Darnell Mosley remembers freestyling in his high school band room during freshman year when youth worker Byron Hawkins walked up.
"He said, 'You've got good hands, and I need a bass,' " said Mosley.
Mosley, 19, agreed to join Hawkins' TKO Drumline & Knockout Dance Team after football season ended. He went on to perform at events including the 2019 Final Four, where the drumline welcomed players arriving at the airport.
"You feel nervous for a quick second, until I hit my drum and then all the nerves go away," said Mosley, a 2020 Patrick Henry High School graduate. He continues with TKO as an instructor.
"They are like family to me," he said. "[Hawkins] wants you to be the best you can be."
Under the motto "Discipline Is Essential," Hawkins, 42, leads the community drumline, which is open to kids ages 8 to 18 from across the north metro and North Side of Minneapolis.
The drumline operates independently, relying on support from Brooklyn Park Youth Outreach, the Zanewood Recreation Center, GoFundMe campaigns, performance income — and Krispy Kreme doughnut sales. They've played everywhere from the Super Bowl to the Minnesota State Fair.
Billboard gospel chart-topper Jovonta Patton featured the drumline in a 2020 music video filmed at North High's football field.
"I think they were smiling for that for months on end," Hawkins said of his performers. "Every time we perform, I think someone steps up and becomes a shining star."
Hawkins also leads the drumline at Henry High School, and he started up a rival drumline at North High to create the first drum battle between the schools in 2018.
"I'm telling y'all, if I see a competition, I'm jumping on it," Hawkins told students at a recent practice.
The North High grad and "utility drummer" can step in to play any instrument. "Someone did this for me growing up," said Hawkins. "So I had to be the person giving back. Because if I don't, the cycle will be broken."
TKO launched in 2010 at the charter school LoveWorks Academy For Arts, which relocated from Golden Valley to Minneapolis in 2020. D'Shonte Carter, 25, recalls practicing with only sticks and drum pads in seventh grade before they had instruments. The drum and drill team's show style has roots in Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs).
But, as Arthur Turner III, founder of the drumline and executive director at LoveWorks noted, they had to get creative.
"... I had literally no example in the community of people who looked like them doing what we were trying to do," said Turner. "I couldn't take them down the street to a Black college where they are going to see 150 to 200 people that look like them practicing and marching in parades, and a drumline playing funky rhythms and grooves that they truly enjoy."
Their solution? "We used to watch YouTube videos of Black colleges, making sure [the students] knew that it existed," Turner said.
The vision resonated with Carter, who went on to earn scholarships to Virginia State University. She now teaches music at LoveWorks.
"Mr. Turner and 'Uncle Byron' really exposed us to HBCU culture," Carter said, calling Hawkins by his nickname. "They really gave me a focus."
With a background in youth work and football coaching, Hawkins took over the drumline in 2016. Today the group practices twice weekly at the Zanewood Recreation Center in Brooklyn Park. Turnover can be high, and tutoring is available before practice to help kids keep up their grades and stick with the team.
Hawkins expects them to do their homework, too. "If you're not practicing on your own at home," he tells them, "you're not going to get any better."
It's a rebuilding year for the drumline. After swelling to 100 members, a group of majorettes recently split off to form a new troupe called the Dynamic Dolls Dance Team.
At a recent practice, beats thundered in the gym as about 25 kids drummed and danced to cadences performed from memory. Older drummers demonstrated rhythms for younger players until they caught on. At the close of practice, the kids switched spots to jam on instruments they don't normally play.
"We get along. We're like family," said Captain Anaya Nelson, 13.
"You can do cool beats," said Terion Allen, who said he's almost 8.
"You can travel to places you've never been to," said drillmaster Nevaeh Johnson, 15. Last year's competition in Denver took some students on their first plane rides.
Parent Beth Powers noted that Hawkins runs the drumline on top of his outreach work with the Minneapolis Youth Coordinating Board. He's also raising four kids.
"He doesn't give up. He doesn't quit," Powers said. "I really believe in what he does. … It's good structure for kids and an opportunity to travel. The competitions are lit."
TKO performs at parades, Henry High School basketball games and community events like Southside Back In The Day. Hawkins collaborated with the Minnesota Hip Hop Coalition to host a Minnesota Drill, Drum and Dance Competition in February 2020 that moved to a bigger venue when attendance grew to 900 people.
The next day, U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar's campaign called and asked TKO to perform at a rally. When protesters shut down the rally, TKO took the floor in what Hawkins described as a "unified moment" that lightened the tension, ending the night with applause.
The drumline is booked to perform Halloween at the former Target store in Brooklyn Center at a free youth event organized by Gospel singer Patton, a leader at The Wave church.
"Seeing so many young men doing something positive is just so impactful and what we need to see visually," Patton said.
"My hope, my prayer, is that they get more exposure, more funding, so they can keep doing the work without the stress of money and not being seen. … They are the heartbeat of the community. We need them."
Michelle Bruch is a Minneapolis freelance writer.