[Editor’s note: Black Violin performed at the 2013 Inaugural Ball. This story about the alumni duo was first published in the Fall 2007 issue of FIU Magazine.]
By Sue Arrowsmith ’06 | Photo by Angel Valentin
Standing before hundreds of judging eyes at the legendary Apollo Theater, Kevin “Kev Marcus” Sylvester ’03 and Wilner B. “Simply Sick” Baptiste prepared to woo the crowd with renditions of popular songs by Michael Jackson, Usher and Biggie Smalls.
The audience was buzzing.
Still, the performers kept thinking, “They’re gonna boo us.”
No one booed. In fact, the crowd loved the duo, better known as rising group Black Violin, which has been igniting fans with their unique fusion of two divergent genres of music: classical and hip-hop. With their baseball caps on sideways, the two FIU alumni seamlessly blend bass beats with the sophisticated tug of Sylvester’s violin and Baptiste’s viola to create music that a teen could listen to with his grandparents.
“We’re actually rapping with our instruments,” said Sylvester, born and raised in Fort Lauderdale. “I’ll come up with a beat and Wil finds a concept for it, or vice versa.”
After 10 days in New York City and three nerve-wracking shows, the two classically trained musicians took home the 2005 Apollo Theater Legend title and a $20,000 prize. They join Apollo Legends such as Billie Holiday, James Brown and Lauryn Hill.
“It felt like we belonged there,” said Sylvester, who remembers their cell phones ringing off the hook as soon as they left the stage.
Black Violin is awing listeners everywhere they go and capturing the attention of some of music’s hottest acts. They have performed with Grammy-winning artists Alicia Keyes, Kanye West and John Legend, among other chart-toppers.
“At the turn of the last century, African-Americans were told they didn’t have what it takes to play cornet, trumpet and sax – they could only play drums and dance. Now, two young black men are playing jazz, classical and hip-hop on a violin and viola? That may very well represent the last black instrumental hurdle,” said Michael Koretzky, managing editor for JAZZIZ Magazine.
At first, it wasn’t easy trying to sell their concept. When South Florida club owners learned their act consisted of two young black men playing a violin and a viola, they slowly backed away. But once they heard the music, they were sold.
School paves the way
From elementary to college, each of the 25-year-olds credits much of their success to the support of family, great music teachers and staff who encouraged them to excel along the way.
It was Sylvester’s mother, Veronica, who urged him to pick up the violin at age 9 as a way to keep her son off the streets. He describes his first encounter with the string instrument as “love at first sight.”
A janitor at Parkway Middle School, where the two friends met, shared with Baptiste his past experience playing the saxophone and inspired him to join a summer music program at school. The then-14-year-old had hopes of mastering the brass instrument, but he was accidentally placed in a strings class. He was a natural.
“After two weeks, I was put in an advanced class,” said Baptiste. “Classical music changed for me at that point.”
The pair went on to join the music program at Dillard Center for the Arts. During class breaks, they played along to hip-hop tunes with their classical instruments for fun.
“It didn’t feel like you were playing an elitist instrument,” said Sylvester, remembering his days at Dillard, where most of the student population was black.
Sylvester won a full scholarship to FIU, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in musical performance and viola in 2003. It was a great opportunity to play alongside accomplished professional musicians.
Baptiste earned a scholarship to Florida State University but later transferred to FIU, where he studied musical performance.
“FIU has the best music faculty right at home,” said Sylvester. “Chauncey Patterson, who played with the Miami String Quartet, was a great mentor.” Patterson introduced the budding musicians to the sounds of Stuff Smith, renowned jazz violinist. Smith’s last album, titled “Black Violin,” inspired the duo to take on the stage name.
It all comes together
At FIU, Sylvester and Baptiste found Samuel A. Gbadebo, a marketing major, drumming on a table in one of the dorm halls. They whipped out their instruments and began improvising.
Gbadebo, or “Sam G,” became their manager. The three friends formed a band and production company called DKNEX, which stands for Di-Versitile Music, and have played more than 100 weddings and private parties in matching tuxedos.
Together with DJTK, the Miami DJ known as “Lethal Weapon,” they have played in more than 10 countries, performed with Diddy at this year’s NFL kick-off party and finished a tour with rockers Linkin Park.
The highlight of this year, though, will be the release of their self-titled debut album in the fall. For the past 15 months, the pair has been hunkered down in Juan Losada’s state-of-the-art home studio in Kendall, the place where Black Violin concocts its unique sound.
They hope the album will show the true essence of black music from Motown to hip-hop.
“The album captures black music from a violinist’s perspective, cataloging everything that shows our influences,” said Sylvester.
In spite of their sudden fame, Sylvester and Baptiste have not strayed far from their humble beginnings. Last year they founded a non-profit to help save music programs in public schools across the country, where they perform and talk with students.
“We want to open their eyes, so these kids can see that there is more out there than their surroundings,” said Sylvester.
At the Kendall studio, Losada tweaks the knobs on his soundboard adding the finishing touches to the album. Sylvester smiles easily, bobbing his head and exchanging satisfied looks with his childhood friend.
After 16 years in the making, the members of Black Violin have found their niche, and with it, the opportunity to cut across racial and cultural lines.
Visit their website at www. blackviolin.net for album previews and upcoming shows. ♦