Courtesy of Xavier Washington

Approximately 70 people sit in various corners of the Ezra Stiles common room, their heads swaying back and forth as Xavier Washington ’20, robed in a classic all-black suit and backed by a small ensemble, sings Marvin Gaye’s lyrics.

“What’s going on?” he sings to the audience.

“What’s going on?” they sing back. The audience members, sitting cross-legged, join the performance, pulled in by Washington’s vocals.

Weeks later, when Washington recalled that moment, he noted the powerful connection he felt with the crowd.

“Every time I watch that video I just sit there and smile at it, because I was there, and they were there with me,” Washington said. “That was really the first moment when I thought: okay, I have to do this.”

When he began making music, Washington did not intend to pursue a professional career in performance. He sang in his church growing up and played various instruments in his high school band, where he led the ensemble as its drum major for a year. During the first week of his tenure, Washington tried to memorize the names and faces of every musician in the roughly 100-person band, aiming to foster a sense of community.

Upon arriving at Yale, Washington began to sing with the a cappella group Shades of Yale, an ensemble dedicated to celebrating music of the African Diaspora. Participating in Shades was Washington’s first experience performing with a quasi-professional group, and he learned how to engage with an intimate group of voices performing music he knew well.

This school year has been one of experimentation. Washington left Shades in order to pursue solo musical projects and ended up auditioning for the Yale Glee Club — an ensemble focused on the union of many voices rather than individual performances. Last semester, Washington also decided to challenge himself by enrolling in voice lessons for the first time. The classical repertoire he engaged with in his lessons differed drastically from the gospel and R&B Washington performs, but he said that these ventures across genre and training style have made him more cognizant of techniques such as breath and vocal tone.

Near the end of the fall semester, Washington realized that he had not devoted as much time to solo musical projects as he had hoped. He had been posting covers to popular songs on his social media accounts, collaborating with his friend Max Lukianchikov ’20 — a math major with an interest in producing music.

“I turned my bedroom into a small studio fitted with some basic recording equipment and we’ve been producing song covers ever since for [Washington’s] YouTube channel,” Lukianchikov said. “[Washington] and I also hope to release a studio album later this semester, but we’re first working on developing his brand.”

Lukianchikov said Washington is the most talented singer he has ever worked with, capable of performing difficult melodies “despite never having studied music theory.”

Yet this amount of artistic production did not satisfy Washington, so he decided to host a short concert to close the fall semester. He garnered help from Lukianchikov and Alex DiMeglio ’20, both of whom agreed to be instrumentalists at the event. Washington’s friends Jheri Richards ’20, Noelle Mercer ’21 and Amara Mgbeike ’22 sang alongside him.

Mgbeike met Washington through the a cappella group Shades, of which she is a member.

“I knew about Xavier Washington before I knew Xavier Washington,” Mgbeike said. “His reputation truly precedes him.”

Mgbeike noted Washington’s “tenacity and drive,” highlighting his commitment to organizing and rehearsing for his concert, despite bouts of illness.

The group of students scheduled weekly rehearsals over the last month of the semester and eventually prepared an hour-long set to be performed before a packed common room.

“This is actually the last song, this is actually it,” Washington laughed, in the middle of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” while his band continued to play. “I want to thank each and every one of you from the bottom of my heart and I want to remember every face that was here. Please make sure to spread the word — I don’t know what I’m trying to do, but maybe make art, who knows?”

The cheer that followed affirmed his sentiment.

Rianna Turner | rianna.turner@yale.edu