The cool breeze off the Potomac River convinced the crowds at this year’s D.C. Jazz Festival from June 9-18 to dance – even as the temperatures crossed 90 degrees – as soon as “Kev Marcus” Sylvester and Wilmer Baptiste hit the stage. Known as Black Violin, Sylvester and Baptiste have found and perfected a meticulous mix of classical music with hip-hop, as well as jazz, soul, R&B, rock and pop.
Wilner Baptiste, one half of the duo Black Violin, on stage at the D.C. Jazz Festival on June 18. (Photo by Shantella Sherman)
The Fort Lauderdale, Fla. natives met at performing arts high school Dillard High School, where they impressed classmates by playing popular hip-hop songs on their instruments – Sylvester on violin; Baptiste on viola. More than a decade later, they continue to insist they are hip-hop first, before classical.
“Our music identifies with what hip-hop is because if you listen to just hip-hop, and the way that we sample old-school records with tons of strings on top of (it). Everyone that’s hip-hop are always drawn to the violin and the way that it sounds, because we’ve always been introduced to it, we’ve always heard it,” Sylvester told GO! Magazine. “Maybe not in the way that someone that’s listening to Shostakovich or Brahms, obviously, but sound, the violin sound, is something that we’re familiar with, because we’re sampling Al Green and we’re sampling all these old records that have violins on there.”
Baptiste said that as Black men living in America, they understand challenges and they also understand the power of ‘I can” and have made a conscious decision to promote and support the power in challenging the odds. Calling it a move to challenge world views, stereotypes, and labels, Black Violin has played for more than 100,000 students and public shows across the U.S. and Europe.
“We realize that every opportunity to connect our diverse fans is an opportunity to break down the barriers that separate us, empower individuality and encourage progress.
“For us, playing those instruments and experimenting and trying to play something that we heard on the radio was just — it’s just what you did. If you were a ballet dancer, you probably would — if you’re hip-hop, you probably (were) hip-hop dancing. It was just something that we used. There was never really a moment that we wanted to quit. It kept giving us reasons to keep going.”
The experimentation brought music enthusiasts like Southeast native Talissa Holmes to her feet at Black Violin’s Jazz Fest performance on June 18. Calling the musical fusion “a cultural shift back to basics,” Holmes said the duo’s work is priceless.
“Music isn’t something you hear, it is something you feel, and Black Violin gets that. It makes what they play – how they play it, affect listeners in very emotional ways,” Holmes told the AFRO. “When an audience feels the music and then feels compelled to express what they’re feeling, you’ve found a rare spiritual space.”