Contemporary Composers of the 21st Century - Black Violin

Standing at 1.8 metres tall, the well-built creative duo known as Black Violin would not appear out of place on a sports field. Kevin Sylvester (Kev Marcus) and Wilner Baptiste (Will B), are instead classically-trained string instrumentalists from Florida who play the violin and viola.

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Childhood/Early Life

Sylvester was forced into picking up the violin by his mother after she caught him hanging out with the wrong crowd. Worried for her son, she thought that learning an instrument would steer him in the right direction. Sylvester said he never realized how much power playing the violin held for him. “I tell this story where my first girlfriend, I go and meet her parents for the first time and they say ‘What do you do?’ And I'm like ‘yeah, I just got a full scholarship to college. I'm studying violin.’ And they were like, ‘Really?!’”  

As for Baptiste, he wanted to play the saxophone because a security guard at his school who would often give him detention for making beats on the table, told him how he made money by playing the saxophone on the weekends. But Baptiste was placed in the wrong class when he applied for a summer programme to learn how to play the sax. Or so he thought. He later found out in 2012 that the band teachers had actually made a bet over a golf game and the winner would get Baptiste in their class. Baptiste ended up learning the viola as no one else wanted to play the instrument. "Literally, I was the only person who wanted to play the viola. So I picked that up, and 20 years later I'm still playing it.”

At The Beginning

The two met at Dillard High School of Performing Arts where they were in the same orchestra. They learned classical music in the second period and listened to hip hop on the way to third period. The two became fast friends, relating to each other in a way that others in the band could not. They were trained classically but when they were still in high school, they realized that they could use their instruments for more than what they were trained for. Hip hop star Busta Rhymes' “Gimme Some More” was very popular while they were in high school and Sylvester actually learned the violin part to that and then went to school and taught everyone in class how to play it. They even brought it to competitions with them. Baptiste recalls how everyone reacted incredulously at a competition as most people where expecting Bach, not Busta Rhymes. “’Oh my goodness. Look what they're playing.' And actually, we were just having fun.”

After high school, Sylvester and Baptiste continued to keep in touch even though they went to different universities. One day while studying with Chauncie Patterson, Sylvester was introduced to the works of violinist Stuff Smith. Sylvester was mesmerized by Smith’s playing which he described as “fire and soul” and listened to him every day for a year. Sylvester sent tracks to Baptiste who also became enthralled by Smith’s brand of music. Eventually, the duo decided to name their new group “Black Violin”, in honour of Smith’s last album.

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 Gaining Traction

Post-college, Sylvester and Baptiste reunited and together with another friend, started up their own label, DKNEX. Black Violin went on to compete in “Showtime” at the Apollo in 2005 and won the competition. And their momentum kept up. Black Violin went on to perform with big names such as Alicia Keys at the Billboard Music Awards, Wu-Tang Clan, Kanye West and Aerosmith, to name a few. In 2013 they performed at President Obama’s Inaugural Ball.

Latest Work

Black Violin released a new single called “Stereotypes” in 2015, which explores the various stereotypes people construct in their minds. Sylvester also speaks about his own stereotype in the song, how he feels about it and why he does what he does. The song’s strong message has resonated with audiences.

Will Baptiste and Kevin Sylvester believe that classical music and hip hop are not that different; both genres aim to bring people together. Baptiste explains “They had little shindigs going on back in the days, right? They needed music. So just think of it that way. Like, I'm this guy, I own this big palace 'Mozart, listen, what can you whip up, man? I need some new tunes.' It’s the same with hip hop to them but instead of Mozart they want Grandmaster Flash to DJ at their party. It’s just music from different eras."

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