Four professional singers offered their critiques of 10 musical performances in front of an intent crowd at the Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater on Tuesday night in the District's version of "American Idol," complete with a real "Idol" winner on the panel.
The District of Columbia College Access Program, or DC-CAP, brought in celebrity judges -- "Idol" winner Jordin Sparks, Amber Riley (Mercedes on Fox's "Glee"), D.C. native Denyce Graves and Patti LaBelle, fresh from a fundraising performance at the Kennedy Center the previous night -- to give away college scholarships to musically gifted high-schoolers.
The judging ranged in tone from flirty to Paula Abdul-esque but steered clear of Simon Cowell-style diatribes at an event staged to showcase D.C. talent, including multiple singers, two dancers, two violinists and one saxophone player. Sparks and Graves, in particular, seemed determined to blend encouragement with advice.
"I think it's important that things are earned and that young people learn right away to have to work and endeavor toward something," Graves told Yeas & Nays.
The scholarships given away Tuesday add to about $2.7 million that the DC-CAP nonprofit gives away each year. The musical competition is partially an attempt to push back against negative stereotypes of District students, explained DC-CAP President Argelia Rodriguez.
"Before we started [the nonprofit in 1998], only about 25 to 30 percent [of District students] were going to college; now we're up to 62 percent," Rodriguez said. "Only about 15 percent were graduating, and now we graduate around 40 percent."
Chabeli Arroyo, the senior at Duke Ellington School of the Arts who won the first prize $10,000 scholarship singing "Ride Up in the Chariot," said it meant "everything" to get a good review from opera singer Graves.
"Everyone was like, 'You're going to sing a classical piece at the Kennedy Center when everyone is singing theatrical songs?' " she told Yeas & Nays. "Duke is helping me look at music in a different perspective. Classical music is the root of music."
We spotted former NFL football players Ken Harvey (Washington Redskins) and Leland Melvin (Detroit Lions, later a NASA astronaut) chatting at a crowded reception following the event, and both credited Washington-area benefactors for supporting D.C. students.
"Sometimes you just have to tap the potential or put it in the right direction," Harvey said, joking that he enjoyed the performances even though he's "tone-deaf."