Black Violin, I heard of a long while back, but then I lost track of them. I found their DMX feature “I’m a Ryder” first. Being an 80’s and 90’s enjoyer of rap, DMX was one of my original faves. Yeah, those were the days. But, I have always been a fan of any artist combining theatrical or instrumental, and symphonic stylings with mainstream music. This just was over the top. I loved it then and I love it now. Now that someone has reintroduced me to Black Violin by sharing a Facebook post of one of their more recent YouTube videos. I can’t remember who shared it, but I owe them.
PERSONAL/ PROFESSIONAL HISTORY
Black Violin is a hip-hop instrumentalist group from Ft. Lauderdale, Florida led by classically trained string players Wil B. (Wilner Baptiste – viola) and Kev Marcus (Kevin Sylvester – violin). These two gentlemen have been performing together for 4 decades. Joining them onstage are DJ SPS and drummer Nat Stokes. So, to get to the history of the band, you kind of need to get everyone’s history leading into it.
Both members attended Dillard High School of Performing Arts, where they met and had the same music teacher. Back in those days playing a classical, stringed instrument was considered elitist, but both young men were also heavily into hip-hop music as well. Their interests in both would pay off.
Baptiste originally wanted to play saxophone but learned the viola as it was the only instrument available in class. He has since decided that staying with the viola was the correct choice as it opened a lot of doors for him. Baptiste went on to attend Florida State University on a full scholarship.
According to Sylvester, in the fifth grade: “I got into a little trouble…and my mom said she needed me to get into something, so she took me to Saturday morning violin class.” The rest is history. Sylvester went on to attend Florida International University on a full scholarship.
Remember, Black Violin began as a tour group, before YouTube (they had a MySpace page) – so everything was old school. It wasn’t until later that social media became a help for them. Everything was word of mouth and fans bringing in more fans. As Kev Marcus explains in a 303Magazine.com interview:
“Like, when we were starting in 2000 in south Florida, we’d go to these clubs in Miami, and our manager would be like, “Hey, we got these two black guys, they play the violin, you gotta see ‘em, they’re gonna kill the club tonight.” And they’d just laugh us out the door. They were like, “What are you talking about? This is South Beach. You’re talking about violins coming in here?” We’ve always had to prove ourselves. People were always telling us, “No, this is not going to work today, sorry, we don’t have space for you, no, we can’t put you on this.” We’ve always had that, and I think it’s because we never believed any of it that we’re able to have the careers that we have.”
They developed an act covering hip-hop songs on their violins, which became popular in local clubs. Two years after sending in a tape to Showtime at the Apollo, they were invited to appear on the show—which they continually won!
They were approached by the manager of Alicia Keys, who asked them to perform with the singer on the Billboard Awards.
Other offers followed—they toured with Mike Shinoda of Linkin Park, opened for the Wu-Tang Clan, composed the music for several hit shows and sporting events.
In 2011, they performed for troops in Iraq. “It was an amazing opportunity and I’ll never forget that,” says Kev Marcus
They played for President Obama’s second inauguration in 2013.
Black Violin continued touring while also collaborating with other artists and composing music, playing as many as 200 shows a year, and released two independent, self-financed albums before releasing the acclaimed Stereotypes in 2016. They also went on tour with 2Cellos in Europe during that time frame. Soon enough, Stereotypes hit #1 on Billboard’s Classical Crossover chart and #4 on Billboard’s R&B Chart.
They had two sold-out shows at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts with the National Symphony Orchestra commemorating the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s death.
Take the Stairs was released on November 1, 2019, and includes the critically acclaimed singles “Showoff”, “One Step”, and “Impossible is Possible”. The record debuted at #1 on the Billboard Classical Chart, #1 on the Billboard Classical Crossover Chart, #7 on Billboard’s Top New Artists Chart, and #9 on the Billboard Hip Hop and R&B Chart. It was also nominated for a Grammy in the category Best Contemporary Instrumental Album.
STYLE AND INFLUENCE
They are a genre-defying act and that is precisely what grabs the attention of an audience in this day and age. The band uses its unique blend of classical and hip-hop music to overcome stereotypes while encouraging people of all ages, races, and economic backgrounds to join together to break down cultural barriers. I feel like the influence and style of this group is more or less their passion for making sure that kids of all backgrounds learn to ignore perceived barriers to their future.
But it also comes down to a passion for the music, specifically the classical interwoven with the hip-hop sounds. Classical seems so unyielding whereas hip-hop seems to have a smooth flow. However, as Kev points out in an interview with 303Magazine.com, the two styles also have similarities that the group pulls together. That 4/4 time, the tempos, the key signatures – all of these things are often shared between classical and hip-hop. Therefore, Black Violin takes from both and melds them into the sound we get from them today. Kev Marcus states:
“We’re trying to make the violin lead, and we’re using hip-hop and pop sensibilities to tackle the music itself. We try to make the violin either rap or sing parts and lead the song. Our sort of secret sauce is implementing the hip-hop/pop culture into extremely classical music and using classical instruments to do so.”
Therefore, musically speaking, Black Violins is influenced by classical composers and hip-hop artists, though the band also admits to being influenced by some rock bands, such as Imagine Dragons more recently. They are simply all about breaking down stereotypes and speaking of, that’s one of my favorite songs by them – “Stereotypes”.
COLLABORATIONS & CONNECTIONS
Black Violin has performed for over 100,000 students in the US and Europe and has partnered with Yamaha and NAMM (National Association of Music Manufactures) to continue supporting music education. The Black Violin Foundation reaches students through free performances and works through youth symphonies, community centers, and low-income, Title 1 schools. The duo’s wives are the co-directors of the foundation.
The group maintains a mentorship program at Mary M. Bethune Elementary School in Broward County, Florida.
Black Violin, alongside artists such as Yo-Yo Ma and Elton John, recently joined Turnaround Arts – a program of the John F. Kennedy Center for Performing Arts founded by President Obama’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities in 2012 – to bring arts education to struggling schools in underserved communities.
They have been featured on The Tonight Show, Ellen, The Wendy Williams Show, NPR, and more.
Black Violin has composed for a major FOX Television original Pitch and has been featured by ESPN as the official artist of the 2017 US Open and 2016 & 2017 Heisman Trophy Award ceremonies.
The group has collaborated creatively with artists such as Kanye West, Aerosmith, Tom Petty, Wu-Tang Clan, Wyclef Jean, Mike Shinoda, and Alicia Keys. Both individually and together Wil and Kev have worked with Alessia Cara, 2 Chainz, and Lil Wayne – but always represented Black Violin.
ORIGINAL SONGS or DISCOGRAPHY
- Black Violin 2008
- Classically Trained 2012
- Stereotypes 2015
- Take the Stairs 2019
- Give Thanks 2020
- Unleashed 2006
- Unleashed II 2009
In 2021, they had an interview on NPR Morning Edition that you can find here.
As of this article – touring is back in the plans! It’s been over a year since they had to cancel their Impossible Tour and now Black Violin is picking right back up where they left off and even adding more dates!
They also plan to be at Musikfest 2021 in mid-August of this year in Bethlehem, PA.
Check out their Twitter feed for the latest updates.
Similar Sound: Hmmm… I mean, I could definitely just mention a lot of classically trained and well-known musicians that play strings. But to be honest, they don’t mix their music with hip-hop sounds. That’s part of what makes Black Violin so unique.
FIND OUT MORE:
As always, if you want to share more, or feel I’ve missed something, let me know by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.