To hear the violin/viola duo Black Violin saw their way through a Bach Brandenburg Concerto is to have one's preconceived notions about classical music forever changed. Is that jazz, R&B, roots, pop and hip-hop mingling with Bach's adagios and cadenzas?
Yes and yes again. The classical music tradition would seem to be steeped in strict rules, but Kevin Sylvester and Wilner Baptiste, who will be at the Embassy Theatre Thursday, October 26 for an 7 p.m. performance, have made it part of their mission as Black Violin to break such rules and even rewrite them entirely.
Sylvester and Baptiste, known to their fans as Kev Marcus and Wil B respectively, met at Dillard High School of the Performing Arts in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Kev Marcus plays the violin, Wil B the viola. Neither was interested in joining the string section, but Sylvester was pressured by his mom to pick up a bow, and Baptiste, intent upon playing the saxophone, was thrown into the wrong class. The rest, as they say, is hip-hop history.
In the Dillard High halls, Marcus and Baptiste listened almost exclusively to R&B and rap. They lived for artists like Trina and and Tupac and Trick, but in second period orchestra class it was all about the masters. Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, you name it, the boys studied it and played it to the best of their ability. Their ability turned out to be pretty stellar, earning them both full scholarships to college.
In an interview with Tavis Smiley, Baptiste said the blending of classical and hip-hop was as natural as breathing.
"We lived hip-hop," he said. "We just happened to play the violin. It was just natural for us to put the two together. And if you think of hip-hop in it's essence, it's all about being creative and, you know, thinking outside the box. So it was just really natural for us to put the two together. We lived in both worlds. We understood both worlds equally. For us it was a very organic situation and we went to a school where it's just like everybody kind of looked like us."
The two friends went to different colleges - Marcus to Florida International University and Baptiste to Florida State - but reunited shortly after graduation to form the DKNEX production company. They then took the name Black Violin in homage to jazz violinist Stuff Smith's final solo album. Their goal as a group go far beyond simple entertainment. They hoped to inspire a new generation of young artists to pursue their dreams, to approach a venerated form and make it their own.
"I think the classical purists, you know, they understand it as well," Marcus said in that same Smiley interview. "I mean, we're breathing life into it, especially with the young people. We perform for 200,000 young kids every year ... so they're up dancing the entire time, but it's a violin concert. It's really about taking that and expanding it and just making it something that they can think like, wow, look at these violins. What can I do with it? So the classical purists, you know, I think they see that and they respect that from us."
In 2004, the duo played with superstar Alicia Keys as part of the Billboard Music Awards, and quite suddenly they were in high demand. Soon they were accompanying the likes of Kanye West and Tom Petty and Linkin Park and the Wu-Tang Clan and they were playing to sold-out crowds all over the world. They were also invited to play Barack Obama's inaugural ball.
Four years after the fateful performance with Keys, Marcus and Baptiste put out their eponymous debut, and in 2012 they followed that up with Classically Trained. Both albums came out on their DKNEX label. In 2015, they signed with Universal to record Stereotypes, an eclectic 11-tracker of original tunes featuring a who's who of studio collaborators, including the rapper Pharoahe Monch, the singer Melanie Fiona and drummer Daru Jones.
The title of the album is both charged and ironic. It is meant to inspire listeners to question their own presumptions about classical music and the kind of people that play it. According to reviewer Marc Rivers of A Tribe Called News, Stereotypes is an album designed to bring people together. Classical music fan, meet hip-hop lover. Listen. Dance. Become friends.
"Baptiste and Marcus see no reason that a viola or violin can't get the party going. They also don't want elitist thinking looking down on hip-hop. On the title track and throughout, Marcus and Baptiste work their bows furiously, as if each note is swatting away the sort of stereotypes they get regular people (including Marcus himself) to discuss on the song," wrote Rivers.
Since releasing Stereotypes, Marcus and Baptiste have continued to hit the road, spreading the word that (a) classical music is cool and (b) hip-hop is classic. Last year, they launched their Unity Tour, putting out this statement in advance:
"Through the message of Black Violin's music, we've spent the last 10 years working to encourage and empower people of all ages, ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds to find what connects us rather than shine a light on what divides us. This past year alone, we've played for nearly 100,000 students and over 125 public shows across the U.S. and Europe. We've taken this opportunity to spread a message that challenges the world's view of what it means to rise above labels, be daring enough to follow their passion and most of all, be true to themselves. As black men living in America, we understand challenges and we also understand the power of 'I can't,' yet we decide to live by and promote the power of 'I can.' We realize that every opportunity to connect our diverse fans is an opportunity to break down the barriers that separate us, empower individuality and encourage progress."
It's music with meaning. One can't help thinking that Bach would be proud.