Arts and Culture

Local brass band transforms George Floyd Square with music

Butchy Austin, one of Brass Solidarity's leaders, plays sousaphone at their July 17, 2023 performance at George Floyd Square in south Minneapolis.
Jon Collins | MPR News

In the wake of the police murder of George Floyd in May 2020, Butchy Austin was looking for a way to grieve and connect to his south Minneapolis community. He dusted off his trumpet and walked from his home to the intersection of 38th Street and Chicago Avenue, where Floyd was murdered by a Minneapolis police officer. And he played.

“It became a place of healing for me, an easier way to process what was happening using my music,” Austin said. “But other people were sharing too — that was healing for me, as well.”  

Austin and other musicians who had the same idea of bringing music to what’s now called George Floyd Square started playing together every Monday, eventually naming themselves Brass Solidarity and committing to be a voice for justice and Black liberation.  

Samuel Brooks works for the U.S. Postal Service for his day job but has been playing tenor sax with the band for about a year. 

“There’s nothing I could really do about the George Floyd situation, but it affected me profoundly because I’ve been looking over my shoulder for many decades, and that could have been me. And I said, ‘This is a great way to express myself and to support the community.’”

A revolving cast of up to 50 people now play with Brass Solidarity for different events or the weekly performance. Brooks is an experienced musician but says the beauty of the community band comes from its comradery, even if everyone doesn’t come with the same experiences. 

Brass Solidarity members practice Alicia Keys' 'Girl on Fire" at George Floyd Square during their weekly Monday performance on July 17, 2023 in Minneapolis.
Jon Collins | MPR News

“It’s volunteer, so everybody is doing it for the love,” Brooks said. “They’re doing it to change the way that the world looks at George Floyd Square.” 

At 4:30 in the afternoon at George Floyd Square in south Minneapolis, members of Brass Solidarity are filtering into the square with instruments in tow. They gather in a circle in the shade of an old Speedway gas station’s canopy. The gas station’s sign has been painted over to read “People’s Way” in tall red letters.  

There’s a line of trumpets, saxophones, a sousaphone and even a melodica. One man scrapes out the rhythm on a washboard while other members tap it out on marching drums or clang on a cowbell. As onlookers wander through the memorial for Floyd across the street, the band warms up with their first number: “When the Saints Go Marching In.”

Brass Solidarity play community events like the annual remembrance of George Floyd and the local Mayday festival. Some members, including Brooks, even traveled to Indianapolis earlier this year in support of Herman Whitfield III, who was killed by police while suffering from a mental health crisis.   

Brass Solidarity leader Anthony Afful plays sousaphone at their weekly performance at George Floyd Square on Monday in Minneapolis.
Jon Collins | MPR News

The band’s mission is fundamental to the project. The second song they play is ‘Turn Me Around’ by Mavis Staples, who sings that she’s not going to let anybody turn her around, but she’ll keep on “walking on to freedom land.” 

Kristen Froebel helped found the group and plays alto saxophone. She sees Brass Solidarity as a fundamental part of the more than three-year occupation of the square by activists and neighborhood residents after Floyd’s killing. She said the band reflects that struggle in their choice of songs.

“We are part of a legacy and a lineage of civil rights songs, we go back to history,” Froebel said. “We feel like we’re part of history and we’re drawing strength from those songs, those civil rights songs.”  

Brass Solidarity also just started arranging a version of the Alicia Keys song, “Girl on Fire” as a testament to Black women.  

The band is intentionally multi-racial. Each practice, they take an intermission for what they call “shop talk,” where members discuss issues of race, white supremacy and privilege. Froebel, one of the band’s white members, said the approach isn’t about glossing over individual identities, but about creating a more liberated space together. 

Brass Solidarity band members look on as a bandmate plays a tenor saxophone solo at George Floyd Square on Monday in Minneapolis.
Jon Collins | MPR News

“What we know is that when we’re here we’re together in unity, and we’re together with grace, and we’re together with the aspiration to provide healing for the square and for our community,” Froebel said.

Natalie Peterson is a Minneapolis teacher who first encountered the group when band members showed up to support last year’s teacher strike. Peterson said the band has offered her an opportunity as a white person to learn from others about the long history of racism in the city of Minneapolis.

She said the band’s energetic sound is intentional, even though they’re focused on heavy topics like racism and police violence. 

“We also have seen in the last few years that there’s a lot of work that can be done through energizing people and just bringing a joyful energy to something that can be incredibly hard,” Peterson said. “I think what’s there is the hope for the future, the hope for Minneapolis.”

Brass Solidarity is also unique in welcoming musicians at all different skill levels. Members range from students to professionals. The brass-focused band even has played with an accordion once. 

Raycurt Johnson is a professionally-trained musician who met members of the group after he started bringing his violin to the square because it seemed “too gloomy.” He said the band’s performances are almost a ritual to him. He moved around the group on Monday playing percussion and leading a chant in honor of George Floyd.  

Butchy Austin, Natalie Peterson and Samuel Brooks of Brass Solidarity at their weekly performance at George Floyd Square o Monday in Minneapolis.
Jon Collins | MPR News

He said being welcoming to bandmates and visitors to the square models how everyone should interact.  

“As a solo artist or whatever, I’ve written songs: ‘Everybody wants to be loved. Say what you want, say what you will, say what you want it to be,’” Johnson said.

Another of the band’s fundamental principles is to empower Black people and people of color as band leaders. Butchy Austin grew up on the south side, and played trumpet at school and in church with his father, who was also a musician.  

Austin said the many band members from diverse backgrounds and with diverse skill sets are united by their commitment to social change. 

“We all come with the same mission, similar values, and wanting to center the movement for Black lives and Black liberation to focus on racial justice efforts, to bring healing, joy, love to a community that’s been traumatized, to really center the voices of those who are marginalized and disenfranchised, and use our sound to amplify that message for justice,” Austin said.  

a man plays a trumpet
Butchy Austin (left) performs with other musicians outside of the Hennepin County Government Center after a jury found former Brooklyn Center police officer Kimberly Potter guilty of both manslaughter charges brought against her in Minneapolis on Dec. 23, 2021.
Tim Evans for MPR News

That’s not to say that the band doesn’t sometimes experience internal struggles or challenges, especially in connecting with people of color who play instruments associated with brass bands. But they’re reaching towards those visions, and even exploring projects like an instrument lending library, a youth brass band or satellite brass bands in other cities. Austin said their mission is to embrace diversity at all levels.   

“We said many times, bring your gifts to the square,” Austin said. “You can have gifts at any level of competency, and still use those gifts to bring change.” 

Austin’s surprised when people call the band “the soundtrack of this movement,” but said he’s happy to amplify the message at George Floyd Square, while also bringing hope and joy to communities traumatized by racist systems that stretch much further back than Floyd’s killing.

”Everybody loves a brass band. I’m sorry. But if you hear a brass band and don’t start dancing, I think there’s something wrong with you,” Austin said. “We want to bring that energy, that excitement, that joy, get people dancing, and hopefully feeling a little bit better leaving, than coming in.”