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Black Violin’s Wil Baptiste on hip-hop, classical music, and race


It's not hard to understand the appeal of the Florida duo Black Violin. Violist Wil Baptiste and violinist Kev Marcus have created a hip-hop, classical hybrid that you can feel immediately, with infectious hooks and indelible beats that resonate from your ear drums all the way to the bottoms of your feet.

Listen to any Black Violin track for a minute or two, and the life-affirming effect is the same – whether it's the group's irrepressible take on Antonio Vivaldi's violin concerto "Spring" from "The Four Seasons"; the heavy backbeat, sludgy synths, and sprightly strings on "Virtuoso," or the groove-centric determinism of "A-Flat."

Rochester will get a chance to experience Black Violin's singular sound live for the first time, when the group comes to Nazareth College on Thursday, October 12, as part of its Classical Boom Tour. Baptiste and Sylvester have been playing together professionally for more than a decade – releasing memorable albums like "Classically Trained" and "Stereotypes" along the way – and they show no signs of slowing down.

"I think the main thing that keeps me going and keeps me coming back is just the impact," Baptise says. "We have an incredible amount of impact on not only kids but adults alike, and it's amazing to see. When you're doing something you love, and people are inspired in a way that you can't even really explain, you know, it's hard to walk away from that."

Not only is the music undeniably catchy, it galvanizes the listener in ways that transcend sound. Baptiste recalls meeting a fan who, after a performance at the Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival, told him how the music of Black Violin helped to lift his spirit while he was in prison, and helped him survive the experience. Baptiste has also witnessed how concertgoers have been able to look beyond things that might ordinary divide them or confine them to their own preconceived judgments about people, through the sheer fact of having a collective experience with others through music. But it seems to start with understanding the hidden compatibility of two seemingly incompatible genres.

"Experimenting with different genres and just kinda throwing something against the wall and seeing what happens – that's the beauty of it, you know?" Baptiste says. "And I think our music – because it's hip-hop, because it's classical music – which, you know, these two, if they were two people, they would never be in the same room. People would think, 'Oh my god, it doesn't make any sense. They're together?' You know what I'm sayin'? 'They're dating?' It's odd."

As much as the music of Black Violin promotes unity, Baptiste pulls no punches when he talks about the things that still divide us in society. Asked about the current sociopolitical climate surrounding issues of racial inequality, police brutality, the Black Lives Matter movement, and presidential responses, the violist is frank.

"To be black in America, man, you're put in uncomfortable situations all the time," Baptiste says. "I'm a musician and I travel the world, and I go to places that I'm uncomfortable all the time. You know what I'm sayin'? I go on the elevator, I'm uncomfortable, you know, so it's just a thing that we go through.

"And I think people of other races, until they can understand what it feels like to be uncomfortable – you know what I'm sayin' – and have these uncomfortable conversations –'cause that's where it needs to start."

"But at the end of the day," the uncomfortable conversations have to be had, he says. "You know what I'm sayin'? And understand that these things, these concerns: they're not made up. This shit is real."

Baptiste doesn't stop there: "You probably don't hate me, but I promise you, if I walk near you, you have this thing about a person that looks like me. You're not gonna think I play the violin. You're gonna think, oh, I'm this or I'm that."

Sometimes the discomfort extends to some of the orchestras with which Black Violin collaborates. "It's very difficult, because they're so stuck in their ways, you know what I'm sayin'?" Baptiste says. "You can tell they don't necessarily like what they're hearin.' They just want to be able to play the music. They don't necessarily want to hear the beats or feel it."

Baptiste has also noticed a disconnect between some orchestras and the economically disadvantaged communities with whom they seek to connect. "Unless the attitude changes, people can sense when people are fake and not real," Baptiste says. "You can't just bring an orchestra in the 'hood and play for 'em and expect kids to automatically be like, 'Oh, cool, I'ma go listen to some Mozart now.' That shit don't work."

A tone of lament is palpable in Baptiste's voice: "I love classical music, man. And I think it's one of those genres that really needs help, but they don't want to ask."