Black Violin: “Not Your Grandma’s Classical Concert”

When Black Violin steps on stage, their unique blend of classical training and hip-hop aesthetic creates a concert experience which defies expectations, what can only be defined as “classical boom.”

Black Violin returns to Kansas City, performing at the Kauffman Center Oct. 3, after a sold-out show there in 2016.

Violinist Kev Marcus and violist Wil B (aka Kevin Sylvester and Wilner Baptiste) met in high school, in orchestra class in South Florida.

Their teacher, James Miles, saw their potential and encouraged their musical pursuits. Both attended college on full scholarship.

“He’d always tell us, ‘this instrument can do more than you could even imagine,’ and every time he sees the show he says, ‘Wow, I never thought that you guys would be doing something like this,’” Sylvester chuckles.

“Musically, we are rooted in classical and hip-hop, so those are sort of the two pillars of what we do, but in between there are a lot of different things that are also the mixture of jazz, and funk, and R&B in there.”

Works by Antonio Vivaldi and J.S. Bach mingle comfortably with Cardi B and Kendrick Lamar.

“We approach the instrument in much different ways. A lot of the time, it’s pure and classical and beautiful, and other times we put distortion on it, like guitars. We do all sorts of different things with it, try to reimagine the way the instrument is performed, and looked at and perceived,” he said.

Black Violin (they take their name from a 1965 album by jazz violinist Stuff Smith), has performed all over the world, opening for Alicia Keys, Kanye West and Aerosmith, as well as for President Barack Obama’s second inauguration. Their first album, “Stereotypes,” debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard classical crossover charts.

Their show, a mix of originals, covers and collaborative works, includes Sylvester as MC, as well as on violin, while Baptiste also sings. They are joined by Nat Stokes on drums and scratch master DJ SPS.

There is also a ten-minute portion of the show that is completely new each night, when anything can happen. “We want the audience to participate in the music-making experience and we’ve already played 80 shows this year, so we want to keep fresh for ourselves, do something different every night.”

“It’s not your grandma’s classical concert,” he joked, “but grandmas love us more than anyone.”

For Sylvester and Baptiste, it is as much about the music as it is about shaking up people’s ideas of what a violinist looks like, or who is supposed to play classical music.

Traveling so often, the two are frequently asked what is in their instrument cases. Most people, said Sylvester, guess trumpet. At a muscular 6’ 2”, it doesn’t occur to people that he would play violin — which is the sort of perception Black Violin hopes to change.

“Don’t ever let anyone say, ‘oh, you’re a girl, you shouldn’t’ or ‘you’re too young, you can’t’—none of that. That’s the message we try to preach more than anything,” said Sylvester.

“The reason why things move forward is because someone takes a different approach.”

Kauffman Center Presents Black Violin at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 3 at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. For more information and tickets, visit www.kauffmancenter.org.

Libby Hanssen

Originally from Indiana, Libby Hanssen covers the performing arts in Kansas City. She is the author of States of Swing: The History of the Kansas City Jazz Orchestra, 2003-2023. Along with degrees in trombone performance, Libby was a Fellow for the NEA Arts Journalism Institute at Columbia University. She maintains the culture bog "Proust Eats a Sandwich."

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