words sonya c. patel| images black violin
At 6’2” and 260 pounds, Kevin Sylvester looks more like a member of Miami’s offensive line than one half of the Florida-based classical hip-hop duo, Black Violin. Smiling sweetly and serenely, he’s wearing a checkered button-up with blue, purple and white quarter-inch squares, a navy baseball cap, backwards, blue suede shoes, and holding a tiny (in comparison only) skeletal violin.
Skeletal because it’s an electric violin that only has the frame, no body. “Only thing I need is the frame so I know where I am on it to play,” says Sylvester during our interview, “besides that, I just kind of got rid of the rest of it and plug it in.”
Standing next to him on stage at the Rockwood Music Hall in New York City is Wilner Baptiste. Tall and lean, resembling a point guard for the Miami Heat, he’s uniformed in a skinny black tie over a white shirt, red Nikes, and dark grey slacks, and he is holding Tiffany.
“Say hello to Tiffany,” Baptiste encourages, and then goes on to describe his viola: “Pretty. Real slim in the waist, brown skin, pays all my bills, looking really brilliant. We're gonna do something really special for you.” They begin a classically stylized mash-up of Ed Sheeran’s “Thinking Out Loud” and Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get it On.” The audience loves it.
“How long has Tiffany been with you?” I ask.
“We’ve been together, what do you say babe, for ten years? She’s sitting right next to me.”
Baptiste’s voice gets deep and seductive over the phone as he’s speaking to her. “Tiffany is actually Kev’s viola.” Kev or Kev Marcus, is Sylvester’s stage name; Baptiste goes by Wil B. “She was fun in college, but I had to move on,” Sylvester jokes. We’re good though. Have fun with her.”
“We’re both violas and when we were doing this whole thing we thought we couldn’t have two violas, we had to have a violin. So we flipped a coin and he lost,” Baptiste divulges of their unscientific process.
Baptiste and Sylvester met in high school orchestra where they both played the viola. During their gig at Rockwood to promote their upcoming album, Stereotypes, they explained how they came together. “We’d be playing classical music in orchestra during second period and then we'd listen to Biggie, Wu Tang, and Mariah on our way to third period. We just put the two worlds together.”
It is only slightly more nuanced than that. After attending separate colleges on full musical scholarships, Sylvester and Baptiste came back together around the end of 2003 when Sylvester bought a place in Miami. “[We began] making beats, we had a label, production label, the whole nine, two artists we were working with,” Baptiste rattles off. “We were finding that whenever we performed, the crowd was receptive to us and thought about doing this whole artist thing of our own, Black Violin.” The name is inspired by the legendary jazz violinist Stuff Smith’s last album, Black Violin.
“We don’t look like we [should be able to] play the way we are playing when we are.” I can hear a smile in Sylvester’s voice as he says this. In their sound, lyrics and look, Black Violin delivers a message. “[The] entire concept of Stereotypes is about the life that we live. [On this] first opportunity to record on a major album, we didn’t want to just make music just to make it, but make music that has a message and make music that can possibly make social change,” Sylvester stresses.
Baptiste reiterates the importance of having the album carry a message and adds, “[music with a message is] the best kind of music so that’s what we chose.”
“The entire idea of the album is kind of the life that we know. A black guy, when someone sees me they think a certain thing. Depending on who it is, they think something,” Sylvester says. He and Baptiste prefer to defy expectations and push the boundaries of anticipated limitations.
Sylvester’s body-less violin is another example. “I like doing things people don’t think or expect so I’ve been doing it for six years. Messing with peoples heads and that’s the most fun part of it.” At one point during the set, they hold their instruments like a guitar and pluck. “We try different effects, we try to make [the instruments] do things that you don’t think [they] can do.”
Stereotypes will be released in September on Universal Music Classics. Their show on August 17 at the Rockwood Music Hall was their 102nd of the year—and they have 80 more this year alone.
[me] — kevin ‘kevmarcus’ sylvester & wilner ‘wil b’ baptiste
where do you live — K: South Florida (Ft Laud/Miami) | W: South Florida (Ft Laud/Miami)
favorite neighborhood dinner — K: La Granja (Peruvian) | W: Polo Tropical
luggage — K: Briggs and Riley | W: Briggs and Riley
gadgets — K: GoPro cameras | W: iPad
favorite accessory — K: JayBird Bluetooth Headset| W: JayBird Bluetooth Headset
favorite charity — K: Guitars Over Guns| W: Guitars Over Guns
favorite hotel — K: Sheraton| W: Hilton
favorite apps — K: Instagram| W: Instagram
favorite airport — K: Fort Lauderdale| W: Fort Lauderdale
favorite airline — K: Delta| W: Delta
home is…K: where the heart is? | W: Where family and friends are.
where would you like to live? — K: Cape Town, South Africa| W: Haiti
where & when were you happiest? — K: Performing on stage.| W: The day I quit my job to do Black Violin full time.
what do you consider your greatest achievement? — K: Performing at the Inauguration for President Obama. | W: Performing at the Inauguration in 2013.
what is your current state of mind? — K: Determined| W: Feeling Blessed
how many trips do you take a year — K: Over 50| W: Over 50
how many of those are vacations — K: One to two | W: Zero
without traveling, you relax by — K: Spending time with family. | W: Watching movies.
won’t board the plane before/without — K: Hoodie| W: My viola
indispensable in your carry-on — K: Motrin| W: Bluetooth headset
take off routine — K: Use the restroom then get on the plane early. | W: A quick prayer.
first thing you do after landing — K: Turn off airplane mode. | W: Text family that I’ve landed.
travel is…K: Is the only way to really experience what the world has to offer. | W: The best way to experience different culture.