Kevin Olusola ’11 and his a cappella group, Pentatonix, are in the middle of a sold-out American tour, and when that wraps up, they are headed to Europe. His group’s videos can garner over 6 million views in less than a week, and their channel is the 16th-most subscribed music channel on YouTube. His “celloboxing” videos, in which he combines classical cello playing with popular music and beatboxing, consistently go viral. But before any of this happened, Olusola was one of us — a Yalie. After coming back to campus to give a TEDxYale talk before a packed Sudler Hall on Tuesday, Olusola sat down with WEEKEND to discuss his journey from pre-med student to star musician, his mission to make classical music relevant again, and what it’s like to be on Sesame Street.
Q. Were you involved in music at Yale? Did Yale a cappella shape your decision to get involved with a cappella at all?
A. I didn’t do any a cappella here, to be honest. I was in YSO and a chamber music group, and I started a jazz trio my senior year. And you know what, I think I’m actually glad I didn’t do a cappella in college, because if I had done that, I wonder if it would’ve given me a preconceived notion of how a cappella should be. With my band, none of us really had that much a cappella experience, so we came into it with very fresh ears. We thought, we don’t know what a cappella is like, but let’s try anything and everything. Not having any boxes set up really gave us the opportunity to push boundaries, cause we didn’t know we were pushing them. We were just doing whatever felt natural. So I didn’t do it here, but I think it turned out to be something that might have benefited me in the end.
Q. At your TEDxYale talk, you discussed making classical music more relevant by adding elements of pop. Does that mean classical music has to change to be relevant today?
A. Wow, that’s a tough question. I think that if we use the same formula that we’ve always been using, I’m not sure if people will see it as relevant. One really cool thing I’ve seen is these YouTube videos of orchestras out in squares in Europe playing for people, and the people are like, “This so cool.” I think there has to be way where we bring classical music to them. People are distracted by so many different things nowadays, there’s gotta be ways to grab their attention. One way is taking orchestra pieces and adding something to them that people can understand or relate to, like beats. That’s what I tried to do with “Julio,” [the piece I played for my first viral video]. I tried to take this piece that was more of a modern day classical piece, but add beats, to give it a swagger that I thought people could relate to. I don’t know if it’s things that have to change about classical music itself, but we have to shove it in people’s faces so they can see it, and say, “Wow, I didn’t know this was cool, that it was something that could be relevant to my life.”
Q. What do you think makes Pentatonix different from other musical groups on YouTube? Why are you guys so successful?
A. I think what we’ve done is realize that people want a more organic sound. In today’s industry, pop music is so electronic, so drum and base heavy, so auto-tuned. I think there is a good amount of people that want a more raw, organic sound. I think that’s what we provide, but we also do it in a way that people can understand and relate to. Also, there are a lot of vocal acrobatics. We try to create moments where people say, “Oh my gosh, I can’t believe they did that with their voices.”
Q. Tell me about the decision to get involved with music right out of Yale. You were pre-med when you came in — those are very different tracks. Can you talk about that decision-making process?
A. I actually finished all my pre-med requirements at Yale. But during my junior year, two big things happened to me. First, I did a competition online that Yo-Yo Ma hosted, called the “Celebrate & Collaborate with Yo-Yo Ma” contest. I got second place, and Yo-Yo Ma said my music was “inventive and unexpected,” and that was very surprising to me, because I think that’s the essence of who he is as cellist. The second thing was that I got to open for KRS-One, this old-school rapper, after he visited Southern Connecticut State. He came backstage after we were done, and he said to me, “You could continue this. You could really change the way people view hip hop.” That was when I realized that two people on completely opposite sides of the music spectrum were telling me something very similar, which was that the music I was doing was very different and very cool. That gave me a lot of validation and strength to pursue music.
Q. Was it scary deciding to do music instead of going to medical school?
A. It was very scary. I don’t know if that’s something that you’re taught at Yale — how do you pursue something like music? It’s such an open-ended question. The only thing I knew was that I had a very unique vision of how I wanted to do that – I could do this cello and beatboxing thing, and I knew that was kind of special. What I’ve learned is you need a team to be successful in this industry. You can’t do it alone. You always need someone to watch your back. That’s why we have a manager and all these people that help us make this work. They give us so much advice from other people’s experiences about how to pursue this.
Q. Do you think Yale’s environment, where so many people go into consulting or more traditional paths, was conducive to your decision to pursue music?
A. You know what, I do think so. There are definitely a lot of people who go into consulting, law, medicine or more traditional paths. But I know for myself, even though I was on a traditional path in medicine, I definitely explored. That’s why I love this place. Yale has the resources to make things happen, and if they don’t have it here, then you have to be willing to push for it — but that’s just a trait in life that you need. In the long run, pushing for it, and making those things happen, will help you out in whatever career you’re in. Whatever you want to do here, you can make it happen. It just might take some exploration at the end of the day.
Q. Do you have any advice for Yalies who want to go into music, or any other more unconventional track?
A. If you’re trying to do music, I would say start looking within yourself, and find who you are and what kind of stuff you like doing. Hone in on those unique gifts you have in music. And start putting your stuff on YouTube — it’s a free, amazing way to get your music across and start building your own fan base. If you want to be an artist or producer, you can show so many people who you are. That’s what I did, and that’s how I got to meet such cool people like [renowned record producer] Quincy Jones and the people in Pentatonix.
For people pursuing other unconventional paths, I would say really learn and figure out how people do things in that industry. That’s one of the things that has really helped our band: not just being passionate, but having a tailored passion. We understand that we want to get this music across, but we want to do it in a way that everybody can enjoy it. That’s why we choose pop covers, because we know that’ll get a wide audience. But we’re also passionate about doing music in our own way; that’s why we do a cappella, which is very unconventional.
Q. You guys have done a commercial which aired during the Grammys, you have a sold-out tour, you’ve been on Sesame Street — what has been the coolest thing you’ve gotten to do?
A. Definitely Sesame Street. Oh my god, literally, I almost cried. Because the thing is, those Muppets, they don’t break character. The whole time, while they were talking regularly, they were talking in the same voice. I was screaming. I was so happy. I would do it again in a heartbeat. Touring Europe was also a huge moment, because it’s cool to know that just because of YouTube, we had a fan base that could sell out venues in Europe. This time we’re going back and doing venues upwards of 2,000 people, and selling them out, only because of YouTube. That’s crazy to me. I just love this band. I literally love every single person in it. They mean so much to me.
Q. What is your musical guilty pleasure?
A. Justin Bieber has this new album called “Complete My Journals.” This thing was actually dope. After hearing it, I was like, “OK, you better grow up,” because it was great. You’ve messed up, but that was great.
Correction: Mar. 7
A previous version of this article mistakenly stated the piece Olusola performed as “Julio.” In fact, the piece is called “Julie-O.”