Typically, the sounds of orchestral strings are accompanied by a piano or wind instruments. The musicians are dressed to the nines and sit with stern faces in front of a music stand. Half the crowd might be dozing off, and the conductor’s shoulder could pop at any second from all the arm-waving.
As Kev Marcus and Wil B. entered the stage, the crowd at the Anderson Center on Sept. 23 was met with a scene completely different than usual. The duo began playing a harmonious melody on the violin and viola with an energetic and mysterious stage presence, unlike typical classical musicians.
As the music began to crescendo, colorful flashing lights lit up a large backdrop reading “BLACK VIOLIN,” the performers’ group name. Along with the string chords, DJ SPS introduced some beats, and Nat Stokes transitioned to a funkier drumbeat. The crowd cheered and danced in their seats as the music picked up, and Black Violin got the energy going. Suddenly, it almost felt wrong to be sitting in the theater seats when the music was so upbeat and rhythmic, making the crowd want to dance.
Samantha Caban, a sophomore double-majoring in history and politics, philosophy and law, said she liked the opening song of the concert best.
“My favorite part of the concert was the beginning and the first chords,” Caban said. “It was almost like spiritual and like I was floating, but it was just the sounds of the violins.”
Black Violin is a hip-hop duo consisting of two classically trained musicians, Kevin Sylvester and Wilner Baptiste, known by their stage names Kev Marcus and Wil B. Kev Marcus plays violin and Wil B plays the viola, but their music is not your typical concertos or sonatas. Instead, they integrate classical music with hip-hop, rap, jazz, pop and other genres.
“Wil and I, we met in high school in orchestra class 23 years ago,” Marcus said. “And every day in second period we played Mozart or Beethoven. But on the way to third period, we’d be listening to the radio, whether it was Jay-Z or whatever was hot. So, for us, we just put the two worlds together.”
Classical musicians may have walked into the concert a little warily, but no one walked away disappointed after Black Violin’s incredible performance. Right off the bat, it was easy to tell why their previous album received a Grammy nomination. The duo were excellent performers and composers and had a natural talent for incorporating songs of completely opposite genres. During a rendition of “Thinking Out Loud” by Ed Sheeran, Wil B. sang the lyrics and encouraged the whole crowd to clap along. Another crowd-pleaser was a mix of classical strings with “Believer” by Imagine Dragons.
“The blending together really made it interesting,” Caban said. “It engaged the audience too, because it was easier for them to clap along to the beat and get engaged in the music, which would be harder to do if it was just strictly classical.”
Danielle Bradford, a senior double-majoring in history and politics, philosophy and law, said she enjoyed the mix of genres and the creation of something new in music.
“I don’t think there’s a rule for how music should be,” Bradford said. “I think that whatever the person creates, that was supposed to be created.”
Not only was the genre-mixing a new aspect for the crowd, but it was also the first live performance in the Anderson Center in a year and a half. Concertgoers had to show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test and wear their masks indoors, but the excitement of a live performance still ran through the audience.
In a powerful moment during the concert, Wil B sang the lyrics to their song “Dreamer,” which is all about people who have dreams and are ready to achieve them. Another inspirational song Black Violin performed was “Stereotypes,” which expresses the power they have in breaking the norm.
“Learning musical instruments is, I don’t want to say gate-kept, but it’s not as widespread as it should be,” Caban said. “I didn’t realize how much of an issue it was until I realized I have never really seen a Black violinist. It’s a problem that shouldn’t exist that I didn’t even realize existed.”
While Black Violin’s talent is impressive on its own, the group’s message and groundbreaking positions are admirable and inspirational. “Stereotypes” relates to the discriminatory notions others have and how Black men are often stereotyped. The fast violin and viola melody were accompanied by beats and voiceovers of different people saying the definition of the word “stereotype.” At the end of the song, Kev Marcus explains how people tend to perceive him just because he is a tall Black man.
“The reason I smile on stage is because I know I’ll completely pressure people’s perceptions of not only what a violin can do or what music can possibly sound like, but also of what a Black man is capable of,” Marcus said.
A common stereotype of an orchestra tends to be a group of old, white musicians who come from money, which makes Kev Marcus and Wil B’s music and performances more important than ever.
“The way they focus so much on the fact they are Black violinists is great,” Bradford said. “I feel like classical music is predominantly white and upper-class, so for them to reclaim it as their own is pretty cool.”
Caban shared that she feels the Anderson Center should schedule more musicians like Black Violin for similar reasons.
“My friend is a self-taught pianist and she is Black, and I was thinking about if my friend has ever seen a Black classical musician,” Caban said. “I think it would be appreciated if people of color on the campus were able to see role models and people quote-unquote breaking the stereotype. So, there should definitely be more thoughtful concerts like that.”
By the end of the concert, everyone in the audience was on their feet and dancing along to the music — unlike many other violin performances.The biggest takeaway from the concert was that everyone can do whatever their heart desires. Whether you want to be an astronaut, write a novel or play classical music alongside hip-hop, no one can say you can’t do it.
“If someone says you shouldn’t do it, that’s just more reason to prove them wrong,” Marcus said.