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(photo by Lisa Leone for NPR)

When Hip-Hop and Classical Meet – Boom, Meet Black Violin

Despite the fact that much of the music we consider to be classical was captivating and even somewhat dangerous at the time it was made, the genre has an undeserved rap today for being boring and irrelevant, especially for younger generations. Black Violin, a Florida-based hip hop and classical hybrid, has been effectively chipping away at this and other negative musical stereotypes since forming in 2004. Comprised of violinist Kev Marcus and violist Wil Baptiste, the duo’s blend of sleek hip hop production and delicate stringwork have earned Black Violin a diverse, impassioned international audience over the years. But changing hearts and minds through music hasn’t been easy, according to the band.

In a 2015 NPR interview, Marcus, who is an over 6-foot, 260-pound black man, recounted an experience that encapsulates the sort of widespread inaccurate prejudices and assumptions Black Violin is trying to fight. A woman in an elevator saw the musician’s instrument case and asked him what he played. When he told her he played violin, she said he “obviously” didn’t play classical. Marcus told her that he had a degree in classical music and played all kinds of styles. “She didn’t mean it maliciously,” he told NPR, “but I hope she gets to see us in concert and we can change her perception.”

In a genre the duo has dubbed “classical boom,” Black Violin infuses club-ready hip hop beats with Tchaicofsky-inspired string lines to create catchy, accessible orchestral pop songs that are designed to challenge listener expectations. Their aptly named 2015 album Stereotypes debuted at #1 on the Billboard Classical Crossover chart. Earlier in their career, the band performed two sold-out shows at the Kennedy Center with the National Symphony Orchestra to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s death. In addition to Black Violin’s stage performances, they speak and perform for an average of 100,000 students a year in low-income and Title 1 schools. In collaboration with TurnAround Arts – a Kennedy Center-sponsored program aimed at empowering schools through the strategic use of the arts – the duo works through what it describes as a “movement” to get audiences to rethink what classical music can be and who can perform it.

Marcus and Baptiste met in orchestra class in 1996 and started covering hip hop songs on their instruments after college. After composing their own hip hop-inspired music, they quickly became a fixture in Florida’s local music scene, and were asked by Alicia Keys’ manager to perform with her at the Billboard Music Awards. Performances with Wu-Tang Clan and Linkin Park’s Mike Shinoda followed. In 2013, Black Violin’s musical movement reached the White House when the duo was invited to play at the Kids Inaugural Concert – one of the inaugural balls for President Obama. The concert was attended by First Lady Michelle Obama, and her daughters Malia and Sasha. Today, a rigorous touring schedule keeps the band on the road for an average of over 200 shows a year.

In late 2019, Black Violin released its fourth studio album Take the Stairs. The group’s Denver performance at the Paramount Theatre in January marks the continuation of Black Violin’s massive national tour into 2020. Marcus and Baptiste have accomplished quite a bit in their 15 years as Black Violin, but the duo shows no signs of slowing down or ending their mission to revitalize classical music anytime soon.