THE AUDACITY OF VIOLINS
HARLEM — 2004 — It was “Showtime at the Apollo” and every act was on edge. Please the tough audience and you got applause, a chance to go further in the competition. Suck and you got booed off stage. Waiting their turn, Kevin Sylvester and Wilner Baptiste, fresh off a plane from Florida, listened in dismay as act after act drew resounding boos.
“We looked down at our violins and said, ‘What are we doin’ here?’”
Two guys. Two black dudes. Two stringed instruments linked to Mozart and Beethoven. A curious combo on any stage. “I look like I should be a linebacker,” Sylvester said. Baptiste could be auditioning for a Spike Lee movie. But put a violin in Sylvester’s hands, hand a viola to Baptiste, and the result is magic. The magic is “Black Violin.”
Stepping onstage at the Apollo, Kev Marcus (Sylvester) and Wil B (Baptiste) simply blew the audience away. Blending classical riffs with hip-hop, forging a style all their own, “Black Violin” did not just avoid boos. They won the competition and have been onstage ever since.
Two weeks after winning at the Apollo, “Black Violin” played the Billboard awards, backing hip-hop artist Alicia Keys. Next came years as the “string section” for assorted rappers. In 2008, they broke into their own with an album and a world tour that saw them open for Kanye West in Dubai and Jay-Z in Switzerland. Since then, they have played Super Bowls, Broadway, Obama’s second inaugural. . .
Not bad for a pair of reluctant kids steered toward string music in grammar school.
“I got into a little trouble in my neighborhood,” Sylvester recalled, “and my mom said she needed me to get into something. So she took me to Saturday morning violin class. Didn’t want to play it. I didn’t want to be the violinist in my neighborhood.”
Baptiste wanted to play the sax but “they put me in the wrong class. True story. I’m grateful for it. ‘Black Saxophone’ just doesn’t have the same ring to it.”
The two met at Dillard High School for the Performing Arts in Fort Lauderdale. There they studied Bach and Beethoven but between classes, listened to Tupac and Biggie. Sylvester earned first chair in the school orchestra, Baptiste second. And both earned full college scholarships. After graduation, they weren’t sure where to take their blend of hip-hop and Haydn. An orchestra? Clubs? The street?
Setting up a studio in Miami, they began devising hip-hop beats, inviting local artists to sample. As the beats went on, they took out their strings and went full fortissimo. “Whatever it is,” musicians said, “I want THAT.”
Club owners were a tougher sell. Two guys. Two black dudes. Violin and viola? Then one afternoon, the duo pulled their manager’s SUV in front of a club in South Beach. Setting up a sound system, they began flailing their bows. They were hired to play inside that night.
They might have been just a novelty, but Sylvester and Baptiste decided early on that “Black Violin” would not just be about the violin.
“At first, we leaned on the fact that we were different more than on our technique,” Sylvester said. “We wanted you to be confused. Later, we kept our core message, but with more gravitas, more seriousness. Not just be crazy and different, but really step it up and be badass violinists.”
Playing 200 annual concerts, “Black Violin” also reaches out to kids, performing for some 50,000 a year. Young audiences not known for embracing Bach and his boys leap to their feet. Baptist’s sweet voice blends with Sylvester’s strings, giving LudwigB and WolfgangM a larger message.
“We want to make sure that not only are they thinking about playing the violin or playing other instruments but that they think about what they can do differently in their lives. So whether they want to be scientists or lawyers or hockey stars, to make sure they’re thinking about doing it differently.”
And to help kids “do it differently,” the Black Violin Foundation offers scholarships and awards to young classical musicians.
Two guys. Two black dudes. Half a string quartet. Makes you want to kick the “stereo” out of stereotype. And in their song “Stereotype,” “Black Violin” does. After haunting strings, then upbeat riffs, voiceovers define “stereotype” and its dangers. Then Sylvester speaks:
“Mine is clear, mine is really easy. My Number One stereotype is — just because I’m six foot two, 260 pounds doesn’t mean you’re supposed to be afraid of me.”
Yet the typecasting, the profiling persist. “Black Violin” welcomes each chance to break each confining mold. “The reason I smile onstage,” Sylvester says in “Stereotype,” “is because I know I am completely crushing people’s perceptions of not only what a violin can do, what music can sound like, but also what a black man is capable of.”