That sentence takes up an entire page of this writer’s notes for last night’s episode of The Sing-Off. I wrote it just as the judges’ decisions were announced: Urban Method and Pentatonix had been kicked upstairs to the finals, while Afro-Blue and Dartmouth Aires were asked to revisit the song they felt had been their most impactful during the season.
Seriously? Had these guys not heard the immaculate, beautiful rendition of “A Change Is Gonna Come” that had left me in tears and in chills? They must have—-they chose the song. Shawn Stockman told them it was their best performance. Sara Bareilles had gotten visibly choked up and said, “My God! That vocal! Oh my God!” Ben Folds had said, “That? That was a record. I’d buy that!” It was a summation of not only their style, but the lessons they’d painstakingly learned through the course of the show.
Had the judges not been dazzled by the stunning ambition and success of their “master mix” of R. Kelly‘s “I Believe I Can Fly” and Nikki Minaj‘s “Fly,” the only one to attempt to do both pieces simultaneously instead of back-and-forth, and the only one that insolubly fused the lyrical messages of the two songs? Hadn’t they been blown away by Christie Dashiell and Trenton Cokley‘s absurdly imaginative co-lead, and shocked by Mariah Maxwell‘s rap? Did Bareilles not praise the group for their “heart, humility, and so much courage”?
What the hell was this?
And as it turned out, the whole “the judges aren’t sure, please sing one more song” bit was a red herring. Announcing their choices, Bareilles said she’d chosen Dartmouth Aires because they’d consistently reached her emotionally. Stockman chose Afro-Blue because he heard commercial potential in them. Folds said Dartmouth Aires had connected with their material all throughout. Not one of these explanations hinged on hearing “American Boy” again.
This writer’s note on hearing Folds announce for Dartmouth Aires:
That one took up two pages.
And yet, Afro-Blue themselves made clear that they were not shocked and disgusted. Members of the group took to social media to insist that the experience was an honor and a pleasure, and to thank everyone who supported them. Some even pushed back against angry criticisms of the judges. Brian Vickers, for one, would not let this writer assert that Afro-Blue had been robbed. (Hey, I never claimed to be impartial.) Danielle Withers, meanwhile, directed irked viewers to a blog entry written by Folds on The Sing-Off‘s website. Folds admits that Afro-Blue was his personal favorite of the season; points out that a jazz group would rarely have made it onto such a show in the first place, let alone make the final four; and even offers both a mea culpa of sorts and a benediction:
I think the judges unwittingly asked them to dumb things down, and as a result, Afro-Blue became unfocused in the middle of the season and didn’t always scan on TV quite as well as some of the others. But we knew what they were capable of and tried our best to navigate the integrity of the show, the entertainment value and our personal artistic tastes.
I hope that jazz educators and students can glean some inspiration from the brave men and women of Afro-Blue! They continue as a group within Howard University while the current members who were represented on the show will also move forward. Keep your eye on them as a group and individually. Like much of The Sing-Off talent, you won’t have heard the last from them!
That’s undoubtedly true. We have witnessed the artistic breakthrough of an extraordinary vocal ensemble who was well known in town, and may now be able to move to a larger stage. Within their ranks have come at least three with real star potential (Dashiell, Withers, and Reginald Bowens, for whom I hope a career as “human upright bass” becomes a viable path), and surely more to come. These are college kids—-and already as accomplished as some of our most respected jazz veterans.
Hence, this writer hereby dials back the disgust at Afro-Blue’s elimination and shifts toward congratulations and pride for the group, what they’ve done, and what they will certainly do in the future. Good on you, Afro-Blue. We’re honored to have you among us.