NICHOLE JIANG – STAFF WRITER
When you think of a violin or viola, the melodies of Beethoven, Bach and Mozart most likely come to mind. This is not the case for American hip-hop duo, Black Violin, who combine classical and hip-hop music together to create a musical experience like no other. The duo returns to Chautauqua to once again captivate the audience with a high-energy performance at 8:15 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 18 in the Amphitheater.
Childhood friends Kevin Sylvester and Wilner Baptiste from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, formed Black Violin to create music in a way that had never been done before. Their original vision was to become musical producers, but that changed into performing and creating music themselves.
“We wanted to incorporate classical music in a way that no one’s ever done, and that was the motivation,” said Baptiste, Black Violin’s violist. “We were just doing things that were normal to us, but people really liked the idea of hip-hop and classical fusion. We started performing with local artists and started noticing people were very intrigued by (our music), and then we started focusing on us as artists.”
Since then, the duo has performed with Alicia Keys for the Billboard Awards, opened for the Wu-Tang Clan and composed the music for the Fox series “Pitch.” They have also performed with other notable artists such as Alessia Cara, 2 Chainz and Lil Wayne.
Baptiste began his musical journey at a summer program, where he originally wanted to learn how to play saxophone. However, it was as if Baptiste was destined to play the viola instead.
“The story is that I wanted to play the sax. I went up to the band teacher at a summer program to sign up, and the string teacher was in the same room. They both looked at each other and they said let’s play golf, whoever wins this golf game gets this kid in their class. So the band teacher obviously lost, and I got put into the string class,” Baptiste said. “I fell in love with it, and have been playing for 27 years now.”
The duo has much respect for the traditional classical repertoire, but the fusion of classical and hip-hop is what feels most natural to them.
“I have no objections to playing classical. Back in those days, early 2000s, when classical music was kind of pretty much gone and had almost no existence in South Florida … as a classical musician, it just wasn’t there, and, so we would play hip-hop on the violin in clubs and play little gigs here and there,” Baptiste said. “It just kind of grew into what it is now. Playing classical music has always had this almost elite level … and being in that environment, as a Black dude, it’s not always the safe thing. It’s almost a defense mechanism to just do what you want to do, play what you want to play, and that’s hip-hop. Hip-hop is defiant, and that’s the road that we took.”
Beside the addition of hip-hop to classical instruments that sets Black Violin apart, there are various other aspects that make this group special.
“I think what sets us apart is our intentionality. We’re very intentional about how we present ourselves and how our music is projected,” Baptiste said. “We don’t compromise when it comes to us and our integrity and what we represent. It’s a movement. It’s bigger than us, so we make sure that we are in line with who we are, and then everything else follows.”
The name Black Violin itself also holds a special meaning to the duo.
“Kevin, when he first started college, his viola professor, Chauncey Patterson, gave him a tape. It was an album called Black Violin by a guy named Stuff Smith, and (when we were) coming up with a name, he said that name, and I was like, that’s it,” Baptiste said. “The album’s called Black Violin, and it changed our perspective in terms of what the violin is capable of and also what a Black dude is capable of. And it just made sense to continue that legacy.”
Through music, the duo has been able to break barriers and pave the way for the future of classical music. However, they also have their own message that they want to send each time they step on a stage.
“Our message is the typical cliches you hear: Never judge a book by its cover, and you can do anything you want. All those things we think about with classical and hip-hop music, and the idea of those two things coming together to make sense, is impossible — and we made it possible,” Baptiste said. “I think our mission is, no matter who you are or where you’re from, you’re capable of great things. You see us, two big Black guys playing this instrument, and we’re breaking stereotypes one stage at a time.”
Their mission goes beyond the stage. The duo also has the Black Violin Foundation, helping young students reach their own goals.
“The foundation is kind of an extension of what we already do. It focuses on equity, inclusion and helping kids, Black and brown, that don’t necessarily have the access to these instruments,” Baptiste said. “We focus on helping them and providing them with an instrument and the means to go to music camps and lessons.”
The foundation puts an emphasis on providing equal opportunity and provides scholarships each year.
“That is really just extending our Black Violin motto a bit more, and just making sure we help those kids that have the drive who may not necessarily have the access,” Baptiste said. “We had that. We had our teachers that just really saw something in us, and this helped us get to that next level, whether it’s helping us get a train ticket to a music camp or an instrument. We had those things so we want to be able to provide that for the kids.”
Tonight’s performance is a “high-energy and fun show for everyone,” Baptiste said. The duo will perform most of their original albums from Stereotype to Take the Stairs, with a few covers, as well.
“We’re looking forward to it, and just looking forward to being on stage,” Baptiste said. “This is our fifth show on this tour, and this is our first tour in 17 months, so we’re just looking forward to being onstage and connecting with people.”