What do hip-hop, sausage, classical music and rice all have in common?
They’re the main ingredients to what Wilner “Wil B” Baptiste refers to as the gumbo of music that is Black Violin.
“Our music is very similar to (gumbo),” he said. “You’ve got your hip-hop and your classical – that’s the mother and father of our music… But there’s also a lot of different elements in between. There’s a lot of jazz, a lot of folk, there’s a little bit of country. It’s a lot of different elements, little seasonings in there.”
Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall
Wednesday, Feb. 24 at 7:30 pm.
Tickets are $22 - $32, with $10 student tickets available (with ID)
On Feb. 24, Baptiste and his music-making partner Kevin “Kev Marcus” Sylvester will take their seasoning to the stage at Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, bringing classical strings to life with an undeniably modern sound.
“We take a hard hitting beat – something you would hear one of these famous rappers rap all over," Baptiste said. "We take the violins and we approach it in the way a rapper or a singer would… and just make it beautiful.”
Baptiste and Sylvester have been playing music together since their teens, when they met in their high school orchestra in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. After going separate ways for college, they reunited in 2004 to become Black Violin.
“For us, it’s just something we’ve always done,” Baptiste said. “I mean, obviously it’s different now, we’ve grown and we’ve polished it, but for the most part we’ve always thought of the violin in a different way.”
While the two were learning about the viola and violin in school, they were also part of hip-hop culture. This lent itself to a new use of the classical instruments.
“Hip-hop is all about being creative and experimenting on different things, whether it’s music, dancing – that’s what hip-hop is all about. And that’s what we started doing,” Baptiste said.
The duo's blend of hip-hop and classical music is unique, and unfamiliar to many.
Off the stage, Baptiste and Sylvester, who have degrees in classical music, are often asked about the contents of their instrument cases as they travel. “When we step on a stage, we don’t necessarily look like your typical violinists, you know? And that’s okay. We understand that. We actually use that to our advantage,” he said.
“I play along with it. I’m like, 'Just guess,'” Baptiste said. “They’re like, ‘It must be a musical instrument.’ So they go and they’ll say saxophone, they’ll say trumpet, they’ll say everything but the violin.”
As they’ve grown and toured, Baptiste said that breaking stereotypes has become Black Violin’s mission statement. The duo is focused, Baptiste said, on starting a movement.
Even the way they play their instruments is meant to challenge expectations. From plucking the strings like a guitar to making music club-goers could groove to, it’s not the standard style for a violin.
The title track of their new album, aptly called “Stereotypes,” reflects this. Within the track, multiple voices define the word as “an often unfair and untrue belief that many people have… [that] all people or things with a particular characteristic are the same.”
For Baptiste, it’s about being free, and there’s no time he feels that more than when playing on stage.
“That’s the one place that I am completely free to be who I am and that’s the reason why I am where I am,” he said.
At their Portland performance, Black Violin will be accompanied on that stage by Portland's Bravo Youth Orchestras for part of the show.
Launched in 2013, Bravo Youth Orchestras reaches out to offer free after-school music education to 60 students from Portland's Rosa Parks and Cesar Chavez schools. The students practice two hours every day and previously invited Black Violin to Portland through a video online.
Baptiste said he hopes the experience will help the youth orchestra students become better performers.
“Just relax. Just have fun with this, right? Let’s just have fun,” he said.
Black Violin performs at Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, Wednesday, Feb. 24 at 7:30 pm. Tickets are $22 - $32, with $10 student tickets available (with ID) at the box office.