There may not be a checkroom in the Saenger Theatre anymore, but it might be best to leave something else before you see Black Violin: expectations.
“I can tell people don’t know what to expect. We come onstage, two relatively big black guys with violins and there’s this DJ. And at the end of the show we get ‘em, we grab ‘em,” Wilner Baptiste said.
Along with musical partner Kevin Sylvester, they don the stage names Wil B. and Kev Marcus and aim to shatter categories. Their blend of classical and hip-hop has been nearly 20 years in the making.
They met at Miami’s Dillard High School in the 1990s when Sylvester took up the violin and Baptiste the viola. The strings weren’t Baptiste’s initial choice.
“I used to beat on the table at lunchtime in middle school and the security guard used to get upset at me. He gave me a story about how he used to play the saxophone and make money on the weekends, so that’s what I wanted to do, was make money on the weekends. That was my sole purpose,” Baptiste said.
He approached the music teacher with his intentions and signed up for a class. Apparently a string teacher overheard him and his apparent fervor spurred a wager.
“I found out in 2012 they played a round of golf and decided, ‘Whoever wins this golf game gets this kid in their class,’” Baptiste revealed.
The teacher’s instincts were keen. Baptiste was moved to the advanced class in a week.
“I had a knack for it. I just took it and played. I would watch the other students and ask questions and they would teach me. A year later I was better than them,” Baptiste said.
Once in high school he crossed paths with Sylvester and the friendship, along with standard classical training, began. Sylvester left for Florida International University in 1999. Baptiste went to Florida State University in 2000.
FIU professor Chauncey Patterson gave Sylvester a copy of jazz violinist Stuff Smith’s album “Black Violin.” Sylvester told talk show host Tavis Smiley it was like hearing “the violin on fire.” He sent it to Baptiste.
“It showed us the violin wasn’t meant to be in this little box. It verified what we thought. We’d always dabbled in that, playing stuff we heard on the radio, and that album showed us how versatile the instrument is,” Baptiste said.
They started shopping around their ideas, hip-hop beats paired with classically inspired instrumentation and melody. In the pre-YouTube and pre-social media days this took a lot of hustling.
The duo showed up at clubs and fought through skepticism, even playing for promoters in parking lots. They would pop the car trunk to supply beats and play stringed accompaniment.
In 2004, they accompanied Alicia Keys and went on to share bills with other industry giants. In 2005, they won the daunting talent contest at the Apollo Theater.
In 2007, they cut their self-titled debut album. They have also worked as producers and writers with artists such as Kanye West, Tom Petty, Lupe Fiasco, Aerosmith and others.
It is fitting, then, they will play the home venue of the Mobile Symphony Orchestra on Saturday, May 6, at 7:30 p.m. Some components of their show will be familiar to MSO fans.
“Our style is more baroque than anything. We don’t do a lot of slurs or anything. That element is definitely there, that Vivaldi type of movement on top of a hard-hitting beat. We do a lot of free-styling and making up stuff on stage,” Baptiste said.
An appearance at Austin’s 2013 South by Southwest festival shows their fusion in full flower. They emerge to a recorded rendition of Bach’s allegro from Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 and as it fades they take up the melody. Within a few measures a drummer supplies a modern beat. Their DJ adds samples and before long they’re sailing through something Baptiste said last year’s tour of Europe was successful. He credits that continent’s long-noted embrace of the arts for the reception.
“There have been people crying during the show, who come up later and give us hugs. Especially when we do kids’ shows and the kids are completely moved and transformed because of it,” Baptiste said.
The communal experience breaching social classifications still touches Baptiste. Their emotions repay him.
“You can see two individuals watching the show and one has their eyes closed and moving around as if they’re listening to something beautiful like opera and there’s another person next to them just banging their head with the beat. I never get over it,” Baptiste said.