Photo: Lisa Leone
Photo: Lisa Leone

Boundary Breaking Black Violin

The name Black Violin is pretty straightforward.

Wilner Baptiste and Kevin Sylvester are both classically trained string instrumentalists and black men, and the pair is thriving in a genre that people are generally surprised to see them inhabit.

“They still are [surprised],” Kevin Sylvester tells me over the phone. “The song ‘Stereotype’ was about how I love the stereotype, because I love the fact that people think I shouldn’t do this. In our case, we use it as fuel. It’s the best part of my career because they don’t expect me to do this.”

But what is their genre? Google says they’re a hip-hop duo, but if you plugged into Black Violin right this second, I’m not sure that’s the first genre that would come to mind. Their songs definitely contain numerous influences from 90s hip-hop stalwarts, but it’s misleading because the term puts Black Violin in a box. Their sound is more complex than one genre, and it’s supposed to shatter the walls of expectations.

“It’s classical boom,” Sylvester says. “I want you to think the strings are so beautiful, but at the same time I want you to be knocking your head like you’re listening to Migos or Future. We’re trying to blend those and take it to another level.”

Black Violin is boundary-breaking. The sound of their strings is reminiscent of a climactic scene in a movie, until the bass thumps and you’re transported to a dance club. So far, the Florida natives have released three albums and a series of mixtapes with great success.

“We’re not necessarily setting out to do that, but our music is very inclusive and a lot of people like it,” Sylvester says. “Since we have the platform, we want to send them love and positivity.”

Despite their cognizance and efforts to incorporate audiences from different backgrounds, Sylvester says there’s no added pressure. Though they generally strive to play harmonious music, he doesn’t view the goal as a roadblock or restriction to their creative process at all. To him, it’s just the natural result of people seeing and hearing Black Violin.

“I don’t think about it as pressure,” Sylvester says. “Everything that happens with us is a byproduct of our music. We want to play dope music, and if unity happens, it’s great. Since it’s there, we use our music to highlight it.”

Though their music-making process is unfettered by the weight of their greater mission, certain aspects in the order of operations have been tweaked over the years. Success breeds responsibility, and when you add personal lives to the equation, time becomes a valuable resource.

“I think since the early days, we’ve definitely matured,” Sylvester says. “We were ready for what came, so that wasn’t a big shock. Our processes are more refined, because we have less time to play around. Before, we just sat around in the studio playing music. We do more than 150 shows per year, so [now] music is much more of a profession. We love it. We have the best job in the world.”

The duo tours often, making it harder to tinker for hours in the studio. But being on the road is when they can look out at crowds, the same ones with folks still surprised to see them there at all. The tours are where the unity happens, where the byproduct of the music comes to fruition, a place where Baptiste and Sylvester pick up string instruments and allow people of all different sizes, shapes and colors to listen to their own unique genre.

“I think it’s an experience,” Sylvester says. “If you’ve never seen it, I can guarantee you’ve never seen anything like this before. Our patrons leave entertained [and] inspired, and hopefully, they think and grow from this. We don’t want, ‘Yo, that music was so good.’ We want you to think about how you think about things, you know? What else can this world do that I wouldn’t expect? We want to play music that makes you feel good, but we want you to leave with a meal – not a snack.”

Check out Black Violin at Strathmore on Friday, November 10 as their Classical Boom tour makes its way to Maryland. Tickets are $26-$68.

The Music Center at Strathmore: 5301 Tuckerman Ln. North Bethesda, MD; 301-581-5100; www.strathmore.org