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With 'Stereotypes,' A Duo Raised On Hip-Hop And Classical Has It Both Ways

Sep 17, 2015
Originally published on May 31, 2016 4:17 pm

Kevin Sylvester says that when most people see a 6-foot-2-inch, 260-pound black man, they don't expect him to also be a classically trained violinist. A recent exchange with a woman in an elevator, when he happened to have his instrument with him in its case, drove that point home.

"She's like, 'What do you play?' " he recalls. "I'm like, 'I'm a violinist.' And she was like, 'Well, obviously you don't play classical, so what kind of style do you play?' "

Sylvester says he explained that while he does have a degree in classical music, he plays all kinds of styles. "She didn't mean it maliciously," he says, "but I hope she gets to see us in concert and we can change her perception."

Moments like this inspired Sylvester and his partner, violist Wilner Baptiste, to call their new album Stereotypes. It's the latest release by their duo Black Violin, whose seeds were planted years ago when the two met as high school students in Florida.

Both men say that when they were kids, studying stringed instruments wasn't exactly Plan A. Sylvester was nudged into music classes by his mother in fifth grade, and grew to like the violin despite initially dismissing it as uncool. Baptiste, meanwhile, originally wanted to learn saxophone — but when he signed up for summer band, he was put into a string class with a different teacher accidentally. Or so he thought.

"I didn't find this out until 2012, that the reason why I got put in his class was because he and the band teacher had a bet," Baptiste says. "They basically said to themselves, 'Listen, let's play golf, and whoever wins gets this kid in their class.' So it wasn't an accident — it was actually done on purpose."

Stuck in string class, Baptiste looked around the classroom until he found an instrument nobody else seemed to want.

"No one would pick up the viola," he says. "Literally, I was the only person who wanted to play the viola. So I picked that up, and 20 years later I'm still playing it."

Before they were introduced to the strings, Baptiste and Sylvester were kids who loved hip-hop. They met in their high-school orchestra class, where they began to study classical music and learned to love the great composers.

"It started for me with Bach, 'cause Bach is the equalizer, you know?" Sylvester says. "To me, Bach is the hardest thing you can play, because he exposes everything about you. He exposes your weaknesses and makes you work harder. I always think of Bach as, like, the closest composer to divinity."

Baptiste and Sylvester say that while classical music and hip-hop may seem worlds apart, both are meant to bring people together.

Baptiste puts it this way: "They had little shindigs going on back in the days, right? They needed music. So just think of it that way. Like, I'm this guy, I own this big palace — 'Mozart, listen, what can you whip up, man? I need some new tunes.' "

"So it's the same kind of thing with hip-hop," Sylvester offers. "It's just like, I need Grandmaster Flash to DJ my party. You know, hip-hop and classical, in a lot of ways, are both party music for different eras."

And, Sylvester says, Black Violin's music is helping to introduce hip-hop to people who might not be into it otherwise: "I remember this one woman comes up to me — she has to be like a 60, 65-year-old white woman — and she's just like, 'Man, I don't even really like hibbity-hop, but you guys are amazing!'

The two musicians are hoping the conversation will flow both ways, and that their music will help keep classical music alive for the next generation.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

This next story has something for everyone who loves any kind of music because it's a story of two musicians bridging the gap between classical music and hip-hop. They're a violinist and a violist who met at high school in Florida. And today, they perform as a duo called Black Violin. Their new album has a provocative name, "Stereotypes." NPR's Lindsay Totty has more.

LINDSAY TOTTY, BYLINE: Kevin Sylvester says that when most people see a 6-foot-2, 260-pound black man, they don't expect him to be a classically trained violinist.

KEVIN SYLVESTER: Yeah, couple days ago, I was in the elevator, and I had my violin in the case. And this lady - she was like, what's - yeah, what do you play? And I'm like, yeah, I'm a violinist. And she was like, oh, well, obviously you don't play classical, so what kind of style do you play? And I was just like, I have a degree in classical music, but, you know, I play all kinds of styles. And she didn't mean it maliciously, but I hope she gets to see us in concert, and we can change her perception.

TOTTY: Moments like this inspired Sylvester and his partner, violist Wilner Baptiste, to call their new album, "Stereotypes."

(SOUNDBITE OF BLACK VIOLIN SONG, "STEREOTYPES")

TOTTY: Kevin Sylvester says he enjoys surprising audiences and changing their ideas of what the violin can do, what hip-hop music can do, and what a black man can do.

SYLVESTER: I love it, you know. I could pull my violin out even right know in this newsroom. There are people, like, kind of around in the offices. And then, I start playing, and then, they're like, wow, I just didn't even think that guy was going to play violin. I never thought - it's a great thing.

(SOUNDBITE OF BLACK VIOLIN SONG, "STEREOTYPES")

TOTTY: Kevin Sylvester and Will Baptiste both say that when they were kids, studying stringed instruments wasn't exactly plan A. In fifth grade, Kevin Sylvester was put in a music class by his mom. He grew to like the violin even though initially he thought it was uncool. In middle school, Will Baptiste originally wanted to learn to play the saxophone. But when he signed up for a summer band class, he was put into the string class with another teacher accidentally, or so he thought.

WILNER BAPTISTE: I didn't find this out until 2012 that the reason why I got put in his class was because he and the band teacher had a bet. They basically said to themselves, listen, let's play golf, and whoever wins gets this kid in their class. So it wasn't an accident. It was actually done on purpose that I got put in string class.

TOTTY: Stuck in string class, Baptiste looked around the classroom until he found the little wooden instrument nobody else wanted.

BAPTISTE: No one would pick up the viola. Literally, I was the only person that wanted to play the viola. So I picked that up, and, you know, 20 years later, I'm still playing it.

(SOUNDBITE OF BLACK VIOLIN SONG, "STEREOTYPES")

TOTTY: Before they were introduced to the strings, Baptiste and Sylvester were kids who loved hip-hop. They met in their high school orchestra class where they began to study classical music and learned to love the great composers.

SYLVESTER: It started for me with Bach because Bach is the equalizer. You know, to me Bach is the hardest thing you can play because he exposes everything about you. He exposes your weaknesses and makes you work harder. And I always think of Bach as probably the closest composer to divinity.

(SOUNDBITE OF BLACK VIOLIN SONG, "BRANDENBURG")

TOTTY: The guys in Black Violin say that while classical music and hip-hop may seem worlds apart, both are meant to bring people together.

BAPTISTE: They had little shindigs going on back in the days, right? They needed music, right? So you know, just think of it that way. Like, I'm this guy. I own this big palace. Mozart, listen, what can you whip up, man? I need some new tunes.

SYLVESTER: Yeah.

BAPTISTE: I need something fresh. What you got for me?

SYLVESTER: I need two waltzes and a serabon (ph). You got me? Like...

BAPTISTE: You got me?

SYLVESTER: ...You know, so it's the same kind of thing where hip-hop is just like, you know, I need, you know, Grandmaster Flash to DJ my party, you know. Hip-hop and classical, you know, in a lot of ways are both party music for different eras (laughter).

TOTTY: Kevin Sylvester says that Black Violins' music is helping to introduce hip-hop to people that might not be into it otherwise.

SYLVESTER: And I remember this one woman. She comes up to me. She has to be like a 60, 65-year-old white woman. And she's just like, man, I don't even really like hippity-hop, but you guys are amazing.

TOTTY: They also hope they can keep classical music alive for the next generation. The new album from Black Violin is called "Stereotypes." It's out tomorrow. Lindsay Totty, NPR News.

INSKEEP: And we're listening here to an improvisation from Black Violin. You can hear the whole song at npr.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF BLACK VIOLIN SONG) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.