By: Tanasia Smith, Contributing Writer
Afro Blue, a jazz ensemble founded at Howard University in 2002 performed for President Obama on Thursday night (Dec. 1) with a range of stars from Chance the Rapper to Yolanda Adams at the National Christmas Tree Lighting in Washington, DC.
The group served as the performing choir and provided musical arrangements for a range of musical guests including Chance the Rapper, Yolanda Adams, Marc Anthony, and Kelly Clarkson.
This year’s lighting marked Obama’s eighth and final Christmas hoorah as the president. The members of Afro Blue appreciated having the chance to perform and celebrate with the President one last time. Jillian Willis, Howard University senior who sings alto in the group, said “To be a part of this is something I wouldn’t trade for anything. It was very special.”
The musical ensemble sang at the Apollo Theater in New York this past October. It was that performance that gained them the recognition which led to the opportunity of performing at this joyous occasion. Greg Fields, the associate producer of this year’s program, contacted the group’s director Connaitre Miller a few days after seeing them at “100: The Apollo Celebrates Ella!”
“Afro Blue has been a unique experience simply because of the variety of music that we do. There are so many different types of voices and we are able to stretch ourselves and use different parts of our voices to create new sounds,” said Matthew Robinson, 23, from Chicago. This experience, among performing at other high profile events, has allowed Afro Blue to practice at a level of professionalism and decorum well beyond their collegiate years.
As an added bonus, the group got the chance to mix and mingle with all of the performers backstage after the show. “This was a great opportunity and it can only go up from here,” said Willis, about the jazz ensemble of nine college students.
Robinson, who has participated in open mic nights and singing competitions with then-upcoming Chance the Rapper back home in the Southside of Chicago, reunited with his old time acquaintance backstage. This year has been crucial to the growing success of the independent rapper who has just been nominated for seven Grammys. The rapper released his first album Coloring Book which debuted at No. 8 on the Billboard 200.
Members of Afro Blue were most excited to sing with Chance simply because of how much he resonates with them. Robinson said, “There’s nothing more meaningful than real, genuine advice from someone who has been where you are.” The 23-year-old rapper gained notoriety by handing out physical copies of his mixtape #10Day to his classmates and people on the street when he was in high school. Afro Blue is no stranger to this type of hard work and opportunity, and truly hopes the breaks keep coming.
The 94th Annual Christmas Tree Lighting will premiere Monday, Dec. 5 on the Hallmark Channel at 7 p.m.