Think of it as Jay-Z meets Mozart.
Black Violin — the Florida-based string duo that combines classical music training with hip-hop, funk, R&B, pop and rock — will make two concert stops in Northern Utah in the next week. Violinist Kevin Sylvester and violist Wilner Baptiste will perform Friday at Ellen Eccles Theatre in Logan, then follow up with a Tuesday show at the University of Utah’s Kingsbury Hall in Salt Lake City.
Going by the stage names Kev Marcus and Wil B., the two musicians merge string arrangements with modern beats and vocals to create what has been described as “classical boom.”
When I caught up with Black Violin earlier this month they were at home, getting ready to embark on the first leg of their 2020 tour.
“There’s definitely excitement,” Baptiste said of the upcoming shows after a break for the holidays. “I can’t wait to get on stage and do what I do. But at the same time you’re leaving your family, and you go through missing them again.”
Still, Baptiste said the drawbacks of being out on the road, away from loved ones, are worth it to serve the greater good with their music. Outreach is a big part of the band’s motivation, and the musicians regularly work with youth musicians or invite students up on stage with them.
“We look at it as it’s a movement that’s bigger than us,” he said.
Baptiste said it’s rewarding to see the way young people are impacted by a Black Violin show.
“They come to a concert, and they’re told they’re going to a violin concert, so they’re, like, ‘OK, here we go …’” he said. “But then it’s this rock concert with two black dudes — and they’re completely blown away.”
But Baptiste also points out that Black Violin is not about “two black guys,” and it’s not just about the violin, either.
“It’s about being yourself, thinking differently, loving yourself,” he said. “Once we started noticing the impact we have, we realized we just can’t ignore it.”
To that end, last year the two men started the Black Violin Foundation, a nonprofit organization designed to help young, struggling musicians.
“It’s just kind of like an add-on to what we do,” Baptiste said, “It’s extending that idea of inclusion and allowing kids to be who they are.”
Right now, Baptiste said the goal of the Black Violin Foundation is to identify young musicians “who need that one thing to elevate them,” and then provide it. For example, maybe a student is applying to colleges, and she needs an instrument that’s good enough to audition for their music programs. Or maybe she simply doesn’t have the resources to attend that music camp that would elevate her abilities.
“Obviously we’re in the infant stage of this, but it’s going to continue to grow,” Baptiste said. “We want to engage kids in a way that they can feel that this is bigger than them, so that they can then reach back and pull up other kids with them.”
Baptiste and Sylvester met in high school, at a Fort Lauderdale performing arts program. Like most of their classmates, when they weren’t playing their string instruments in orchestra class they were listening to hip-hop.
“We were like any other kids growing up, we just happened to have these instruments,” said Baptiste, who originally wanted to play the saxophone. “So we’d just make stuff up with our instruments — we were just having fun.”
That classical training, combined with their love of the music of the day, would eventually grow into the Black Violin sound. However, Baptiste insists their music wasn’t something that was planned out.
“What’s funny is we didn’t think to do this,” he said. “It wasn’t something we thought about — it just happened. The way we started doing it, it was very organic.”
Baptiste does, however, admit that the music he and Sylvester were raised on helped them to take chances with their own sound.
“I credit hip-hop, because it’s about expressing yourself, about being who you are and unapologetic for it,” he said.
Black Violin’s new album is “Take the Stairs.” The album was released in November, and they’re in the early stages of promoting it with this latest tour.
Baptiste calls it “an amazing album,” believing that everyone can find something to enjoy in “Take the Stairs.”
Early on, when Baptiste and Sylvester were working on the new album, they wrote a word on the whiteboard.
“And that word was ‘hope,’ “ Baptiste said. “We want people to know that you can do anything — no matter your situation, you can have hope.”
This is Black Violin’s fourth album, and while it shares certain characteristics with their previous three recordings, Baptiste says that, sonically, he feels like they’re in a new place with “Take the Stairs.”
“I think we’re taking a different approach with this album, but the violin and viola kind of connects everything together,” he said. “Our music projects inclusivity and hope — they all do that, anyway — but with this one we really wanted to focus on what our music does. This album is just a bit more universal.”
Since its formation in 2004, Black Violin has been bucking stereotypes. Of the duo, the Miami Herald wrote: “Black Violin upends cultural and musical stereotypes,” calling it “an unexpected blend of classically trained musicianship and hip-hop beats and inventiveness.”
Indeed, their 2015 album was titled “Stereotypes.” And a Black Violin concert dispels any preconceived notions listeners might have, according to Baptiste.
“You think of two big black guys playing violin, and a lot of people don’t know what to expect,” he said. “The way we are very hip-hop not only challenges you musically, but challenges you morally. Whatever your perception of a black guy — or a violin — it will be completely shattered.”
Mixing classical instruments with hop-hop tunes may seem risky to some — after all, what if classical fans think Black Violin is “a little too hip-hop,” and hip-hop fans think the music is “too classical”?
Baptiste said the two men don’t worry too much about those sorts of labels.
“We really ignore that, because we don’t approach it at all that way,” he said. “Every artist wants to be free to express themselves — that’s a trait unique to musicians. And we’re fortunate, in that the way we create and project this music is 100 percent who we are. I really don’t care if anyone likes a particular song, because I know I like it, and I know it’s me. So here it is, world.”
Besides, there are plenty of others who find Baptiste and Sylvester’s classical/hip-hop mashup refreshing. National Public Radio even went so far as to suggest: “Their music will keep classical music alive for the next generation.”
Of course, the ultimate mission for Black Violin, according to Baptiste, is to put people in the same room and attempt to bring them closer together through a shared musical experience.
“I think people are just so far apart from each other,” Baptiste said. “Even when we go to baseball games or grocery stores, with all these other people, we’re just so far apart. But music is universal. It connects people in different ways. And that’s the goal for us as individuals, as humans, as musicians. That’s what God put me on this world to do, to connect us with each other. There’s something in all of us — we’re all part of this puzzle — and we need each other to complete this idea of unity.”