‘Already a superstar’: Xavier Washington ’20+1 takes center stage singing at Yale and auditioning for American Idol
After an exciting music career at Yale, Xavier Washington ’21 has his sights set on the next big thing — American Idol.
Washington is a senior at Yale from Georgia majoring in African American studies. When he’s not at the seminar table, Washington fills his time with musical extracurriculars — including a cappella group Shades at Yale, the Yale Glee Club and the Whiffenpoofs. As a singer at Yale, Washington has done everything from touring the country to taking the stage at Yale’s Spring Fling in 2019. He can now check off another item on his bucket list: successfully auditioning for the hit television series “American Idol.” He is scheduled to appear on an unspecified date in season four of the show.
“With music you don’t know what can happen after this, but I can at least say that I had four, now five, years of time at Yale where I just did music and had fun with it, and I met a lot of people, and I grew and improved myself,” Washington told the News. “That can’t be taken away from me; that literally made my entire experience here.”
Although Washington was taking remote classes at Yale during the fall semester, that didn’t stop him from auditioning for this season of “American Idol.” Early last semester, he sent in a virtual audition and earned an invitation for a second, in-person, audition in Los Angeles last fall.
In the hours leading up to the second-round audition, Washington attended his remote Chinese class via Zoom from his hotel room.
In an interview with the News, Washington recalled meeting celebrity judges Katy Perry, Luke Bryan and Lionel Richie at the audition.
“It’s so weird to actually see [the judges] and be auditioning for them,” Washington said. “So that experience was really cool, I’m excited to see what it actually looks like on camera. … I enjoyed it, I was super nervous, but I tried to give my all so I hope to see where that goes.”
Then, on Dec. 31, his birthday, family members called him to tell him that they had seen him in an American Idol commercial. He was ecstatic.
Washington has a lifelong relationship with music. Raised in a devout Christian household in Atlanta, Georgia, he began singing in his church’s choir while in elementary school, occasionally performing solos. Growing up, Washington said, singing was always an integral way to interact with his church community.
After coming to Yale, Washington decided to join Shades because he was familiar with the group’s repertoire — Shades aims to celebrate the music of the African diaspora and the African American tradition.
Shades member Noelle Mercer ’22 remembers hearing Washington sing during the 2017 Cultural Connections pre-orientation program talent show.
“My jaw was on the floor the entire performance,” Mercer said. “I remember being like, he has one of the best voices I ever heard.”
Two years later, Mercer sang backup vocals for Washington on the 2019 Spring Fling stage. She said it was one of the highlights of her Yale experience.
Amara Mgbeike ’22, another member of Shades, also sang backup for Washington during that year’s Spring Fling. Mgbeike said Washington “curated an experience for the audience,” in part by crafting audience-specific set lists and ensuring that the group rehearsed diligently. Mercer likened Washington’s performance to something characteristic of Prince.
“Zay’s incredible, and I’m still learning from him as much as I can,” Mgbeike told the News. “It’s important to surround yourself with people that inspire you.”
Washington is also the leader in the baritone section of the Yale Glee Club. When he joined the group as a junior, he had no experience with choral music. Washington said he went on tour with the Yale Glee Club in 2019, performing in England and Scotland.
“Whether he wins on ‘American Idol’ or not, Xavier is already a superstar as far as the Glee Club is concerned,” said Jeffrey Douma, director of the Yale Glee Club. “It was immediately clear from his beautiful sound, incredible vocal control and outstanding ear that he would be a wonderful addition to the ensemble.”
Washington left the Glee Club temporarily when he was accepted as a member of the Whiffenpoofs during his junior year. He took a gap year to go on a singing tour around the country with the group, visiting California and Colorado and even riding a private jet to visit Fort Worth, Texas.
“There’s so many things you get to see [and] do because of these groups and because of the history and the resources that they have,” Washington said. “Before Yale, I hadn’t seen that many places around the country.”
While on tour, Washington brought the Whiffenpoofs to his high school — Miller Grove High School — to perform. He remains the first and only student from his high school to go to Yale. Washington said he was proud to visit his school because he was able to show students from his community that they, too, could have access to the same opportunities.
Now, Washington said, he is trying to figure out where his music will take him career-wise. He said that regardless of his career path, he wants to do something that will allow him to continue growing as an artist.
“There’s no formula to it, which sucks because you could post a video one day and that one video [could] be the thing that catapults your career,” Washington said.
Douma said he thinks that success as a performer is determined more by perseverance and hard work than talent. According to Douma, Washington’s positive energy and dedication will allow him to go far in a music career.
“If any student I’ve known in my 18 years teaching at Yale has a shot, it’s Xavier,” said Douma. “I can’t wait to see what the future brings from him as a performer.”
Washington also works as a teaching assistant for the Morse Chorale, a youth choir sponsored by Yale’s Music in Schools Initiative.
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