“We are fluent in both languages,” Kev Marcus, violinist of the genre-bending duo Black Violin, says of classical and hip-hop music. “We try to make sure that when we’re fusing the [two styles] together, that we’re giving equal doses of both sides so we’re not losing anyone.”
Marcus and violist Wilner Baptiste, who goes by Wil B., met playing Beethoven and Mozart in second-period orchestra class at their performing-arts high school in South Florida, and quickly formed a friendship, walking off to third period together, listening to Wu-Tang Clan and Mariah Carey. Their childhood friendship is hard to ignore during the interview, complete with playful jabs and banter. “I play the acoustic viola, and her name is Tiffany—she’s beautiful,” Wil B. says. Naturally, when I ask Marcus if he’s adopted a name for his electric Yamaha SV-250 violin, he quips with an impish laugh, “No, I don’t do things like that.”
The pair have since made a name for themselves—starting out having club owners laugh in their faces to performing for President Obama and Timbaland, whom the duo names as one of their idols. Their distinctive melding of styles can be heard on the duo’s first major release, Stereotypes (Universal), an album that allows the pair to explore the subject both personally and professionally. “Stereotypes,” the first single and music video from the album, is a tribute to the Black Lives Matter movement.
“I mean, [my stereotype] is clear,” Wil B. says during the music video. “Mine is really easy: Just because I’m 6’2” and 260 pounds doesn’t mean you’re supposed to be afraid of me . . . . I wish it didn’t exist, and that I didn’t sense that they were threatened by my presence without even knowing who I am . . . . Although I wish it didn’t exist, I’m kind of glad for it—it gives me a goal, something to debunk. The reason I smile onstage is because I know I’m completely crushing people’s perceptions of not only what a violin can do and what music can sound like, but what a black man is capable of.”
It was Stuff Smith’s album Black Violin that inspired the group’s name, and sent Marcus and Wil B. down a trailblazing path. “I put the tape in and I just felt like the violin was [full of] soul,” Marcus says, over the phone from New York, where the duo just wrapped an interview with Good Day New York and are filming their first music video. “I thought I’d heard it all as far as violin playing, but this album changed my whole perception.”
The pair is eager to use their latest release as a platform to continue the conversation that Smith’s impassioned album sparked in them.
“The album is called Stereotypes because that’s what we do—we break stereotypes,” Wil B. says. “We love to make music that moves you, but music with a message is even better. We want to make sure that we are always, and everyone is always, pushing and aiming to break the stereotypes that surround them.
“Being big black dudes we’re ‘supposed to be’ athletes or we’re ‘supposed to be’ something else, but we’re classically trained violinists. Instead of shying away from or not being proud of it, we stand our ground. This is who we are, this is what we do; you didn’t think this was possible, but here we are.”