There’s neither a manicured football field for the Helping Hand Marching Band to practice on, nor even a single, visible patch of grass, for that matter, but this community show band thrives off of performing in unique environments. In the weekend prior to this particular practice, the band held center-stage at the Raleigh Convention Center in front of over 2,000 science professionals during the Association of Science-Technology Centers (ASTC) annual conference. When asked if he preferred events like this or parades, Helping Hand’s drum major of four years, Maurice Carter, responded, “Anywhere. I don’t care.”
As a music-loving teenager in the 1960s, Sylvia Wiggins loved everything about her John R. Hawkins High School marching band in Warrenton, NC, except that no one in it had the same skin complexion as her. “When I got started, years ago, I had a dream,” said Wiggins. “Back then, there were only light-skinned people in bands. That dream said to me that when I grow up, I would have my own band where anybody and everybody could join.” Years later, in 1976, she’d create the Helping Hand Mission Marching Band, which is comprised of a wide spectrum of children and adults from Raleigh’s low-income communities of color. The band’s headquarters—a brimming compound in Central Raleigh and home to the charitable institution, Helping Hand Mission–is also where Wiggins serves as Executive Director.
These days, the band is as strong as ever. On a late-October evening, more than 50 of the band’s members and the few spectators who wandered in from the busy Rock Quarry Road entrance, have all congregated in Helping Hand’s wide driveway for a weekly practice. Inside, Wiggins’ seemingly routine day as the momma of this whole operation is met with a medley of interruptions: a drummer with an update about his ongoing court case, a man requesting gas money so that he could drive his children to school the next morning, and a woman with an offering in the form of a sandwich bag filled with bite-sized, fatback, pork slivers. With charmed patience, Wiggins fields each request for her time, resources, and advice with assembly line-like efficiency.
Maurice Carter took over the distinguished drum major position four years ago–a year after Helping Hand joined legendary hip-hop group Public Enemy on stage in downtown Raleigh during the inaugural Hopscotch Music Festival. In that same year, a Helping Hands alum, Kornelius Bascombe, was announced as one of eight finalists in Oprah Winfrey’s “Your OWN Show: Oprah’s Search for the Next TV Star.”
Bascombe would end up graduating from NCSU, which, like other schools in the area–especially HBCUs like Shaw, St. Augustine, and NCCU–have their own prestigious marching bands. In comparison, Helping Hands’ uniforms may not look as spiffy, and the band may not have a celebrated music director, but what the band lacks in funding and vanity, it makes up for with sheer enthusiasm and most of all, raw soul. “We play with those schools all of the time,” Wiggins says with a shrug and a laugh. “Man, we ain’t stuntin’ them. We get our groove on, baby.”