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Black Violin Spans Musical Worlds to Open Hearts and Minds

Stanford Live

1/27–1/28

Give a large slice of the credit for protecting, preserving, and propelling the future relevancy of classical music to moms.

Who, other than mothers, has throughout history played a larger role in shoving a violin under the chin of a wiggly boy or reminding a willful girl it’s time to stop climbing trees and sit down at the keyboard?

At the very least, lovers of classical music who want the art form to maintain its rigorous training, respect its history, and simultaneously evolve, can rejoice in the mothers of Kev Marcus (given name, Kevin Sylvester) and Wil B (Wilner Baptiste). The two classically trained musicians make up the duo Black Violin. Their virtuoso fusion of hip-hop and classical music bring to sold-out arenas and concert halls Biggie and Bach, Wu-Tang Clan and Wagner. Add to that the influences of R&B, pop, soul, gospel, and funk, and see that audiences revel in more combinations: Mozart melded with Curtis Mayfield, Shostakovich shaded by the technique and style of early 20th-century jazz violinist Stuff Smith, and so on.

The two musicians, in an interview, credit their mothers and the support of the mothers of their children — Sylvester and his wife, Anne Sylvester, have three daughters; Baptiste and his wife, Corryn Freeman, have a newborn — with providing firm footing for where they stand today. Sylvester once pilfered candy from a store and wound up holding a violin instead, his mother’s solution. Baptiste sought the saxophone and says he loves the deep tones of the cello, but settled by default for the viola at a summer music camp long ago. The duo met as high school students in Florida. After their second period orchestra class led by James Miles, a teacher they cite as “monumentally influential,” they walked to third period listening to Mary J. Blige, Biggie, and other hip-hop artists.

 

After high school, Sylvester attended Florida International University; Baptiste, Florida State University. They eventually reunited and began producing hip-hop beats and mixing them with violin and viola for their clients. Soon enough, they were making their own tapes. They sent one to Showtime at the Apollo, where it languished for two years. In 2004, a producer stumbled upon it and invited them to enter the 2005 competition. They won the $20,000 prize and today play an average of 160 shows and perform in front of close to 50,000 kids across North America each year. Reaching children of color is particularly important. Changing public perception of who black musicians are and what stringed instruments can do is the mission behind their music.

“Any time I play my instrument,” says Sylvester, “it allows me to, in an instant, change people’s perception of the violin. A guy that loves hip-hop can change people’s perception. It’s my favorite thing about it.”

Second favorite thing? Playing the violin changes his self-definition also.

“I love that it empowers me. The songlike character is the closest thing to the human voice. I can’t sing at all, but the violin can.”

Baptiste, who performs most of Black Violin’s vocals, has a mellow, naturally compelling voice with meticulous delivery. He says the viola allows him to be free. “I’m able to express myself unapologetically. It allows me to be who I am. My favorite string instrument is the cello, but a viola gives you a little of everything. You can get darker tones but then go up high.”

Being classically trained, Baptiste says they “know the scales” and have analyzed chords and other technical elements so thoroughly that onstage, Sylvester says they are able to “not think and just freestyle.” Tossing around their thoughts on the net effect of receiving classical training while embedded in hip-hop culture, they agree that it allows them to hear music in different, but timeless ways. “Producers today that make music for dances in clubs — well, Mozart made music for ballets and parties. When I think of making music, it bridges the gap and connects both worlds,” says Baptiste.

Sylvester is an avid Bach man. “He’s the equalizer. Hardest to play. You have to be perfect because he exposes you.” When he listens to Bach’s music (despite saying he’s unable to sing, Sylvester hums several fluid, perfectly pleasant renditions of familiar Bach motifs), he hears the same loops he recognizes in hip-hop. “It’s Drake,” he says, referring to Canadian musician Aubrey Drake Graham, “doing the same thing as Bach, 300 years later.” Combining Bach’s and Drake’s four- or eight-bar loops is an obvious matchup, he claims.

Although Baptiste says there are obvious differences between the R&B and soul music he admires and opera, he doesn’t throw up a wall between the genres. “When I’m writing something that will complement the viola and violin, I’m always thinking about how it connects to me singing the melody. It’s subtle, but it works when you think of it from a classical standpoint. It’s just that we’re doing opera in a new era.”

That new era has them performing often. Which invites answers to practical questions: When do they practice? How do they maintain their classical chops? Are they ever injured? How do they settle disputes?

“We do so many shows, honestly, we’re practicing onstage while we’re performing,” says Baptiste. “Last night, we had to perform a piece with an orchestra and approach it in a subtle way that I hadn’t done in a while. I worked it onstage. You know, I can play for my wife and she says, ‘great.’ But I say, ‘It sucks because I haven’t been practicing.’ The hip-hop stuff is easy, but an etude forces me to have to focus to play it right.”

Sylvester is a gym rat and says he’s more likely to get injured lifting weights than playing the violin. Even so, if he feels the consistency of his sound is slipping, he’ll double down on his forearm. “The classical is our essence, but we maintain both (classical and hip-hop) so we’re inclusive. We try to stay in the middle of the pack.”

Stereotypes, their new album, arguably breaks open that “middle of the pack” position — not with the sometimes transparent, didactic lyrics, but by providing 11 highly energized, deftly rendered tracks that blend multiple genres. Guest musicians, including drummer Daru Jones (Jack White), guitarist Eric Krasno (Soulive), and string arranger Rob Moose, add collective clout that widens the sonic palette. The title track, Sylvester says, took only an hour to compose. “The song materialized quickly; it was the last song we wrote. The producer made the beats while we laid the strings and chords. My wife and three daughters are the voices you hear. Every song is its own journey.”

As a creative team, they value the ways in which they are unalike. Sylvester says he’s prone to “heady fixation” about whether a VI or IV chord should be used, but that Baptiste is “the best kind of person to be with in a band because he’s a believer, plays nine instruments, and thinks from the heart perspective.” Baptiste, alternatively, describes Sylvester as incredibly bright and able to break things down. “For me, if it feels good, it feels good. Kev tries and tries, always thinking, until he can find the best possible approach.”

Most importantly, they have mutual goals. “We want to change the world one string at a time,” says Baptiste. Sylvester, true to form, analyzes and specifies: “We want more of megaphone to bring hip-hop into classical. Instead of opening for Kanye West, we open for orchestras. We’re pushing classical music forward.”

And when Black Violin takes its music to schools and communities to perform for boys and girls whose minds suddenly fill with the idea that they too, might play Biggie and Bach or Mayfield and Mozart, mothers everywhere stand at the ready, instruments in hand. Somewhere, everywhere, mothers deserve standing ovations.

Lou Fancher is a San Francisco Bay Area writer. Her work has been published by WIRED.com, Diablo Magazine, Oakland Tribune, Contra Costa Times, InDance, East Bay Express, Oakland Magazine, SF Weekly, and others.  She is a children's book author, designer and illustrator, with over 50 books in print. Also a choreographer, ballet master and teacher, she coaches professional ballet and contemporary dance companies in the U. S. and Canada.  Visit her website online at www.johnsonandfancher.com.

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