- Colin Brennan
Kevin Sylvester is often astonished by how far the violin has taken him, especially when he's performing. "I'll be on stage and look down and think, 'I can't believe I'm still playing this thing,'" he says. "It's given me everything. It's definitely surreal."
Sylvester—aka Kev Marcus—is the lone violinist in Black Violin; his partner Wilner Baptiste (Wil B.) plays the viola and sings. The duo plays with the swagger of hip-hop artists and the gravitas of classically trained musicians. It's a badass combination. Together, they've collaborated with high-profile acts such as Kanye West, Wu-Tang Clan, Aerosmith and the late Tom Petty, but Sylvester doesn't dwell much on career highlights. He's more motivated by the opportunities they've been denied.
"Along the way, a lot of people have said no," Sylvester says in a telephone interview. "You had two black guys playing violin, they wanted to sell out your club or theater or whatever, but a lot of people didn't want to take a chance on that. There has been a lot of that stuff over the years."
That was especially true when Baptiste and Sylvester were young musicians trying to establish themselves in south Florida's DJ-heavy nightclub scene. "We'd have people laugh us out the door, like, 'You're violinists, this is South Beach, get out of here,'" he recalls. "Then we'd play for them and they'd get it. So, for the first few years of our career we were just driving around, trying to show people what we were. If they saw it, they were sold."
He explains that playing violin wasn't his choice: In fifth grade, he got into some trouble, and his mother signed him up for music lessons. Although he fell in love with hip-hop in middle school, Sylvester continued studying classical music at a high level, allowing him to attend a high school for performing arts where he met Baptiste. This musical path turned out to be a boon for Sylvester's family, because he was awarded a full scholarship to attend Florida International University. The campus was ethnically and culturally diverse, he recalls, but he still stood out as one of only two black people in the orchestra. That experience stuck with him as Black Violin took off.
"The more diverse any art form is, the better it is," he says. "We were able to take our hip-hop influences, inject them into this classical art form and take it to another place. Hopefully, now we're showing little black and brown kids that they can play these instruments that white people usually play, and showing kids of all colors that it's not about your technique, but about approaching music in a way that no one else has."
For the upcoming tour, Black Violin is rolling out several new classical mash-ups, including Bach mixed with The Notorious B.I.G. and Mozart rolled into Cardi B. Onstage, they are backed by DJ SPS and drummer Nat Stokes, who lay hip-hop beats underneath the duo's lush, emotionally powerful string arrangements.
Now that Black Violin has plenty of shows under their belt (they played 180 shows in 2017, alone), they don't want to get comfortable and coast. They want to keep their shows dynamic and fresh. That entails brainstorming different ways of doing things, and adding new dramatic stage elements. "How can we give you more of what you weren't expecting?" Sylvester says. Incorporating the new ideas involves a lot of advance preparation, but not necessarily practice: "It's more about concepts rather than sitting down with instruments."
Black Violin also tries to use their platform to inspire as well as entertain. "We like to challenge our audiences," Sylvester says. "What else can you do with the thing that you love that no one thought was possible?" The short answer is to show audiences what they, too, can achieve: "Nobody thought we could do these things with the violin and here we are doing it. We challenge you to do the same thing with whatever it is you love to do."
Basically, Sylvester and Baptiste show that classical music can knock hard, and also help break down the assumption that only white people play orchestral instruments. However, they hope their influence reaches beyond music, prompting people to take whatever they love to the next level. Their message applies to anything: literature, science, sports. "We just need forward thinkers in general," Sylvester says. "If you love basketball, don't shoot the J like Steph [Curry]. Find a whole new way to shoot it."