A summertime golf game between two high-school band teachers decided the musical fate of Wilner “Wil B” Baptiste. Though the teenaged Bahamian immigrant had his heart set on learning the saxophone, his future string instructor beat the brass master at 18 holes. With a pivotal winning shot, Baptiste’s dreams of thumbing sultry numbers in jazz clubs for tips vanished, and instead he began learning bowing techniques on his brand-new viola.
Baptiste was invited to enroll in a performing arts high school the following year, where he excelled in viola and met Kevin “Kev Marcus” Sylvester, a fellow Black string player who’d become a lifelong friend and the other half of their classically influenced hip-hop group Black Violin.
As freshly minted college graduates, Baptiste and Sylvester initially sought to become the next Neptunes. Together they reinvented radio hits, infusing pop music with Bach-informed baroque and the sounds of old-school rap from their youth. The duo’s first tracks often clocked in around 10 minutes, and consisted of both original compositions and mash-ups that they performed in nightclubs around Miami. The moniker they decided on, Black Violin, is a nod to Black violinist Stuff Smith and his 1965 album of the same name.
“In 2003, we’d play gigs and try to put ourselves out there in South Florida,” Baptiste says over the phone. “Reggaeton was really in at that point, and even though [shows] were cool because we were all vibing, Miami just wasn’t that place [for us]. But New York? New York was that place.”
When Black Violin entered the revered Amateur Night competition at Harlem’s Apollo Theater, Baptiste says the crowd “went nuts before we even played a note. We didn’t realize we had something really special until Apollo. It really validated this whole thing that we thought was dope.” Unsurprisingly, that night they took home the title of 2005 Legend.
After their Apollo performance garnered nationwide attention, the duo shared bills with icons like Wu-Tang Clan, Kanye West, and Tom Petty. In 2013, they performed at President Obama’s second Inaugural Ball as part of a lineup that also included Alicia Keys and Smokey Robinson. Two years later, they welcomed their first major label release, Stereotypes.
The album’s opening title track ends with a voiceover in which Sylvester explains how the duo’s physical presence as Black men often incites fear. When asked how their music challenges this perception, Baptiste says, “We chip at it every time we hop onstage. When you leave this show, if [someone] comes across a person that looks like me, they’re going to think twice about thinking that person is going to do something.” Even with lyrics that stem from their own experiences combatting stereotypes, Baptiste clarifies that this album centers on reclaiming individuality.
“We want to shatter any and every stereotype,” he says. “Whether it is [the perception of] what a Black man is capable of, what a violin is capable of, or if you’re young, you’re old, or you’re a girl. If [they say] you can’t do it, that’s what it’s all about. That’s even more reason to do it. We live the life of shattering stereotypes.”
The duo works toward this vision by inviting youth orchestras to perform alongside them onstage. “Kids are the future, so it’s up to us to get these kids to love themselves and who they are,” Baptiste says. “They go crazy for this music, and [you can] see it in their eyes—how they transform just by seeing a show. By [watching me] play viola, this little boy is like, ‘I can do anything now,’ and that’s very powerful.”
Though 2016’s Unity Tour was originally planned to last just one season, Black Violin retained the name for their current tour schedule. “It’s probably going to be called the Unity Tour for a while,” Baptiste says. “Unity means inclusiveness—people coming together like kids would, no matter where they’re from or what their background is. Let’s come together, even [if] it’s just for one night, and enjoy this. Hopefully in the lobby, we can talk and have a conversation. This country—this world—needs it. We all need it now.”