Black Violin Defies and Educates

Kevin Sylvester, left, and Wilner Baptiste, right.

by Kerby Marcelin

From jazz and R&B to rock n’ roll and hip-hop, African-American innovators have crafted thrilling, honeyed, and poetic rhythms that have not only defined American popular culture, but enlivened the globe. Baseless expectations of how a black artist should sound and look still exist. Two string instrumentalists, Kevin “Kev Marcus” Sylvester and Wilner “Wil B” Baptiste, shaped a genre-defying blend of classical and hip-hop in a mission to shatter stereotypes and promote unity. On Nov. 3, the duo, known as Black Violin, captured the Performing Arts Center’s Concert Hall with party bangers like Drake’s “One Dance” and their original tunes like “Magic” while stressing the value of arts education.

“I got drunk on the idea of changing the way people thought of me,” said Sylvester, while adjusting his snapback. “A big black dude that you thought was going to sell you a dime bag or coming to football practice, but I played the violin instead.”

In front of a house packed with families and students, Sylvester, on violin, and Baptiste, on viola, stepped in the polychromatic lights, beaming as applauses and screams greeted them. Sylvester guided the Friday night celebration, encouraging the audience to snap photos, tag them on Twitter, and join the party.

Black Violin incorporated their strings into versions of top chart singles like Martin Garrix’s “Animals” and Mark Ronson’s “Uptown Funk,” which got people on their feet, swaying and clapping. DJ SPS mashed classical and hip-hop with flair. Nat Stokes’ drum solo inflamed the spectacle. Baptiste’s sleek voice and piano balanced the vibe. The group crowned their 145th show of the year with an improvised piece.

Sylvester and Baptiste met at Dillard High School’s Center for the Arts in Fort Lauderdale 20 years ago. Neither of them were interested in playing these instruments; Sylvester was forced to learn violin by his mother, and Baptiste intended to play saxophone, but was placed in strings class. They both described music as a vehicle that allowed them to escape the dangers of their rough environment.

They attended different colleges on full music scholarships. Baptiste went to Florida State University. Sylvester focused on viola performance and experimented with studio production at Florida International University. There, he was introduced to distinguished jazz violinist, Stuff Smith’s 1965 album, “Black Violin” by former Principal Viola of the Denver Symphony, Chauncey Patterson. After graduation in 2003, Sylvester and Baptiste reconnected to plan a collaborative show at the Apollo Theater. They named their act after the album.

“The tape sounded like a violin on fire,” Sylvester said. “A violin that had soul. It changed my perception of the instrument. I sent it to Wil and he felt the same way.”

Throughout the years, the duo has built an impressive résumé. In 2005, the Florida natives won the Showtime at the Apollo Legend title, leading Baptiste to quit his marketing job. They collaborated with notable artists like Linkin Park and Wu-Tang Clan, and performed with Alicia Keys in several award shows and with Kanye West in Dubai in 2007. They composed music for the FOX TV series, “Pitch” and served as the house band for the 82nd Annual Heisman Memorial Trophy Presentation on ESPN.

“There’s nobody like these guys,” said director of the Performing Arts Center Seth Soloway. “Every time I watch them I still feel the same way. They’re big on telling young people to be unique in everything that they do. That’s such an important message.”

Soloway, who was previously the artistic director of the Brooklyn Center for the Performing Arts, has been working with Black Violin for 14 years. At Purchase, he has focused on solidifying the PAC’s role in the community. As part of the Center’s Arts in Education program, Black Violin performed for 1,000 school children the morning of their performance. The artists expressed how arts education has traced their success and encouraged students to be innovative in any career they choose.

“We’re trying to show what arts education can become,” Sylvester said. “For all kids, exposure to the arts is important. Art can change lives.”

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