For our latest Forum Preview interview, we spoke with Kevin Olusola, whose unique beatbox cello performances are unlike anything you’ve ever seen or heard. In just over two weeks, the 24-year-old Mandarin-speaking Yale grad will bring his talents to New York City’s TimesCenter as one of three performers at our fifth-annual Forum. In the Q&A below, he talks about from where the inspiration came for mixing classical and hip hop, shares his thoughts on artists selling song rights to brands for commercial purposes, and reveals a little bit about the performance he’ll give on November 7th.
Which came first, the cello or the beatboxing? When did you–and what inspired you to–marry the two?
The cello came first. My parents wanted me to play the cello, because they thought it would help me get into college. African-Carribbean parents (laughs). Beatboxing came shortly afterwards. I made the decision to marry the two during my sophomore summer in China. I was studying Chinese there, and during class I always talked about my cello and would beatbox for my teachers, who found it amusing. One teacher challenged me to combine the two skills. I thought she was crazy…until I tried it. Since then, I’ve dedicated myself to perfect the artform.
How would you describe your music to someone who has never heard you play?
At this point, I’d describe it as a fusion of pop, hip-hop, R&B, and classical with strong melodies that hook you in. My ultimate goal is to make my instrument sing with a modern voice just like Chris Brown, Stevie Wonder, Rihanna, etc. But there’s still so much music I want to explore!
How did your Asian studies major in college influence your music?
My education didn’t exactly influence the music itself, but it did help me to better understand how to use music as part of a larger platform. Studying East Asia and living in China compelled me to to become an advocate of cultural diplomacy. I truly believe that music can be one of the keys to strengthening the dialogue between countries over the long-term. For example, let’s say I go to China and perform American music for young Chinese students. I believe that the music, along with my interaction with them, will leave a long-lasting positive impression–so when they grow up and become the leaders of China, their mindset toward the U.S. might be more favorable. I want to continue to find opportunities to be a cultural ambassador for the U.S. and strengthen our relations with countries around the world.
How has your classical music training shaped you as a person and artist? And contemporary music? Are the disciplines distinctly different in that way?
I think my classical training gave me a strong foundation for thinking deeply about music. Understanding what the piece means, figuring out what technique I’ll use to express myself, finding ways to be accurate and consistent, etc., all of these stemmed from my training. I think it’s the same for contemporary music. The one thing I see that’s different between the two is the concept of groove and feel–something that classical musicians have a harder time with. They may be playing a song in tempo, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they are grooving. That’s something that comes from listening to a lot of contemporary music and making it a part of your soul.
Do you collaborate with other musicians? Who would your dream collaborator be?
Absolutely. I love collaborating with others. I learn so much about myself. Right now, I’m collaborating with singer-songwriter Antoniette Costa and pianist/violinist Tara Kamangar on a classical hip-hop album. I think it’s going to be very fresh. I’d love to work with Justin Timberlake, Ryan Leslie, Hiromi Uehara…so many different people I admire.
What do you like most about the music industry today, and what do you hope will change over the next five years?
What I like about the music industry today is that everyone has a fair shot of getting recognized for their talent. The Internet has been an amazing platform for unique musicians to showcase their art to the world and gain a fan base. If it wasn’t for YouTube and social media, there’s no way I would have been able to jumpstart my career as a cellist and beatboxer with my band Pentatonix. We tour the same venues as major label artists, and that’s without the large investment that labels pour into radio and marketing for their artist. The one thing I think the industry hasn’t yet figured out is how to get these artists with their massive online fan base onto radio formats. That’s probably the one thing I hope will evolve in the future.
At the Forum next month there will be a lot of brand executives in the audience. How do you feel about artists who allow their music to be part of ad campaigns? Would you ever do this?
I actually think it’s awesome. Brands need music to convey a certain ideal or emotion. Why not partner with an artist that can help make your brand’s vision clearer to your audience? I love it!
What can we expect from your performance on November 7th?
A lot of fun, a lot of cello, and a whole lot of beatboxing!
For more information on attending the L2 Forum, please visit our event site or contact Event Manager Sierra Schaller.
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