Kevin Olusola and Pentatonix Are Just Getting Started
Kevin Olusola, of Pentatonix fame, talks about his incredible journey to the top and his deeply-rooted foundation in Owensboro.
Owensboro boasts its fair share of homegrown talent – sports figures, actors, and artists who have all moved on from Owensboro to find fame and fortune. But none of them seems more humble and deeply appreciative to this community than Kevin Olusola, who has experienced world-wide fame as a member of the band, Pentatonix.
Winning the 2011 TV show competition The Sing Off, Pentatonix has soared to the top of Billboard’s Top 200, bested even Beyoncé in YouTube subscribers, and garnered millions of followers through social media, creating a very loyal fan base.
According to Kevin, the band saw a lot of “wow” moments in 2014.
“When our Christmas album went platinum…that was a big ‘wow’ moment, because we were only one of four albums to go platinum last year. So we had one of the highest selling albums last year, which is insane because we are an a cappella group.”
Pentatonix received the 2014 Grammy nomination for “Best Arrangement, Instrumental or A Cappella” for their song “Daft Punk.” “When we got the Grammy nomination, that was a very big ‘wow’ moment, especially for me,” Kevin said. “I have a story where I was in high school or before high school where I told my mom that I was going to take her to the prom and I didn’t. She said, ‘Well, I guess you are just going to have to take me to the Grammy’s.’ Obviously we were kind of joking about it. But when we got the Grammy nomination, I called her and said, ‘Mom, you remember when you said I was going to take you to the Grammy’s? Well, I’m taking you to the Grammy’s.’ We just burst out. It was euphoria… it was craziness. I mean I am 26 years old. This is not something that normally happens I feel like.”
Stories like this are what make Kevin so humble about his fame. Kevin’s father is a psychiatrist, originally from Nigeria, and his mother is a nurse, originally from Grenada. Both of his parents made sacrifices to give their three children every opportunity they wanted, and that sacrifice has always been a driving force behind Kevin’s push for success. Kevin accredits their influence as one reason he has been able to accomplish so much in 26 years. He also credits growing up in a community like Owensboro as the other significant factor in both his grounded nature and his achievements. In fact, this was a major reason the Olusola family chose to move from Philadelphia to Owensboro when Kevin was in the third grade.
After finishing residency at Albert Einstein Medical Center, Kevin’s father decided to relocate his family to a safer, more stable environment. According to Kevin, “He was kind of over being in big cities because of all the crime that was happening at that time. He said, ‘I kind of want to move to the safest place in America,’ somewhere that’s really nice, really chill, very safe, especially safe. And he found Owensboro, Kentucky.”
While most kids Kevin’s age may have hated moving from all the excitement a big city offers, this was not the case for Kevin. “I think that Owensboro was a great place for me to grow up to meet amazing people, to understand kindness, and being nice, and being a good person,” Kevin said. “I think some of these big cities, there’s a lot of distractions. The cool thing about Owensboro is that there are not that many distractions… so you can focus on raising a family; you can focus on teaching your children good skills to be a good person. I definitely learned that stuff.”
When the Olusola family arrived in Owensboro, Kevin attended Sutton Elementary School. Kevin then moved on to the Owensboro 5-6 Center and later Owensboro High School. The music programs he participated in through Owensboro Public Schools and other community organizations hold the fondest memories for Kevin.
Kevin especially remembers his cello teacher, Dr. Joan Mack, who he recognizes as a great influence on him. “She is the first teacher I ever had, and she helped me be the cellist I am today – getting those fundamentals and learning how to express myself through the cello,” Kevin said. “Dr. Mack – she was the first person to teach me how to learn about music, how to go and seek new ideas, and understand the fundamentals of playing the cello. I really liked that. I feel like I have applied that in so many things. Beatboxing is something that I kind of taught myself, but I think the mindset that she gave me and how to study music really helped me figure out how to use my skills.”
Kevin also credits Owensboro’s emphasis on the arts as a major factor contributing to his love of music and playing cello. “There are just so many opportunities, especially in the arts, where people can support and raise the standards of the arts,” Kevin said. “That’s just the great thing about Kentucky in general. They put so much money into state funding for the arts. I think Owensboro was a big recipient of that and was really influenced by that. There is just so much great music there, just because the community supports it. And when the community supports something, everyone goes all in and I love that.”
Although Kevin loved the cello and felt connected to music, he never intended for it to be his career. He left OHS in his sophomore year to attend boarding school at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts. While in boarding school, he continued to play cello and joined an a cappella group, where he began honing his beatboxing skills. After graduation, Kevin moved on to Yale University, where he began studying pre-medicine and East Asian studies. But musical opportunities continued to surface. He entered an online competition, “Celebrate and Collaborate with Yoyo Ma,” where he won second place. World-renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma told Kevin his music was “innovative and unexpected.” Kevin then opened for KRS-One, a hip-hop star, who told Kevin he had real potential in the world of rap. Despite being from two ends of the musical spectrum, Kevin took the words of these two artists as a sign. He then turned to his faith for answers.
Getting down on his knees in his dorm library, Kevin said, “God, I think you’re crazy. But I really, for some random reason, believe that you want me to do music as a career. I am not the best. I am not somebody who practiced all the time or continuously focused on this. But I believe you want me to do this. But God, if you want me to do this, you are going to have to make it happen, because I obviously don’t know what I am doing. After that, I knew I couldn’t go back on my word.”
While studying Chinese for a year and a half on a Yale Fellowship in China, he was inspired to combine his two talents of cello and beatboxing. “I posted a video of me “celloboxing” –playing cello and beatboxing simultaneously– a piece by Mark Summers called “Julie-O,” which went viral. From that, I was called by Gungor to go on tour with them and the David Crowder Band, in addition to audition with three singers from Texas and a bass singer from central California for NBC’s The Sing-Off.”
With opportunities like these, Kevin recognizes that his journey to success has been incredible. Still, it hasn’t lacked in setbacks. “There haven’t really been any worst moments, but there have definitely been setbacks,” Kevin said. “For example, when we won the TV show The Sing-Off, three weeks later we got dropped as an artist by our label, Epic Records, because they just didn’t believe that a cappella music could have a significant place in the industry. I can’t blame them for that. At that time, there hadn’t been any a cappella groups that had mainstream success, which these labels want. But I think that’s kind of one of the best things that could have happened to us, because from there we were able to kind of create the brand that we wanted to create, and figure out what ticks for us and what ticks for the audience. I think we figured that out, so we have a better understanding of self, so that if we do go to another label, which we are now… we are signed to RCA, they said ‘We can’t change you guys because you have built something that people want. So continue with that. We will just figure out how we take that and market it to a wider audience.’ So those setbacks have really been a blessing in disguise.”
When asked about the future of a cappella and Pentatonix’s goal for the genre, Kevin says, “I think a cappella has done some amazing things these past few years with Pitch Perfect and Glee, but I think for our band, what we just want to do is make great music. Whether people see it as a cappella or not, honestly. We literally just see ourselves as a normal band, we just happen to use our voices. The sound that you hear is not us trying to mimic different instruments, this is voices. We want to see if our music as Pentatonix has a place in this industry. Can we have chart-topping hits? Can we win Grammies? Can we headline big tours or be a supporting act for a big headlining tour? We just want to be a normal band that everyone enjoys, we just happen to not use instruments.”
Although he has no plans of leaving the band, Kevin is set to release a solo album sometime this year. It will feature Kevin playing cello and other stringed instruments, beatboxing, and singing.
“I think the best part of this journey is learning about myself in the context of music and working. I think the success, yeah, you see on paper. But the thing about that success is that I had to learn how to get to that place. You have to continuously seek who you are. That search for self has been so important to this journey. I feel like I have a better understanding of who I am and where I want to go in my life, musically, professionally, and also as a person, just where I want to be.”
Kevin has not been back to Owensboro since Christmas 2011, so Owensboro Living thought it would be fun to test just how “Owensboro” he really is… We think he passed! What do you think?
What would be your favorite thing Owensboro is known for?
Bluegrass Music for sure. And the International BBQ Festival. Because you know, every summer, if I was in Owensboro, I would for sure attend, because that was some of the greatest times!
Oh, and also the New Year’s Eve Party at the River Park Center. I remember it was a family night. Everyone would come. There was popcorn. I used to do that every New Year’s Eve growing up in Owensboro and I loved it!
Did the stairs at the public library scare you?
Yes! Absolutely. AB-solutely!
How do you pronounce the street that Owensboro High School is on?
Fred-rick-uh. Do people say Fred-ree-cuh? No, it’s
Fred-rick-uh. Don’t play!
Is it a soda, a pop or a coke?
If it’s a Coke-Cola, I call it a Coke. But I call it soda.
I feel like you’re Canadian if you say pop.