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‘It Took So Much Work’: How Divas And Drummers of Compton Beat Out Thousands to Compete on ‘America’s Got Talent’

The pop-culture depictions of Compton, California, often leave the impression that good things aren’t happening in the city. One local group, however, aimed to give a new look to Compton when they took their talents to NBC-TV’s popular television show “America’s Got Talent.” The nonprofit 1 Shine Youth Services is home to many programs such as dance, cheer, performing arts, music education and a drumline, academic tutoring and more. 

“Dance is one of the things that we’re able to use to bring the kids in the community creatively together,” said Kehli Berry, a Compton native and the founder and leader of 1 Shine. “We teach leadership skills through dance, we teach about creative expression, about femininity and really being able to be yourself — releasing your emotions through dance,” she said. 

The organization’s dance group The Divas of Compton joined forces with the L.A. Limited Addition drumline, led by Krystal Smith, aka Coach. “It’s a group of kids that want an outlet and want to be seen and be involved in anything,” Smith said. 

Berry and Smith already were acquainted from the L.A. performance scene when Berry approached Smith with the idea to conquer one of America’s biggest talent stages and stun audiences with their sweet sounds and high-energy dance routines. What was born was a powerful merger called the Divas and Drummers of Compton. “It’s been bliss ever since,” said Smith.

Bliss, however, isn’t the word one usually associates with Compton. In the 1970s, the neighborhood had one of the highest crime rates in California. By the 1980s, it had gained national attention for gang violence, and was even cited by the FBI as having the eighth highest crime rates in the country. That Compton, however, isn’t quite the Compton of today, or the even the Compton in which Kehli Berry says she grew up.

“My childhood was filled with so much fun things. I really explored a lot,” Berry said. “Of course we have pockets and neighborhoods where it may be gangs and what not, but it’s definitely home to families,” she explained. “My parents sought after the best in Compton and provided me with that.  So everything that was good in Compton, I was a part of and that which wasn’t, I was sheltered away from.”

Berry’s idea for bringing a boost to Compton’s reputation was founding the 1 Shine Youth Services, and after many suggestions from parents and colleagues, taking on the arduous task of auditioning for “America’s Got Talent.” 

“It literally took so much work to bring everybody together in the middle of a pandemic and to try to socially distance,” Berry said of the preparation for the show, adding that due to COVID-19 restrictions, they couldn’t rehearse in their Compton studio. “We were outside in parking lots, alleys, random parks, going from park to park — before we got kicked out of a park because they were like ‘You guys are too loud’ or ‘The ordinance. Only 10 people or less!’ So we were like, ‘Where do we go?’ But we were able to make it work.”

Make it work is a humble statement because, despite the odds, the team made their way to the quarterfinals of the competition.

“Despite the pandemic and everything we’re not supposed to do, we still were able to beat the odds and come out of it real strong,” Coach K said of the team’s feat. “It’s mind-blowing because they wouldn’t think that we would have this opportunity to be seen on such a platform. These kids are really getting the opportunity of a lifetime that we never got, so it’s been great.” 

The Divas and Drummers, and audiences across the country, waited with bated breath as the results were announced of the teams moving on to the semifinals of the show.  Unfortunately, their names were not to be called. That, however, hasn’t damped their gratitude and joy.    

Being quarter finalists in ‘America’s Got Talent’ is something that’s worthy in itself,” Berry said. “Out of thousands of people worldwide that auditioned for this show, we were a part of the top 20 and that is something that our kids are proud of.”

In the wake of their elimination from the series, the group hasn’t slowed down despite Berry encouraging the kids to take some time off. “They don’t even want a week off, they’re ready to go the next day and that’s a mindset they get from seeing themselves win,” Berry said.  She says they are setting new goals, and preparing to take advantage of the blessings coming their way. “Although we didn’t win ‘America’s Got Talent,’ they are victorious and they are winners because they were able to see themselves go from one level to the next. So we’re celebrating the milestones along the way, and so we’re proud of them.”

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