Some rules are made to be broken, even if those rules are unwritten.
That isn’t what Willner Baptiste, a.k.a. Will B, and Kevin Sylvester, a.k.a. Kev Marcus, had in mind when they picked up a viola and violin, respectively. But the more the two got together and collaborated, that’s exactly what ended up happening.
“We grew up playing classical music and learning the techniques and all that, but hip hop is a different animal. It’s about expressing and being yourself,” Baptiste said. “Where we came from, how we are raised, our environment makes the sound what it is. That influence has a lot to do with how we approach it.”
Baptiste and Sylvester both grew up in the inner city and met as classmates at Dillard High School in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. Though the two separated for a short time to attend different in-state colleges, they eventually reconnected to write and produce material and form Black Violin, performing music at Miami clubs that blended the classical with more contemporary musical elements of hip hop, pop and R&B.
While they may have received a few head-scratching reactions from classical purists, they were consistently winning over the crowds despite any initial skepticism toward their act. They even won over one of the most notorious crowds of all when they won the televised “Showtime at the Apollo” talent competition.
“It’s an incredible feeling to get a standing ovation at the Apollo,” Will Be said. “That’s when we realized we truly had something special.”
The exposure from “Showtime at the Apollo” led to some noteworthy performances and collaborations, whether it was playing with R&B superstar Alicia Keys at the 2004 Billboard Music Awards, sharing the stage with acts ranging from Kanye West and Wu-Tang Clan to Tom Petty and Aerosmith, or performing at one of President Barack Obama’s inaugural galas.
The duo has released three studio albums, including the 2015 major label debut “Stereotypes.” The album features appearances by rapper Black Thought from legendary hip hop band The Roots and Grammy-winning vocalist Melanie Fiona, among others, and debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Classical Music Crossover chart and No. 4 on the Billboard R&B chart.
Black Violin’s music can come together in a variety of ways, Baptiste said, whether they write and produce the track themselves or perform their solos over an already produced beat the same way an MC would drop rhymes over 16 bars. The goal in both its recordings and energetic live performances (which also features a drummer and DJ) is to take instruments that are often featured in the background of songs and hip hop samples and bring them to the forefront in a completely new way.
“When we step on stage, there’s always this chip on our back that we’ve got to show people what this is,” he said. “There’s just the idea that this instrument can only be in this world. It’s really breaking stereotypes in all different angles.”
Black Violin has a new album scheduled for release this year and is coming to perform at the EKU Center for the Arts in Richmond on April 19. Whether the duo are in the studio or on stage, Baptiste and Sylvester are trying to bridge the gap between genres and provide a musical experience many types of people can appreciate. Based on what they see from the stage, it appears to be working.
“That’s the amazing thing about music. There’s no color barrier. There’s no language barrier. There’s just the sound and everyone can understand that sound,” he said. “That’s what our music does and it brings people together and I see it every night that I’m on stage and it’s a beautiful thing to see.”
Blake Hannon: firstname.lastname@example.org
IF YOU GO
When: 7:30 p.m. April 19
Where: EKU Center for the Arts, 1 Hall Dr. Richmond
Tickets: $25 to $55