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Go away with Kevin Olusola

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 capella 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 at To stay in touch with Olusola, you may follow him @Kolusola.

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.