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Black Violin wants to break your classical music stereotypes

The members of Black Violin want to change perceptions about who can play what kind of music. Wil Baptiste on viola and Kev Marcus on violin met as high school orchestra nerds. Today they play genre-bending music, blending classical music with hip-hop. Jeffrey Brown talks to them about their new album, “Stereotypes.”

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  • GWEN IFILL:

    Next: where Bach meets hip-hop, with a strong message about stereotyping.

    Jeffrey Brown looks at the musical group Black Violin.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Wil Baptiste and Kev Marcus, members of Black Violin, two former high school orchestra nerds. That's how they met. But, also, by their own description, two 6'2" black men who are eager to change perceptions about who plays what when it comes to music.

    Their new album is titled "Stereotypes."

  • WIL BAPTISTE, Black Violin:

    I think that's probably the main agenda, right? You think of…

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    You use the word agenda?

  • WIL BAPTISTE:

    Yes, I think so.

    If you look at us, we don't look like your typical violinists. We talk to the kids all the time, and the kids love us just because we can relate to them, so to speak. And that's what it's all about, breaking stereotypes.

  • KEV MARCUS, Black Violin:

    I look like I should be a linebacker, but to be a violinist, when I realized that, I was just, like, I love it. I'm drawn to it. It's the thing that — that's why I wake up in the morning, is to take the violin and kind of change people's perceptions about it.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Blending classical music with hip-hop, traditional instruments, Marcus on violin, Baptiste on viola, with contemporary backup, Black Violin is reaching audiences around the country.

    We met them recently at the Publick Playhouse in Cheverly, Maryland. They have played the Apollo Theater in Harlem. They met with American troops in Iraq, and have opened for top pop stars, including Alicia Keys.

    It all began in an ordinary, even accidental, way at Dillard High School for the Performing Arts in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

    Was it your choice to pick up the viola?

  • KEV MARCUS:

    No. My mom made me do it, actually.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • KEV MARCUS:

    But now I thank her every day. I mean, 25 years later, I can't believe I'm still playing this instrument.

  • WIL BAPTISTE:

    To be quite honest, I didn't want to pick it up. I wanted to play the saxophone. They put me in the wrong class. That's my story. True story.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • WIL BAPTISTE:

    But I'm grateful now that I have — you know, Black Saxophone just doesn't have the same ring to it, you know?

    (LAUGHTER)

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    You were telling me, Wil, earlier, about high school, the rigor of the training, right? You were always playing.

  • WIL BAPTISTE:

    Always playing.

    (CROSSTALK)

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Playing in orchestra, playing in quartets, concerts all the time.

  • WIL BAPTISTE:

    Exactly, concert every weekend. We had a viola technique class, chamber music, orchestra, youth orchestra.

    I mean, you know, we had a ton of classes, but that was the really, really good thing. At the time, it was very like, ah, I have got another concert, I have got another — you know, got to rehearse.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    The genre-bending music they play today is a direct fusion of their musical training and passions.

  • KEV MARCUS:

    Think of it this way. We studied classical, but we lived rap music. So…

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    You studied one and you lived the other.

    (CROSSTALK)

  • KEV MARCUS:

    And lived the other.

    So, second period every day, we'd play Bach and Beethoven and Mozart, but, on the way to third period, we'd be listening to Biggie or Tupac or whatever we liked at the time, whatever was hot.

    So, when it came time to blend them together, we did it so naturally and so seamlessly that it didn't even seem like we were doing anything groundbreaking at the time. We were just naturally — I would hear that hip-hop beat and pick up our violins and play to it.

  • WIL BAPTISTE:

    We're bridging two worlds together. We're bridging hip-hop and classical and jazz and funk.

    And what that does is, to me, particularly with the kids, it just — to them, they're like, oh, my God, this looks incredible. It sounds incredible. It looks impossible. Maybe I can do this with literature, art, science, or anything that I have a passion for.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    A Black Violin concert is a dancing, even shouting affair. They play their own compositions, such as the song "Invisible."

  • WIL BAPTISTE:

    I need you guys to help me out. I'm not invisible. Clap your hands. Come on. I'm not invisible.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    And cover hits like Ed Sheeran's "Thinking Out Loud."

    (SINGING)

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    But there are also slightly older hits, like Bach's Brandenburg Concertos.

  • KEV MARCUS:

    Bach, to me, is the equalizer. Beethoven, I just — anything late Beethoven as far as chamber music is concerned, I just love. I'm very excited about classical music.

    I think what we do is just different. It's not — it doesn't elevate it. It's just different from classical, just like it's different from hip-hop. We get to create our own lane and walk in it on our own, and hopefully others follow.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Yes, because the question is how does Bach and what does Bach say to Jay-Z or Tupac? What are they saying to one another?

  • WIL BAPTISTE:

    Honestly, I think, if Bach were here today, he would say, good job, fellows, because, honestly, if you think about — if you think about classical and hip-hop, they're not so different.

    In the Bach world, back in those days, I mean, someone would pay Bach to write a specific piece for a banquet or a party. You know what I'm saying? Bach was the producer at that time, the hip-hop producer, so to speak, at that time. So it's not so different from today's age right now. You know what I mean?

    So, there's a lot of similarities.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    I'm not sure I have heard that before. Bach is a hip-hop producer of his time.

    Braxton Saint Hill (ph), age 7, part of the Washington, D.C., Youth Orchestra, was immersed in the concert from the front row. His mother, Anhela (ph), told us he'd had a bad cold, but wasn't going to miss this.

  • BOY:

    Hey, Black Violin, when I get as old as you, I'm going to play too with you. All right. Bye, Black Violin.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Earlier, I had asked Wil Baptiste and Kev Marcus where they hope this all leads.

  • WIL BAPTISTE:

    I think a lot of kids are now open to listening to a Mozart piece or a Beethoven piece because of what we do.

    So, I think we're creating — and also hip-hop as well, the true essence of hip-hop, which is creativity. Someone that would never listen to hip-hop is seeing hip-hop in a different light.

  • KEV MARCUS:

    Whoever you are, whether you're yellow, purple, black, young, 5, 70, whatever, just come have a good time, and, hopefully, you're educated, entertained and inspired.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    In January, Black Violin will set off again on a 30-city U.S. tour.

    In Cheverly, Maryland, I'm Jeffrey Brown for the PBS NewsHour.

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