Black Violin, a Florida duo made up of two classically-trained violinists, hopes to get people to think outside the box with their new album, Stereotypes, which combines classical music with hip-hop.
Kevin Sylvester, one half of Black Violin, says he is often confronted by stereotypes. Because he is a six-foot-two, 260-pound Black man, people don’t expect him to also be a classically-trained musician. He relayed a story about an encounter he had with a woman in an elevator.
“She’s like, ‘What do you play?'” he told NPR. “I’m like, ‘I’m a violinist’. And she was like, ‘Well, obviously you don’t play classical, so what kind of style do you play?’ She didn’t mean it maliciously, but I hope she gets to see us in concert and we can change her perception.”
This is the inspiration for the new album, Stereotypes. The video to the first single, also called “Stereotypes,” features footage of protests against police violence as well as images of Black people in careers such as an astronaut, scientist, firefighter and ballet dancer.
Sylvester and his partner, Wilner Baptiste, met in high school where they both picked up the violin. However, neither of the men say they planned a career in classical music. Sylvester was put in a music class by his mother and grew to love the violin. Baptiste signed up to learn the saxophone, but ended up in a string class. He decided to play the viola, an instrument that was ignored by other students.
“No one would pick up the viola,” Baptiste said in an NPR interview. “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.”
The pair parted ways after high school, but teamed up again after college and got into producing other artists.
“We wanted to be the next Neptunes, the next Timbaland,” said Baptiste, “but we noticed how, whenever we performed with our artists, the audience was really drawn to us.”
They developed an act that covered hip-hop songs on their violins and eventually appeared on Showtime at the Apollo. The duo was approached by Alicia Keys’ manager, who asked them to appear with her on the Billboard Awards. This led to the duo opening for the Wu-Tang Clan, scoring a slot on an episode of CSI: New York and appearing at President Barack Obama’s second inauguration.
Although both Sylvester and Baptiste were fans of hip-hop, they grew to appreciate classical music, especially artists like Bach. The duo says that while hip-hop and classical music might seem miles apart, they were both designed to get people to party.
“They had little shindigs going on back in the days, right? They needed music,” said Baptiste. “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.'”
Sylvester says it’s the same kind of thing with hip-hop.
“It’s just like, I need Grandmaster Flash to DJ my party,” he says. “You know, hip-hop and classical, in a lot of ways, are both party music for different eras.”
Black Violin hopes their music will make people open to listening to different genres.
“I remember this one woman comes up to me — she has to be like a 60, 65-year-old white woman — and she’s just like, ‘Man, I don’t even really like hibbity-hop, but you guys are amazing!’” Sylvester said.