Howard Students Go From 'The Sing-Off' To Success

The a cappella group Traces of Blue joins host Michel Martin for an in-studio performance. i i

The a cappella group Traces of Blue joins host Michel Martin for an in-studio performance. Amy Ta/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Amy Ta/NPR
The a cappella group Traces of Blue joins host Michel Martin for an in-studio performance.

The a cappella group Traces of Blue joins host Michel Martin for an in-studio performance.

Amy Ta/NPR

Traces of Blue isn't quite a household name just yet, but if you're familiar with NBC's The Sing-Off, you might remember them by their old name, Afro-Blue, the a cappella jazz group hailing from Howard University in Washington, D.C.

They recently took a break from working on their debut EP to stop by NPR's D.C. studios for a special performance.

"What attracts me and probably the rest of the group to jazz is how amazing and beautiful an art form it is," says vocalist Danielle Withers, in an interview with Tell Me More host Michel Martin. "There are so many amazing musicians and singers that we all look up to that perform this beautiful art of music, and to have an opportunity to be a part of that history in any way is definitely something that I was definitely really excited to be a part of."

Interview Highlights

On juggling music and school

"I just try to remember my priorities, try to remember what's important. It's such a great opportunity to be able to do so many things. And I guess having in the back of your mind that not everyone has that kind of opportunity kind of drives you to strive to make it work," says John Kennibrew, a member of the group. "Like, I'm in school — I have to get good grades. That's, like, non-negotiable. But I also want to be in this amazing group, so OK. I have this kind of time, I have this kind of money, all those things; you find out how to use your resources."

On combining jazz with contemporary pop

"All of us really are part of this generation, which means we don't listen to just jazz," says Kennibrew. "We're influenced by just about every other kind of music that you can think of. And a lot of the elements that are in those [types of] music that makes those genres so accessible, so attractive to people, they often find their way into what we do anyway. So that's probably what I love most about this group. We're able to offer jazz to you on a plate with a whole lot of sides that you really like. So you're like, 'OK, I'll try this main course because I know I'm gonna love the mashed potatoes.' "

On not winning The Sing-Off

"We basically didn't think we'd make it as far as we did on the show," says Withers. "I mean, some of us have watched The Sing-Off in the past. We know it's a pop show. You go on the show and you're singing these popular songs from the radio. And we were a jazz ensemble form Howard University. Everything is very — we're using our minds, everything is very calculated, and there's nothing really poppy about what we come from. And so we were really excited to have made it onto the show at all."

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