for a handful of months, but he wasn’t shy about declaring his interest in leading.
“He would come in here every day saying, ‘Mr. Howard, let me show you what I learned,’” Howard said. “Then he would show me a drum major routine that he tried to put together. Everything was kind of shaky, but you could tell he was really driven to get it done.”
Heideman spent hours in his room studying styles and marching sequences. He’d watch videos of HBCU drum majors from around the country, emulating what he saw. Everything was trial and error, he said.
He mixed styles together, tried moves that didn’t necessarily go with one another. He blazed his own path in the confines of his home and laid the groundwork for the day he’d get his shot. He visualized it and made it a reality for himself in advance.
Heideman remembers the first time he ever attempted to move like a show-style drum major. It was the summer of 2016, before his first band camp with JD. He walked outside into his backyard dressed for the occasion, shirt tucked into pants, the only thing missing was a whistle. “I wanted to dance like a drum major,” he said, “so, I marched like a drum major,” and he used his imagination to fill in the rest.
He could hear the music, he could see the crowd and the formation of the band he led. He felt his fellow drum majors behind him, and his backyard transformed into welcoming greens of a football field with a roaring sea of people cheering.
“Growing up I always had an imagination,” Heideman said. “I imagined that I was the head drum major alongside whoever was there, and I marched in, and the band started playing and I started throwing some random stand that wasn’t even an actual drum major stand.
“I thought it was actually good, and then I cut off and said, ‘Yeaaa, I’m a drum major.'”
He prepared for what he knew would come. He led the trumpet section, Howard said, and emerged as one of the best trumpet players in the band.
“(He) marched through the entire year headed toward that drum major goal that he had already set,” Howard said.
When the time for tryouts came around as he entered his third year, Heideman told people through the band that he was going to make head drum major.
They doubted him, not all but some, telling him flat out he couldn’t do it.
“A lot of people thought he wasn’t going to make it because of his color,” Howard said, “and that was definitely something that would be a hindrance for most, but that wasn’t for him.”
Entering the audition Heideman competed for the four spots against four other people, including Jones and Jackson. It was muscle memory for Heideman and, “he knocked it out of the water,” Howard said.
The decision was made.
Howard announced the names third to first, Heideman said, as they waited nervously.
“OK ,OK, good job,” Heideman said to himself.
“OK ,OK, good job. Either I didn’t make it or I’m head drum major,” Heideman said.
Jones said that when they announced Heideman’s name as the head drum major, Heideman was “calm and chill” about it. Jones said they all knew it was going to be him because of how strong he performed, but Heideman’s reaction, though he was excited and in disbelief, was that of a fulfilled expectation.
Now, it was time to lead.
The news of Heideman’s appointment spread across the band’s Facebook page and left many in shock, including Williams.
“When I saw that, I was like, ‘Wow,’” Williams said. “It was really shocking. It was not bad, I was just thinking of ‘How is it going to be now that we have a white head drum major,’ and how that was actually going to change things?”
Williams’ question represented what a majority of people were thinking: “Will he be able to do his role and play his part? Will people accept him as a drum major and respect him?”
There was an unspoken sense that Heideman had to prove himself, despite his accomplishment. So, he led with a heavy hand, the trio of Williams, Jackson and Jones said.
“Justin’s approach last year when he first made it was more so taking leadership,” Jones said, “because we all knew this was going to be a totally different squad, like a different group of drum majors, the band is going to try to run over him. So his thing was, ‘maybe if I come in with strong leadership, strong discipline, then they’ll follow me,'” but that was not the case at all.
There were some members in the band that did not respect Heideman, Williams said, and he struggled with it at first, but ultimately, “He found ways to overcome that.”
“It took a lot to gain respect,” Heideman said. “Even still I don’t think I’m done with gaining respect from people.”
Though Heideman still has to prove himself, leading this band has become second nature to him. He doesn’t take offense to some of the resistance he’s seen and doesn’t see race as being the factor. He said leading this band, “is just like leading any other band.”
“High school students are going to be high school students,” Heideman said. “Everybody has their own little personality, and the ones that aren’t really disciplined are going to stay undisciplined until you show them that you deserve respect. It’s only then, when they decide. ‘OK, I’ll listen.”
He’s been able to gain this respect through being a teacher, his peers said. If there is trouble or conflict he knows how to handle it now. If a band member is struggling with some of the music, he has a knack for explaining and breaking things down, bit by bit to them, his fellow drum majors said.
“He earned his spot. He earned the fame. He earned all of that,” Williams said. “He’s been working so long to earn his spot, and he honestly did.”
While some feel the black band experience is “for the culture” and protected by the culture, those close to Heideman insists he is not here to steal it. Rather, he has worked hard to be a part of it and lives to honor it. He’s an ally, not an invader.
“Justin came to be a part of this, not to overtake it,” Williams said.
Jackson further explained: “We (the black band) keep marching on. I say that because back in the day we used to march for our freedom,” Jackson said, “and now today we have that freedom, but we’re still marching on. We’re showing that ‘Hey, it’s about culture now,’ and bringing the nation together as one.”
That’s apropos since according to Heideman and Howard, Heideman is receiving interest from HBCUs and predominantly white institutions (PWIs): Jackson State, Auburn, Alabama State, Texas Southern, Kentucky State and Troy.
Though Heideman said he prefers the HBCU show-style, he remains undeclared and says that it’s his dream to introduce the two styles to one another.
“I’m just another person that happens to be a different race doing what other people have done,” Heideman said. “Yea, it’s viral because nobody expected somebody like me to actually care about what people a part of this culture do.”
Follow Montgomery Advertiser reporter Andre Toran on Twitter @AndreToran.
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