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Classical music meshes with hip-hop in Black Violin concerts

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Black Violin, a duo of classically-trained musicians whose YouTube videos “A Flat” and “Stereotypes” have reached nearly 15 millions views, will perform Sunday at Musco Center for the Arts at Chapman University. They are Wilner Baptiste, left, and Kevin Sylvester.
(Photo by Colin Brennan)

Kevin Sylvester never gets tired of the reaction.

When he and music partner Wilner Baptiste — who go by the stage names of Kev Marcus and Wil B — play a mixture of classical and hip-hop as the duo Black Violin, audiences at first seem baffled.

“It’s crazy to people because I look like I should be a football player,” Sylvester said. “When I tell people I play violin, [they] are like, ‘Really?’ without me even playing it.

“We turn [the stereotype] around, and that’s the best way because no one expects two African American men to deliver the atypical performance of a Black Violin concert,” Sylvester said, before an upcoming Feb. 18 show at Musco Center of the Arts at Chapman University in Orange.

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While the duo’s name gives away both their instrument and their race, Sylvester nonetheless says that subverting expectations makes for a rather satisfying musical evening — both for Black Violin and their audiences.

However, it was never his and Baptiste’s mission to purposely challenge perceptions of who — or what — a classical performer is.

“We play classical and love hip-hop,” Sylvester said. “You put that together and it’s kind of magical.”

Encouraged by his mother, Sylvester started out on the violin as a boy and eventually studied at Florida International University in Miami. He now lives in Fort Lauderdale with his wife and three daughters. Baptiste went to Florida State University.

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“We started [out] wanting to be music producers; we just wanted to be the guys behind the scenes,” Sylvester said of his and Baptiste’s early collaborations.

The two musician-producers would often add background cues of themselves on violin to the songs they produced, which got them thinking about taking their talents out from behind the mixing board.

“People’s reaction kept making us consider [performing]. We started putting together a 15-minute set of popular songs that were out, and people’s minds started to get blown,” Sylvester said.

Black Violin won “Showtime at the Apollo” in 2005, and the prize money enabled them to start marketing their unique show and expand their set well beyond the 15-minute mark.

Sylvester and Baptiste have since played more than 2,000 shows.

Richard Bryant, Musco Center for the Arts executive director, said Black Violin takes audiences on a journey.

“They also take music to a new place that infuses the sounds of America today with classical virtuosity,” Bryant said in a statement.

Enjoying a lengthy collaboration allows him and Baptiste to anticipate the other’s next move and make the performance more alive and spontaneous, Sylvester said.

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“We’re brothers — we understand we’re a duo too, so we’re tied together,” he said. “Most of what we do onstage now isn’t scripted, it’s just developed over time.”

Black Violin’s shows segue from the music of one century to the next, often in the same beat. Sylvester explained that one of the group’s typical maneuvers is to begin Mozart’s Symphony #40 and then seamlessly segue into a tune by rapper Cardi B.

“You put a classical song with raw hip-hop, [and] maybe your mom is sitting there going, ‘It’s so beautiful and has this hop-hop beat to it,’ ” Sylvester said. “And this little kid next to her is singing Cardi B lyrics.”

Melding musical styles from across the history of Western music in the same show allows Black Violin to foster an atmosphere of broad appeal.

“If you blend it in a way [where] you’re thinking of your audience and trying to be as inclusive as possible, you can make it an experience they can’t get anywhere else,” Sylvester said. “People can appreciate things in different ways while sitting next to each other, and that’s what we try to explore in our concerts.”

During their upcoming Southern California visit, Sylvester and Baptiste, who still produce music, aim to get in some studio time.

“All [our] spare time [in Southern California] will be in the studio trying to finish our project and collaborate with other people on their projects,” Sylvester said, adding Black Violin earned some Hollywood bona fides scoring the 2016 Fox drama “Pitch.” “L.A. is the most creative place in America to me.”

Black Violin has tour dates throughout 2018, including an April 4 performance with the National Symphony at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s death.

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Sylvester said his daughters have followed musical paths of their own, but he has been conscious not to push them as much as his own mother nudged him toward the violin.

Sunday’s performance is for people who say they like all kinds of music, Sylvester said.

“It’s a party, man,” Sylvester said. “It’s a ballin’ concert, and I guarantee you’ve never seen anything like it.”

If You Go

What: Black Violin in Concert

When: 7:30 p.m. Feb. 18

Where: Musco Center for the Arts, Chapman University, One University Drive, Orange

Cost: Tickets start at $30

Information: (714) 997-6812 or chapman.universitytickets.com.

Eric Althoff is a contributor to Times Community News.


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