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Vivaldi Meets Biggie Smalls: Florida Duo 'Black Violin' Comes To Tampa

Photo provided by the Straz Center

The Florida duo Black Violin performed at the Straz Center in Tampa on Thursday. But this wasn’t your average violin concert.

The  group that blends hip-hop with classical was formed by Fort Lauderdale residents Wil Baptiste and Kev Marcus. Baptiste plays viola, Marcus plays violin and the two also produce the beats accompanying their tracks.

Marcus says the musicians have been friends since the first day of high school. They met in orchestra class at Dillard School of Performing Arts in Ft. Lauderdale. Playing string instruments wasn’t exactly either kid’s dream.

“Well my mom made me do it,” Marcus joked. “Wil actually wanted to play the saxophone and was trying to get into band, but he got put in the wrong class.”

But once they had the instruments in their hands, the guys rolled with it.

“We had a couple of really amazing teachers that really took it to another level with us and taught us that we could take this instrument and we could make it anything we wanted it to be,” Marcus said. “And I think because we were in that situation is why we kept playing and were able to figure out how to make the violin an instrument that anyone could understand and relate to.”

At the same time they were mastering their instruments, Marcus and Baptiste were also embracing the South Florida music scene. Both men grew up in Caribbean families, so Marcus says reggae and calypso were staples in their homes. And they constantly listened to hip-hop.

By the time they hit college – Marcus attended Florida International University, Baptiste went to Florida State University –  they began combining their classical skills with the popular music they loved. Marcus says it seemed natural to them.

"But when we'd do it for people they would just lose their minds,” he said. “They'd be like, ‘What, you guys are playing violin on hip-hop beats?’ And we were like, ‘Yeah, what's so weird about that?’ Because to us, that's the world we were in."

And so Black Violin was born. In 2005, fresh out of college, they won the amateur talent competition "Showtime at the Apollo." Marcus said he had been working at a title agency at the time and that Baptiste was a telemarketer, but the achievement convinced the young men to quit their day jobs.

They've since gone on to perform with R&B singer Alicia Keys and open for acts ranging from the rap group Wu Tang Klan to the late rocker Tom Petty.

Marcus said a Black Violin show is unlike anything you'd expect from a classical music or hip-hop concert. 

“You’ll hear everything from Vivaldi’s ‘Four Seasons’ to Bruno Mars’ ‘Finesse,” he said. “You’ll hear Bach’s ‘Brandenburg Concerto’ but we’ll mix it with the Notorious B.I.G.’s ‘Juicy.’"

"We blend music in a way where if you’re very into classical music you’re going to love all the lush string lines we put on everything, but at the same time the person next to you that’s really into Drake or Nikki Minaj or Katy Perry is going to be listening to the beats because the beats move them…We try to blend the show in a way where everyone can enjoy it and interpret it in a different way.”

Marcus describes the audience as very “unified,” with attendees spanning all ages and races. He said dancing in the aisles is encouraged.

"It’s a get-out-of-your-seat kind of situation for sure –and you're going to be out of your seats but it’s going to be a violin concert," Marcus said.

Black Violin has produced three studio albums, most recently 2015's Stereotypes. The album’s title song features Marcus sharing his own experiences with stereotypes, describing how people tense up around him in elevators.

Marcus said the inspiration for the clip came when he, Baptiste and other producers on the album were brainstorming about what stereotypes meant to them.

“We went around the room and had a video camera and asked everyone ‘What’s your No. 1 stereotype?’…And mine was – I’m a big black guy – I feel like sometimes when I walk in a room or am out and about that people’s impression of me is that I’m someone they should be threatened by,” he said.

But the song ends with Marcus saying the judgment only empowers him:

"The reason I smile on stage is because I know I'm completely crushing people's perceptions of not only what a violin can do and what music can possibly sound like but also of what a black man is capable of."

Marcus said “Stereotypes” sums up the message Black Violin wants to send to its audience.

"Don't judge a book by its cover, and if you feel like you are being judged then change the book, you know?"

Black Violin is working on a new album due out later this year.

I cover health care for WUSF and the statewide journalism collaborative Health News Florida. I’m passionate about highlighting community efforts to improve the quality of care in our state and make it more accessible to all Floridians. I’m also committed to holding those in power accountable when they fail to prioritize the health needs of the people they serve.
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