Musical group Black Violin

The unique musical duo share about forming their group and perform the title track from their new album Stereotypes.

The opening and title track to the major-label debut album Stereotypes, serves as a mission statement for the ambitious and groundbreaking group, Black Violin. Wil Baptiste (viola) and Kev Marcus (violin) are a string duo from Florida with equal footing in the worlds of classical and hip-hop music. Named after an album by African-American jazz violinist Stuff Smith, Black Violin plays over 200 shows a year worldwide, in countries like Dubai, Prague and South Africa.  They have performed for the troops in Iraq and the President’s Inaugural Ball in Washington, DC. They’ve appeared on Broadway, at the legendary Harlem Apollo Theatre, the 2004 Billboard Awards with Alicia Keys, VH1’s Unplugged, three Super Bowls, and the U.S. Open with Jordin Sparks.  Individually and together, Black Violin has collaborated with P. Diddy, Kanye West, 50 Cent, Tom Petty, Aerosmith, Aretha Franklin and The Eagles.

TRANSCRIPT

Announcer: And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.
Tavis: Kevin “Kev Marcus” Sylvester and Wilner, “Wil B” Baptiste are classically trained string instrumentalists who go by the name of Black Violin. Since coming together as a group, they have worked with such artists as Alicia Keys, Wu Tang Clan, Kanye West and Tom Petty, among others. Their latest CD is called “Stereotypes”. Kev Marcus and Will B, good to have you on this program.
Wilner “Wil B” Baptiste: Thank you for having us.
Kevin “Kev Marcus” Sylvester: Thanks for having us.
Tavis: Y’all doing big things, man, big things.
Baptiste: Trying my best, man.
Tavis: From South Florida.
Baptiste: Yes, we are.
Marcus: Yes, sir.
Tavis: How do two brothers from South Florida get turned on to classical music in the first place as opposed to, say, 2 Live Crew or Trina or Gloria Estefan or somebody?
Baptiste: We’re still in the mix.
Marcus: We still like that too. We met in high school in a public school in orchestra class, first day of my tenth grade year, his ninth grade year, and we were stamp partners, both violas. This is where we met and we want to Dillard High School in Ft. Lauderdale.
At the school, you know, we studied classical music every day second period and, on the way to third period, we were listening to Trina, Trick Daddy or whatever was hot. And we had a teacher that just pushed us and, you know, tried to always tell us this can be our future if we really work at it.
We took him to heart and we just kept getting better and better and better. We lived hip-hop, but we studied classical. We just took it as far as they’ll let us go, man. The violin has brought us all over the world and it’s been great. It’s been a great ride.
Tavis: What made you think that those two genres could be mixed, hip-hop and classical?
Baptiste: I don’t think it was, you know, a thought process behind it. I think we just, like he said, we lived hip-hop. We just happened to play the violin, you know. It was just natural for us to put the two together. And if you think of hip-hop in it’s essence, it’s all about being creative and, you know, thinking outside the box. So it was just really natural for us to put the two together.
You know, we lived in both worlds. We understood both worlds equally. You know, for us it was a very organic situation and we went to a school where it’s just like everybody kind of looked like us. It was very relatable, you know, until we went to college and it was a different story.
You know, like I say, it was very organic. It was naturally the way that it happened. We didn’t think about it. It was fun, you know. It was really fun to be able to play something that’s on the radio and all the kids are just like, “Oh, that’s hot” [laugh].
Tavis: I was just about to ask how the brothers and sisters related to y’all doing your thing in high school.
Marcus: Well, in high school, we went to kind of like a Black theme. You know, it was everyone was a dance theater. It’s still a performing arts school. So, you know, everyone did things and everyone was really talented. A lot of great singers and songwriters and a lot of great athletes have come out of our school from that time.
So it fostered that kind of thinking and that kind of creation there. So no one ever thought anything different and we were pretty good at it too. So like when we got air, we were winning competitions, you know, and then we both get full scholarships to college. So there was never any ridicule of–like they respected it really from the beginning.
Tavis: But it seems to me, though, at least on the journey that I’ve walked and the journey that I’ve talked and watched others walk, there are always–I don’t want to necessarily call them haters. But there are always people who want to deny you that opportunity or tell you that that’s really not what you ought to be doing. You heard that from somebody, I know.
Baptiste: Yeah, obviously. I mean, it’s needed. I mean, it’s almost something that you use as fuel, right? We heard that before. I mean, it happens. You know what I’m saying? Especially when we’re getting to the level that we are now, I mean, you think about classical and hip-hop, trying to put those two things together.
I mean, particularly in the beginning, we were performing at clubs. I mean, you go up to the club and you’re like, “Listen, we got these two Black guys playing the violin” and…
Marcus: “They’re gonna rock your club.”
Baptiste: They look at you and they laugh at you literally, you know. But you have to push the door down. If the door’s locked, you go around to the window. You know what I’m saying? For us, literally we would just perform right in front of the club in front of the promoter and he’ll look at it like, okay, this is kind of cool. So come back around 9:30 or 10:00. You know what I mean?
So that’s how we’ve always approached it and that’s how we’ve always really got to where we are. We just really–you’re not gonna deny what we have.
Tavis: But that’s the club side. That’s the hip-hop side. What about those classical purists?
Marcus: I think the classical purists, you know, they understand it as well. I mean, we’re breathing life into it, especially with the young people. We perform for 200,000 young kids every year. For instance, we did something at Music Center here in L.A. last week. We played for 20,000 kids in six shows, so 3,200 each. And you’re able to inspire them, educate them, and entertain them.
So they’re up dancing the entire time, but it’s a violin concert. It’s really about taking that and expanding it and just, you know, making it something that they can think like, wow, look at these violins. What can I do with it? So the classical purists, you know, I think they see that and they respect that from us.
Tavis: The name of Black Violin comes from?
Marcus: First day at class, I’m studying at FIU and my teacher, Chauncey Patterson, gives me this tape and tells me go home, listen to this tape. So I go home, listen to it. I put this tape in. It sounded like a violin on fire. I never heard it like that. I mean, the best way to describe it is be-bop violin. But to a 17-year-old Black dude that’s listening to Trick Daddy and Beethoven [laugh], I couldn’t place it, you know.
I’m trying to place it and I’m like, man, this thing sounds like–the best way to describe it, it sounded like it has soul and I was like, oh, this violin has soul. It just like made me thirsty to see what else I could do. So I sent the tape to him. He’s studying at Florida State, and I sent it to him. He got the same vibe from it.
So then, you know, this violinist, his name is Stuff Smith, and this is the last album he recorded before he died, and the name of the album is Black Violin. And we decided to name ourselves that in tribute because it changed what we thought the violin could do and now that name is still doing that even after his death. So, you know, we thought it was fitting.
Tavis: There are two things I don’t think I’ve ever heard on this program that I heard in one answer [laugh], and that is Trick Daddy and Beethoven in the same sentence. That’s number one. But number two, this notion–and you all are the epitome of this, you are the quintessential example of this.
But I’ve never thought of the violin as a soulful instrument. There are other instruments I think of as soulful. I can think of other adjectives or adverbs. It’s beautiful, it’s majestic, it’s soothing, but I never thought of the violin as a soulful instrument. But you all make that happen, though.
Marcus: Exactly. That’s the stereotype, I guess…
Baptiste: Exactly.
Marcus: And we break it every day onstage. It all depends on who’s holding the violin, I guess.
Tavis: Sure. That’s true. Whose hands are these [laugh]? Yeah, exactly.
Baptiste: We definitely put some soul in there. We put some stink on it and all of that. And ultimately, man, if you think about classical music and string instruments, that’s the persona, right? It has this prestige. It’s like you can’t touch it unless you’re from this or you do this.
With us, we’re from somewhere else and we touch and we take it and we own it. You know what I’m saying? We flip it on its head and we turn it around. You know what I mean?
In a lot of ways people look at it, they’re not only inspired, but we break stereotypes. We change their perception in terms of just what a violin can do, what a Black man can do. You know what I mean? What a young man or older man can do. You know, it’s been great to be able to do that.
Tavis: As I mentioned earlier, the new project is called “Stereotypes”. How do you guys go about–I couldn’t wait to get this to see what the playlist was because I would love to know what your process is for figuring out what actually makes an album that you do. Because your style is already unique, but then it seems to me you have to marry that style with the right material.
Marcus: Of course.
Tavis: How do you go about making those choices?
Marcus: I mean, it’s hard choices especially with us because we’re violinists. He’s also a vocalist, you know, and we can draw from so many different places. The violin, we always think of it as we are violinists playing popular music, so it’s popular music from the violinist’s perspective.
So on this album particularly, there’s definitely some of that trick, that inspired stuff, but then there’s also a lot of like New York hip-hop kind of vibe. There’s a lot of R&B vibes to it. It’s very classical at the same time, you know. And it’s about trying to marry them in a way where you don’t lose the purist and you don’t lose, you know, little five-year-old Deshawn that wants to just rock out, you know.
Tavis: And some great collaborators on this thing too.
Baptiste: Absolutely, absolutely.
Tavis: Collaborations. I love Robert Glasper.
Marcus: Yes.
Tavis: Did I just say that? I love Robert Glasper.
Baptiste: Yeah, yeah, you did [laugh]. He’s amazing and Pharoahe Monch is amazing as well. He really embodied that particular record, “Invisible”, and “Black Fire”. Just amazing features and musicians on the album and we’re grateful.
Tavis: So where do y’all take it from here? I mean, you’re getting to be seen by more people and heard by more people and appreciated by more people. What’s the long-term interest here?
Marcus: I think the long-term is, you know, getting our brand to be bigger and bigger. You know, we want to be bigger every day than the day before. It’s also about, you know, sticking to our message of performing for kids, man, because we have this platform and we get to see them and, you know, move them, and not necessarily tell them to go play violin, but just be a forward thinker.
You know, we looked at this violin and said what can we do with it? You know, for kids, they can do the same, you know. If you want to be “Doctor”, you want to be the next Steph Curry, just find a different way to shoot the jay. You know what I mean? That’s the thing broader that we want to do.
So we want to keep that message going and we want to just take over the world, man, you know. Symphonies would be great playing Black Violin in symphonies. You know, it would completely bring the bridge and the gap with the hip-hop, with the classical.
If we come to an 80-piece symphonic performance with Black Violin, that would be something really, really cool like on a major level all over the world to do that. Breaking stereotypes on that level is something that would be cool, but we’re up with everything. We want to score movies, we want to play with Stevie Wonder, we want to do everything [laugh].
Tavis: Who doesn’t [laugh]? I don’t even play, and I want to play with Stevie Wonder [laugh]. I have a niece and nephew who will probably–it’s kind of late in Indiana. They’ll probably watch the next day, but Taryn and Sam. Taryn plays viola, Sam plays violin, and I think they want to be y’all when they grow up [laugh].
Anyway, love you, Taryn and Sam, and I love Black Violin. The next project is called “Stereotypes”. Black Violin is going to perform the title track from this new CD in just a moment, so don’t move. And after their performance, I’ll be back for a conversation and performance with Grammy-winning singer-songwriter, Glen Hansard. But first, here comes Black Violin, and I’m back in just a moment.
[performance]
Tavis: Pleased to welcome Glen Hansard back to this program. The Grammy-winning, Oscar-winning, singer-songwriter is a celebrated member of the influential Irish group, The Frames, and let’s not forget he is also one-half of the acclaimed duo, The Swell.
He joins us tonight to talk about his latest solo project, “Didn’t He Ramble” and its companion EP, “A Season on the Line”. Before we get to all of that in our conversation, first some of the video for the song, “Her Mercy”.
[Clip]
Tavis: That’s a beautiful song, as I mentioned, called “Her Mercy”. But the album, the CD, is entitled, as I said, “Didn’t He Ramble”. And when I got the CD, Glen, and started looking through it and playing it, I didn’t come across a song called “Didn’t He Ramble”. I don’t know if I’ve ever had a CD that was titled something and there actually isn’t a song on the CD titled “Didn’t He Ramble”. What happened?
Glen Hansard: Well, the song, “Didn’t He Ramble”, which is the song, I guess, for me was the central song on the record, not necessarily the best song on the record. For me, the central song because it spoke–the song was about my dad and my dad’s favorite bar in Dublin was called the Ramble Inn.
So I wanted to call the song “Didn’t He Ramble” as a kind of–my dad used to joke. It’s called the Ramble Inn and the Stumble Out [laugh].
Tavis: Okay.
Hansard: I wanted to write–you know, imagine being at a wake of somebody. My dad passed five years ago. I wanted to sing a song to him that was about reporting on a man who had lived life his own way and done things his own way, but it wasn’t emotional and it wasn’t blaming. You didn’t have any darkness, but just more like a statement of love for him and a report almost.
You know, the song meant so much to me that I never felt like I got it. And it took me a long time to get it, so I ended up not putting it on the record, but I called the record after the song. Now on this new EP, the song finally makes an appearance.
Because eventually, you know, like with all things artistic, eventually you abandon it. You don’t finish anything. Nothing ever gets completed. You just walk away from it at some point and go, “It’s enough.” So the song is finished and I’ve been playing it at gigs and I feel good about the fact that I’m speaking to my father in a way that is respectful to him and respectful to his spirit.
Tavis: To your point, since things are never done, we just eventually walk away from it, we can always keep tweaking and tweaking and tweaking, how do you know when it’s time to walk away from a song?
Hansard: Well, the song has a life and, like all things that you have, there’s a period of time when it’s exciting and there’s a period of time when it’s emerging and it’s coming. You know, new lines are being added all the time and there’s a point with a song when it won’t leave your head.
You know, it’s like that ear-worn thing and you’re constantly–each time it rolls around your had again, you’re writing a new line or you’re taking a line out or you’re changing a word. This word actually works a lot better than this word.
And then there comes a point where that goes quiet and then you’re playing it live. Then when you start playing it live, it reawakens that same creative thing. At some point, you think to yourself, this might keep developing, but now I need to stop. Now I need to just move on. The part of my brain that it’s occupying needs to take a new song and get working.
And oftentimes, you’ve got several pots on the cooker at once, you know, and you’re adding a little pepper in one and you’re throwing a little chicken into another. You know, you’re kind of moving stuff around. So in a way, certain songs get burnt. They don’t get finished and then one or two might maybe come out just right, to use the cooking analogy.
Tavis: What did winning that Academy Award for the song, “Falling Slowly”, what did that do for your career?
Hansard: Well, there’s a part of us that doesn’t like to necessarily admit that these things matter in the way that the world would have you think they matter. You know, because there’s a part of us that’s like how do I feel about my achievement?
Tavis: Sure.
Hansard: And then there’s a part of us that deals with the public version of your achievements, if you like. So there is a bit of a struggle that anybody with any real artistic sensitivity will struggle with the idea that this thing means anything.
And, of course, it means something. Everything about the experience of making the film once and everything about the experience of how when you make a piece of art, it has a life of its own. It’s the same with your career, I’d imagine.
When you start a career and you start moving towards an idea, and that idea is to be a creative person in the world, in a way your career becomes its own entity and it becomes its own energy. You don’t get to control if you don’t get to decide who is going to show up at your gig.
You don’t get to decide how successful a thing is going to be. A thing is going to run–it’s a bit like putting a ship in water and hoisting the sails. If you don’t navigate correctly, you might end up on the rocks or you might end up deep in the middle of an ocean.
Your career is its own thing. So it was an amazing experience to go to the Oscars, to even go there. To even be nominated was like the most extraordinary thing because our film cost 150,000 Euro to make it. We made it in three weeks.
We went to Sundance Film Festival and Sundance really was the place that embraced it and we won the Audience Award, having been already rejected from Sundance previous with the same film [laugh]. Somehow, it got a second chance and it got in.
We won the award and then it made the short list for the Oscars and we went along. Of course, all of that struggle is in us of like should we go along? There’s a writers strike. Maybe we shouldn’t, you know. What does this mean? And you’re kind of doing battle with yourself.
But, actually, when we went along and when we won, you asked me the question how did it change, it changed everything in that they say the two most ripped off people in the world are boxers and musicians, and it’s because they just want to get in the ring. They just want to get on the stage and sing their song.
So all we wanted to do was get on the stage and sing our song and really what happened after the Oscars–and I didn’t really see it coming–was that we were given the one thing that any performer wants, which is an audience. You know, I remember being younger and going, “Just give me an audience and let me do the rest. Just put me in front of the people and let me do the rest.”
I think that’s why I started playing music on the street because music on the street means you’re in front of people without any relationship with them. It’s just you and your guitar and your talent and your will and your song against nothing.
So it was an incredible thing to walk out of that experience and to be able to tour the world and play these wonderful theaters with people showing up and people connecting with the songs.
Tavis: What do you hope that people take away from this project?
Hansard: Well…
Tavis: And there’s not a lot of–I mean, I’m scared to say this because you are all about love, but there aren’t love songs on here the way we think of love songs.
Hansard: Right, right.
Tavis: But the theme, of course, is there, always present.
Hansard: Well, the love song is a songwriter’s–it’s almost like the songwriter’s toolkit. The love song is like a major subject for the–and in a way, I wanted on this record to go deeper because love is complicated. And for some reason, and I don’t know why, I sing about my father a lot on this record. So this album is really about my dad. It’s about my family. It’s about my relationship with my friends.
But it’s not really about my relationship with a woman, and that’s the difference in this record than any other one. So in a way, I kind of feel like songs are what you would love to think. There are a lot of records being released in the world. There a lot of songs.
What I’d love to think is that a song, if it’s built right and if it’s constructed right, is like a piece of furniture. You keep it in your house, you use it, you don’t notice it. It’s just there. When you step up on it and fix the light bulb, you step up on it. When you need to sit down and have your dinner, it’s a piece of furniture you don’t look at, but you see.
And in a way, a song that’s built well is something that it’s like, you know, it’s like a Marvin Gaye album. It’s in your record collection. You use it. In a certain mood, you point at it. You know what? I want to hear that. And then it’s just useful. It’s like you don’t sit down and think about the artist so much, but you use the music. So songs can be useful.
Tavis: Your music is always useful, and I’m always honored to have you on this program. Since your guitar happens to be there…
Hansard: Yeah. I don’t know what to play for you, though.
Tavis: You got 10 seconds to figure out what you want to play.
Hansard: Okay.
Tavis: You can just play us out with a little bit of anything. Before Glen plays us out with whatever he wants to play, he’s out with a new project from Glen Hansard is called “Didn’t He Ramble”. If you tuned in late, don’t look for the song [laugh]. You won’t find a song called “Didn’t He Ramble” on this project. That’s on the EP. But it’s a great CD and I highly recommend it.
Thanks for watching. That’s our show tonight from Los Angeles. As always, keep the faith, and here comes Glen singing us out with a little something-something. Take it away, Glen.
Hansard: Thank you, Tavis.
[performance]
Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at pbs.org.
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Last modified: March 8, 2016 at 2:00 pm