Go Away With … Kevin Olusola of Pentatonix

Kevin Olusola, Mitch Grassi, Scott Hoying, Kirstie Maldonado, Avi Kaplan. (Photo credit: Tim Cruz)

Photo © TIM CRUZ (Kevin Olusola, Mitch Grassi, Scott Hoying, Kirstie Maldonado, Avi Kaplan)


By Jae-Ha Kim
Tribune Media Services
March 26, 2013

The son of a Nigerian psychiatrist and a Grenadian nurse, Kevin Olusola enrolled at Yale University intending to pursue a medical career. But the classically trained cellist and innovative beatboxer couldn’t resist entering the “Celebrate and Collaborate with Yo-Yo Ma” international competition, where he won second place. As a member of the a cappella group Pentatonix, the 24-year-old musician and his bandmates won the third season of the NBC reality series “The Sing-Off.” Pentatonix is currently on tour promoting their CD “PTX, Vol. 1” and their latest single “Radioactive.” For tour dates, check out the band’s website. To stay in touch with Olusola, you may follow him on Twitter.

Q. You speak Mandarin. How did you learn to speak it so well?

A. I got interested in China during the summer after my freshman year in college. When I was at Yale, I was one of the students chosen to go to China. I lived there for 1-1/2 years and I can speak Mandarin fluently. I got to put some of it to use last year when the band flew over there for “The Sing-Off China.”

Q. Do you adapt well in foreign countries?

A. I do. My parents always instilled in me to be a citizen of the world, so that’s why I’ve taken to traveling and why it’s such a huge part of my life. I feel really comfortable in most places. I’ve been to Europe and Asia and explored the countries there. I studied a month in Costa Rica and loved it. I’m not scared to go abroad. I feel like I can figure things out and I know what to do. I actually love the challenge of being in a new place where I’m so obviously the foreigner.

Q. As an African-American, do you feel accepted when you’re visiting foreign countries?

A. So far, yes! When I lived in China, they were very excited about foreigners in general. They associated America with wealth, prosperity and progressiveness. I know that’s what they want for their country. When I was in Amsterdam, they were so interested in U.S. politics. I met a lot of people who know more about our politics than we do! They said they pay attention, because what happens in America affects the rest of the world.

Q. When did you feel like a fish out of water?

A. Hmmm, I guess linguistically, maybe in Japan. I’ve been there twice and loved it! But I was confused the whole time ‘cause I don’t speak Japanese at all. Tokyo was really quirky and interesting. I have friends there from school, though, so I got to hang out with them and they showed me around the spots that the locals go to.

Q. What destination stands out for good music?

A. I’ve traveled a good amount these past couple years and I can honestly say that each place has been unique. I loved Montreux, Switzerland. It’s so beautiful and the nightlife is really interesting. It was peaceful and beautiful. I was there while the Jazz Festival was going on, so there was that element of music, which I always love. It’s just so vibrant there, with a lot of life. It’s very hilly and wonderful. And Amsterdam was very cool. It seems to be a real music city.

Q. What was the most memorable trip you took as a child?

A. We went to South Africa to see family. I remember Johannesburg was beautiful. I remember going to a zoo and seeing my first white tiger. And I remember being really interested in the food. I was about five or six years old at the time. I just saw all my relatives again this past Christmas. It had been so long since we had seen each other.

Q. What’s the most important thing you’ve learned from your travels?

A. I think it’s that you need to be tenacious and resilient. Be brave and go into the unknown. I remember going to China for the first time and I couldn’t read anything. That was actually one of the prerequisites of the invitation — you had to not know the language. Initially I wanted to go ‘cause it was a free trip, sponsored by the Chinese government. I was a little scared at first because I was out of my element. And I’m African-American. We went to a village and these kids came up to me and rubbed my hand with their fingers and licked their fingers ‘cause they thought I was made of chocolate! I’ve never experienced anything like that before! The culture was so different, but I wanted to tackle it. And it was hard, but I learned so much.

Q. Tell me about a cultural mistake you made overseas.

A. I was on the bus in China and this girl and I were talking. I wasn’t very fluent at the time. I thought I told her, “If you have any questions, you can ask me.” And she slapped me in the face. It turns out I said the wrong word and had said that she could kiss me. All my Chinese friends were laughing at me and teasing me, saying, “Why are you trying to take our women?!” Even though you might fall down, you have to just keep going and do it and not give up.

Q. When you go away, what are some of your must-have items?

A. A computer and iPad, for sure. That way, I have my books on there that I want to read and movies and music that I’ve downloaded. For international trips, I also bring very comfy pajamas, because I want to sit down and sleep and not feel uncomfortable. Those are the main things. I don’t bring anything too crazy.

Q. Where would you like to go that you have never been to before?

A. Brazil. I just want to get there. Quincy Jones was talking about Brazil and the music there and how festive the people are. … I really want to get there. Also, Spain, and I’d like to get to southeast Asia and Dubai.

Q. Why is it so important to you to gain fans in China?

A. China is a huge part of my life and I want to do a lot of bilateral relationships with the two countries. I really want Pentatonix to be well known in China. It seems that a lot of American stars go to China, but don’t really have a huge connection with them. But for us—especially with me speaking Mandarin—and the way we interact with fans, we can do something really special. I just really believe that. We sings Chinese songs, and I think that helps them see that we do respect their culture. I have a Chinese Weibo account and I tweet all the Chinese a cappella groups all the time.

Q. Do you speak any other foreign languages?

A. My father is from Nigeria. They speak English there, but I speak a little of the regional language from my father’s area. I also speak a little Spanish and French. English speakers are so lucky, because it’s spoken in so many other countries. But we shouldn’t expect other people to be able to speak out language either, when we’re the visitors.

Q. When you travel, especially with the band, do you feel that you’re representing the U.S?

A. Absolutely. We’ve been to Canada and China together as a band, and we do feel like we’re ambassadors, at least for American a cappella. (Laughs.)

Q. Are you an adventurous eater?

A. Yes! I love eating food from other countries. It’s just a such a joy to get to eat the real thing. There are some things I might not like as much as what I’m used to, but I enjoy the experience. I think if you’re served food and don’t eat it, that’s a huge insult. I feel like I had a kind of international upbringing, and so I try to be global minded about food and people.


© 2013 JAE-HA KIM

Comments (24)

  1. Kevin says:

  2. Kevin says:

  3. Wendy Clare says:

    What awesome human beings you all are!!! Great interview. <

  4. Shana Rhine says:

    Awesome article! I’m just imagining children trying to taste Kevin now haha.

  5. Lucy Xu says:

    oh dear…sounds like you had quite the initial experience in China. But oh my gosh I want to travel to all those places that you were talking about now I did go to Spain twice–it’s definitely an amazing place!

  6. A Cappella HQ says:
  7. Nicole Horn says:

    The kids thought you were made of chocolate! That is hilarious!!

  8. Shakeel Bhamani says:

    I mean Kevin is a boss so…ignore that slap from the Chinese chick…

  9. Rasmus Heby says:

    Kevin is so fucking badass

  10. Arjun Kumar says:

    KEVIN!!! I am currently studying abroad in Madrid, Spain!! It is a phenomenal place!! I highly recommend it!! If you have any questions you can kiss me But for real! I would love to help ya out with Spain if you decide to go!!!!

  11. Spencer Katrina says:

    I volunteer to be Kevin’s tour guide in Spain. Call me. 🙂

  12. Lauren Smith says:

    Thanks for sharing your experiences, KEv!

  13. Daisy Pickford says:

    I love you guys! This is amassing!<3<3<3

  14. Chris Rice says:

    Kevin is such a great role model!

  15. Eliza Beth says:

    What a well rounded young man…very hard to come across these days, God Bless!

  16. Janet McGregor says:

    Come to New Zealand Kevin, and bring the rest of PTX with you we’d love to welcome you all!

  17. Cristy Vazq says:

    Kevin is just too awesome and talented. Btw, the part where the kids thought he was made of chocolate was way too cute

  18. Kevin says:
  19. Timothy Paul Atencio says:

    i read it. that was hilarious.. come to philippines kevin and bring PTX with you

  20. Jesse Day says:

    Classic rookie Chinese error, love it

  21. Joanne Czajkowski says:

    Kevin is an amazing man!

  22. Kimberly Schrader Brennan says:

    amazing! so talented, and seems so humble, all of them (Pentatonix) do. PTX rocks!!!

  23. Awe Heal says:

  24. Abimbola victor kimluis says:

    Love u kevin…come to Nigeria, we love u…olorun a ma ran ẹ lowo o

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