Hip-hop and classical duo Black Violin could have pushed the figurative elevator button and skyrocketed to the top of their career right away, but as they say, the journey is far sweeter than the destination.
The classically trained musicians stop off at Keene’s Colonial Theatre for a performance on their Impossible Tour next Saturday, Oct. 12. Black Violin is Kevin Sylvester and Wilner Baptiste, who go by the stage names Kev Marcus and Wil B. Kev Marcus plays the violin and Wil B. plays the viola.
During their decade-plus career, they have played sold-out shows at the Kennedy Center with the National Symphony Orchestra commemorating the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s death, performed at the Kids Inaugural Concert for President Barack Obama and worked with everyone from Kanye West and Lil Wayne to Tom Petty and Aerosmith.
The title of their fourth album, “Take the Stairs,” which will be released Nov. 1, is a metaphor of their trajectory as musicians.
“We had opportunities to take the elevator and we turned them down because they didn’t fit what we’re trying to do,” said Baptiste in a recent phone interview with ELF. “Any one of those situations could have catapulted us. But we wouldn’t be the same people.
“When you take the stairs, it’s an opportunity to be stronger, to be the best version of yourself. If you’re going to fall, how will you get up when you haven’t prepared yourself?”
Sylvester and Baptiste met in the mid-’90s in orchestra class at Dillard High School of the Performing Arts in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Baptiste originally wanted to play saxophone in the band, but the orchestra teacher got him assigned to his class by winning a golf bet with the band instructor.
“He saw my enthusiasm, I guess,” he said of why his orchestra teacher wanted him in his class.
He started playing viola during a summer program.
“I was stuck there for two weeks,” he said. “I didn’t care for it for like a day or two – and everyone was ignoring the viola. I kept doing it and after that first two weeks, I signed up to be in the school orchestra – my teacher motivated me.”
They were classically trained by day but surrounded by the hip-hop music of the time by night. The two reconvened after they finished college, moved into an apartment together and started trying to produce other musicians.
They developed an act covering hip-hop songs on their violins, which became popular in local clubs. They quickly noticed whenever they performed with their artists the audience was really drawn to them.
Two years after sending in a tape to “Showtime at the Apollo,” they were invited to appear on the show – which they won and kept winning. After the Apollo, which has the toughest audience on the planet, the pair knew they had something nobody had ever seen.
They were approached by the manager of Alicia Keys, who asked them to perform with the singer on the Billboard Awards – a performance that helped launch their career. Black Violin continued touring nonstop, playing as many as 200 shows a year.
The duo currently performs with DJ SPS and drummer Nat Stokes.
Now, they give back by offering free performances for students and hands-on engagement with youth symphonies and community centers in urban communities. Through collaborations with local and national education programs such as TurnAround Arts, the pair connects with more than 100,000 students throughout the year, mostly at low-income and Title 1 schools.
They also lead an ongoing mentorship program at Bethune Elementary, in Florida’s Broward County near where they grew up.
“Kids don’t look at classical as a cool thing – they think it’s ballet or elevator music,” said Baptiste. “But then they see us, two black guys playing in a way that incorporates something relatable to them (hip-hop) and it sparks their creative and confidence.
“We don’t want kids to necessarily go out and play (stringed instruments) but we want them to find whatever they are passionate about and do it differently — and be bold.”
While Black Violin counts its influences from Shostakovich and Bach to Nas and Jay-Z, its most significant is jazz violinist Stuff Smith (1909-1967). The group’s name is derived from that of Smith’s solo album recorded six months before his death.
“The fact he studied and played the violin and looks the way he looks and because of his cutting-edge approach, it’s a no-brainer – he’s very inspiring.”
It may not have been an intended side effect, but Baptiste feels the music of Black Violin brings people together who wouldn’t necessarily be in the same room. They normally perform in historic theaters black people couldn’t patronize because of segregation laws.
“It’s really, really powerful,” said Baptiste. “Whatever misconception (people in the audience) have about a violin or a black person – hopefully that is challenged.”
They describe their unique music as more than just a creative enterprise, but also a movement.
“I hope people who come to our show feel intimidated at first – that they feel whatever this country has been telling them to feel,” said Baptiste. “My job on this planet is to not only motivate but break people’s minds – that wall and these boxes we’re forced into.”
It’s once that wall is broken down that the music does its job.
“For an hour and a half on stage, there’s no politics,” he said, “just humans experiencing something they love, and we love. There’s no wall, no borders, no restrictions – just flesh and blood and all that comes with it.”
Black Violin: The Impossible Tour performs next Saturday, Oct. 12, at 8 p.m. at the Colonial Theatre, 95 Main St., Keene. Tickets are $35-$54 and can be ordered by calling 352-2033 or at thecolonial.org.