Cyndi Lauper is smiling somewhere. KO – aka Kevin Olusola from Pentatonix – offers his rendition on one of her classics in a stunning video, and tells us all about what went into his new transformative EP.
There’s a sublime beauty in the simple – if done right. KO proves this in his video for his take on Cyndi Lauper’s “True Colors.” On the surface, it’s a simple concept: a burst of color (courtesy of dancer Gabriella Barra and her chameleonic bodysuit) explodes in a black-and-white world in a laundromat, a place where colors are separated, bleached, and folded uniformly. Simple? Perhaps. But, when stripped away of any unnecessary pretense or overly complicated artifice, the video is a powerful statement.
“I really wanted to convey that breaking out of the status quo, aka showing your true colors, can be beautiful in a monochromatic, conventional world,” KO (aka Kevin Olusola of Pentatonix fame) tells HollywoodLife. “I loved the idea of a dancer showing their colors while performing an elaborate dance in a space that most people see as a bit mundane and ordinary.” KO challenges the “status quo” on his new EP, Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood. With a title taken from The Animals song of the same name, Misunderstood showcases KO’s incredible voice and creative talents as he reimagines songs from The Animals, Yusuf Islam (aka Cat Stevens), Crowded House and more. Folk classics and garage rock staples are turned into dancefloor bangers.
KO talked to HollywoodLife over email about why he chose to cover a 1965 rock and roll track (and why he named his EP after it), why he picked that MJ song to cover, and the artist he’s been playing on repeat during the quarantine.
HollywoodLife: The video for “True Colors” is so ingenious in its concept and execution. Like, the idea of colors and a laundromat makes perfect sense, and the visual performance is brilliant. What inspired the video’s concept?
KO: Wow, thank you! I really wanted to convey that breaking out of the status quo, aka showing your true colors, can be beautiful in a monochromatic, conventional world. I loved the idea of a dancer showing their colors while performing an elaborate dance in a space that most people see as a bit mundane and ordinary. Shout out to the whole team that made the concept come to life! I’m very proud of this one.
Similarly, you covered “Human Nature,” not one of the songs most people equate with Michael Jackson’s Thriller album. Why did you pick this one?
I absolutely looooove this song! It was more my production concept that inspired me to cover it. I was actually producing out a Chinese song for my Weibo (similar to Twitter in China) that sounded like The 1975’s “Somebody Else” mixed with UK dance music, and immediately the idea to produce “Human Nature” in the same manner hit me. I was pretty nervous releasing this one because I know how revered this song is, and I didn’t want to mess it up! But thankfully, listeners have given me so much positive feedback.
As someone who owns a 45 of The Animal’s “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” transfer this garage rock staple into a vibrant dance track. What inspired you to give this song a personal makeover?
You know, it was actually my PTX A&R Keith Naftaly who recommended it because he knows how much I love classic-sounding melodies. I was inspired by Santa Esmeralda’s version of it in Kill Bill Vol. 1 and knew I wanted to have a similar four-on-the-floor beat but go more Daft Punk with it. I also heard these beautiful strings that I knew I could add to make my version different. I presented the idea to my production friends, “The Xi,” who understood precisely what I was going for, and I’m super happy with the final product.
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You also named your EP after this song/cover. What was the motivation for this? Just because the title is cool?
Well, as a black man, it feels like some people have an idea of who I’m supposed to be rather than knowing who I actually am. Sometimes they assume they know how I should talk, act, dress, or what music I listen to. But usually, their assumptions are wrong. I have Nigerian and Grenadian roots, I play the cello, was trained classically in saxophone and piano, I beatbox, I attended an elite boarding school and an Ivy League college. I am someone who wanted to attend medical school, plus I’m fluent in Mandarin.
On the one hand, I’m proud of the opportunity to showcase a different story of what it means to be black, other than what is often propagated in the media. On the other hand, even though I accept my uniqueness, it sometimes feels like I’m being seen for my Wikipedia bio rather than the human I am, which can be sad, confusing, and lonely at times. My hope is that the message of the EP/title track lets people know that there’s much more than meets the eye when it comes to KO. I also hope it reaches others that have felt misunderstood and want to be heard for their authentic selves.
Since your EP is full of transformative covers, is there a particular cover song by someone else that you absolutely love?
The Phil Collins version of “True Colors” is the version I listen to all the time. It’s what inspired me to do my own version of the song.
Finally, what’s one album or song that has been on repeat in your home during quarantine?
Oooooo. Good question. Well, I’ve been listening to a good amount of Afropop. Burna Boy, Davido, LADIPOE, Odunsi, and others. It’s a viiiiiiiibe. I’ve also been loving some of the songs off of the new The Weeknd album, especially “Scared To Live.”
Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood is out now.