Daniel Jacobs was the underdog heading into last weekend’s WBA middleweight title fight at the Barclays Center. But Jacobs clearly set the tone for his upset victory over Peter Quillin with a ring introduction that hasn’t been seen anywhere before: The Approaching Storm Marching Band unleashed a drums-only version of Jay-Z’s Brooklyn We Go Hard as Jacobs entered the arena. Jacobs nodded along with the cadence, walking slowly toward the ring all decked in camouflage as the crowd went wild. Quillin stood awkwardly in the corner, clad in a leopard-print robe. His ring introduction was a Justin Bieber song.
“It got the crowd pumped,” said one spectator, Sarah Deming. “I think it’s lame when a rapper comes in for a ring walk, watching rappers lip-sync can’t compare to a live band.” But Approaching Storm aren’t professional musicians hired to play at glitzy events around the world. They are seventy-four teenagers from Brownsville and East New York trying to escape gangs. Their studio is the back room of the Brownsville Recreation Center. And their connection to a world-champion boxer is a 2nd grade teacher.
Carmen Jackson was Danny Jacobs’ grade school teacher and has kept in contact with Jacobs over the years as he climbed the professional boxing ranks. Jacobs, she says, “was a good student, and he hasn’t changed.” Her late husband, Greg Jackson, ran the Brownsville Recreation Center, where Jacobs hung out for years. It’s the same rec center Approaching Storm calls home.
Jacobs is an inspirational figure with a Rocky-esque background. The Brownsville native was raised by his mother and aunts. In 2011, Jacobs was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, a life-threatening form of bone cancer, just months after his first professional loss. But after successful treatment he came back and won the WBA middleweight world title in 2014.
When Jacobs wanted a band connected to his roots for the ring introduction, he called Jackson, his old teacher, who put him in contact with Sergio Carter, the founder of Approaching Storm.
Carter is a 50-year-old bus driver who performed for Norfolk State’s marching band when he was in college, and he brings a southern sound to Brooklyn. He started Approaching Storm after another local marching band folded. “There’s a big hurrah about how people have never seen a drumline bring out a boxer,” he says.
Indeed, it was quite an entrance, for both the audience and the two dozen band members who performed. Tiyana Brathwhite, Seyquan Abrams, and Lanijah Jones are three of the Approaching Storm members, none of whom ever performed on such a big stage.
“It was scary in the beginning but then you get into the groove,” Brathwhite said. Brathwhite, known as “Nut,” is one of band’s leaders and has to make rules for the other members.
“It was amazing, I never played in front of that many people,” said Jones. “But I do what I have to do.”
Abrams is known as “lights out,” and seconds before the group’s performance he was staring, mouth agape, at the Barclays Center video board. “I said ‘lights out, Seyquan on’ because he was staring at the video board,” said Carter.
The performance of Brooklyn We Go Hard lasted nearly three and a half minutes and Carter tuned song drums to make it sound like an instrumental performance. Jacobs, Carter said, “wanted a Jay-Z song, and we figured out how to do it without horns. They let me have that.”
Approaching Storm seeks to mentor children from some of the poorest neighborhoods in New York. According to Carter, only one of his band’s 74 members comes from a home with two parents. “We have cooking class and we teach how to dress, how to speak,” said Carter. “Band is life.”
Carter is a father figure for Approaching Storm, where he estimates that nearly all of the band’s members are raised by women. He drives through East New York in a GMC Yukon Denali outfitted with Brooklyn Nets headrests, picking up band members after school on various street corners. On a recent afternoon, the SUV swerves through the afternoon traffic and nearly hits a turning biker, who turns out to be a member of another local band, the Royal Knights. Carter rolls down the window and yells: “I want you to keep playing the drums boy and stop riding bikes in front of people’s cars!”
He picks up Brathwhite, Abrams, Jones and his son Kamar and takes them to his well-kept apartment, furnished with an overstuffed couch and large fish tank, on Vandalia Avenue near the Gateway Center shopping complex. There they are free to do homework and relax off the streets.
Brathwhite, Abrams and Jones all have dreams of attending college and continuing with music.
“I want to go to Norfolk State and own a band,” Abrams said.
Approaching Storm currently struggles for funding and Carter hopes the Barclays Center performance can be a financial turning point for the group. Carter originally raised $30,000 through street donations and used the money to buy drums.
That was before they had an agreement to practice at the Brownsville Recreation Center, and Carter has a story about those days. Approaching Storm’s first day of practice was to be outside in a park but it was pouring rain. The kids ran to a dollar store and purchased garbage bags. “They tied the garbage bags to the trees to keep them dry while they practiced,” said Carter. “That’s when I knew they were determined.”
The group drums around East New York—including a recent impromptu performance outside a McDonald’s. But group members, too, are hoping that drumming in front of thousands at the Barclays Center could give them their big break. Approaching Storm hopes to follow Danny Jacobs and introduce him around the country wherever he fights.
“I never expected a response like this. These were real people talking about us,” said Carter. “I want to use the word amazing.”