Wilner Baptiste— now known as Wil B. to fans of the genre-busting duo Black Violin— started playing viola almost by accident. When he was 14 and growing up in Florida, he went to his first band class, excited to learn how to play the saxophone. Both the band and the string teacher were in the same room when he arrived.
“They both looked at each other and said, ‘Let’s play golf, and whoever wins the golf game gets this kid in their class.’ Obviously, the string teacher won, so I was stuck in the class for, it was like a two week program, like a summer program.”
Now Wil makes his living and breaks down barriers with his viola at venues across the country. Along with his partner Kevin “Kev Marcus” Sylvester, the duo (accompanied by DJ SPS and drummer Nat Stokes) will take the stage at the Valentine Theatre on Thursday, April 7 as part of their nationwide tour.
“I think we look at ourselves as more of a movement than anything. I think we’re doing this, breaking the ideas and stereotypes that we are brainwashed to think,” Baptiste said.
Mix them together
The pair’s show brings together influences from both hip-hop and classical music to create a sound that is not only incredibly entertaining and beautiful, but has a broad appeal to a wide variety of audiences. It’s a crossover that Baptiste argues is vital if classical music is to survive.
“I think classical music needs new listeners, needs to engage new listeners. So what better way to engage new listeners [than] by trying to appreciate different genres and trying to mix them together?
“It happened very unconsciously, because we are both hip hop, so it’s very natural to put the two worlds together,” Baptiste said.
Wil and Kev— who also played a viola at the time before transitioning to the violin— first met back in their high school days, forming a bond over their shared instrument. Wil was a freshman, Kev was a sophomore.
“We’ve always kinda pushed each other, you know? And we were pretty good at violas at the time in South Florida, where we come from. We were always winning competitions and were always kinda being viewed as ‘these two guys that do it,’ you know?”
Eventually, the two went their separate ways and attended different colleges, but life brought them back together. They moved in together and began working with other musical artists, hoping to become musical producers. But their own unique performance style and combination of genres began to grab audiences’ attention.
“The idea for us was we wanted to be the next Neptunes or Timbaland, the next major producers. And we wanted to incorporate classical music in a way that no one’s ever done it. We started performing with artists, and we started noticing how the crowd was just very glued to us.
“Playing over hip hop wasn’t new for us, it was always fun. But then I think we realized, ‘oh man, people kinda like this.’”
Older and wiser
The pair started performing together in the early 2000s under the name “Black Violin,” taken from the title of an album by acclaimed violinist Stuff Smith. Their act steadily gained word of mouth until their popularity exploded following appearances on Showtime at the Apollo.
Despite touring for nearly 20 years, Baptiste said that he and Kev haven’t really changed how they approach music, it’s just that more and more people have discovered what they have been doing.
“Over time, for us, we’ve just gotten better and grown as artists, and as individuals. And we can identify ourselves even more now. So the music translates in a way that’s a bit more pure and authentic, I would say. Because when you get older, you get wiser and you start to understand, not only the world, but yourself.”
Back on the road
The pair had to put their shows on hold during the pandemic, naturally, but resumed touring in February. During the down time Baptiste and Sylvester created a new album of Christmas music, Give Thanks, which was released in 2020.
“I love Christmas music, I love listening to old school, the Nat King Cole classics. So for me, to try to recreate these classics and create your own originals— for me, it’s fun. Music is fun,” Baptiste said.
He hopes the audience at the Valentine on April 7 has fun, as well— but moreover, he hopes that they take a moment to reflect upon how people from all walks of life can be impacted by the same kind of art.
“I hope they look around, and see themselves, and see the other people around them. The unique thing about our show is the way the music really brings people together. A lot of people in our audience, they wouldn’t necessarily be typically together in one room at the same time,” Baptiste said.
“It’s always interesting to see people come and enjoy our concert that are from completely different backgrounds, which is always beautiful to see.”
Black Violin’s performance on Thursday, April 7 is currently sold out. For the latest on ticket information, call 419-242-2787 or visit valentinetheatre.com.