On the cover of Black Violin's 2015 album Stereotypes is a violin, shattered and artfully arranged in a new, angular shape. It's a fitting visual for what the duo has been doing together for nearly 15 years: defying expected conventions about what music can sound like, and who can play it.
A blend of classically-informed melodies over hip hop beats, the music of Black Violin isn't easily categorized. But for violinist Kev Marcus and violist Wil Baptiste, who studied classical music growing up while also immersed in rap music, combining two seemingly disparate genres has always felt very natural.
Still, in a PBS News Hour feature, they say that people are still surprised to learn that two black men can play violin for a living. "We don't look like your typical violinists" says Baptiste. "That's what it's all about, breaking stereotypes."
Both musicians admit that stereotypes are always something they've dealt with in a very direct way. At the close of the title track on the album, a spoken quote from Marcus floats over the accompaniment, addressing the duo's agenda of breaking down these stereotypes, not only on a musical level, but also on a racial one: "Just because Im 6’2," 260 lbs., doesn’t mean you’re supposed to be afraid of me… the reason I smile onstage 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 what a black man is capable of."
While the song's music tackles the stereotypes of both classical and hip hop genres, the video's imagery invokes the Black Lives Matter movement and portrays young people of color in positions of high achievement: carrying diplomas, winning awards, working as doctors, etc. Extended clips of two black men fencing hearkens to 18th century champion fencer and virtuoso violinist/composer Joseph Bologne, a subtle reference to the fact that black musicians have been playing classical music for hundreds of years.
Most of all, Black Violin hopes that their music and message will reach and inspire young people like those featured in the Stereotypes music video; they frequently invite local youth orchestras to join them onstage during performances.
For their performance this Thursday night at the War Memorial Auditorium, 25 string students from Metro Nashville Public schools will join Black Violin for a special collaboration after attending a workshop with the duo earlier in the day.
Both Marcus and Baptiste credit playing the violin, as well as encouragement from music teachers, with opening doors of opportunity and keeping them on a positive trajectory growing up.