Halfway through their recent set at the Milwaukee Summerfest Music Festival, Wilner Baptiste stopped their renditions of radio hits to speak with the crowd. “Break the stereotypes,” Baptiste said. “You never know what this violin can do, so you have to break the stereotypes.”
On cue, Baptiste along with Kevin Sylvester nestled their violins against their neck and sprung into the duo’s hit single “Stereotypes.”
Together Baptiste and Sylvester makeup Black Violin. The hip-hop violinists garnered recent acclaim for their new eponymous album Stereotypes. As two black men from Atlanta classically trained in the violin, it’s a word they’re all too familiar with.
However, they didn’t set out to challenge cultural norms through producing such a novelty sound. Rather, as two hip-hop loving violinists, it's inherently their world. And, thankfully, they’ve embraced their designation as “different.”
The Stereotypes album excels through an acute self-awareness. In effectively mixing classical and hip-hop sounds, the duo too bridges the cultures associated with each genre -- a socially conscious rap over classical violin. It’s a sound full of innovation and passion reveling in the best of both genres.
You have a very unique sound. How did this come about? Was it always the plan to mix hip-hop and classical music?
Wilner Baptiste: It just happened. It wasn’t the plan at all...We grew up listening to hip-hop (and) reggae. We just happened to play classical music, so for us it was natural to put the two together.
Your music is often times very socially conscious. Where do you find the roots for this come from? Some of the themes recall Grandmaster Flash. Was that an inspiration?
B: We definitely grew up in that era. With Common (and) Talib Kweli...conscious types. We perform for a lot of kids, so for us it’s important to carry ourselves in a way that the music that we make represents who we are and what we represent...especially with what’s going on in our society. Take a look at this album, we felt we had to say something. For us, what better way than through our music?
It is what it is, because that’s who we are. We’re two conscious individuals. We have families; we have kids. So it’s like, why not?
Many artists won’t talk conversational issues. They don’t feel it’s their place or don’t want to alienate a fanbase. Was that ever a concern when making the album?
Kevin Sylvester: We are who are. I don’t think we make a lot of stances saying politically or anything like that. As for as a conscious artist, what we try to do is try enlighten everyone else’s consciousness. Just like try to be creative with what you do and what you love. That’s more the message of Black Violin: trying to awaken the best of who you are. That thing that you love to do that you smile doing, do that. Do that over and over, but do it in a way that nobody else is doing. I think that’s the kind of place--we say consciousness. We’re trying to wake people up in that way much more that way than in any way that I think would alienate anyone. If you’re alienating by that, then I don’t know what to tell you. So, that’s kind of how we think about it. We think of something different that we're not supposed to do. We don’t look like violinists. We make the violin do things you don’t think it should or what it is capable of doing. What can you do like that? That’s the crux and core of our message.
B: That may offend somebody. You never know; people are crazy. That right there may offend somebody, but who cares? For us, be who you are. Be you. We’re going to be ourselves. That’s it. If you don’t like it, I don’t know what to tell you.
Your sound is quite unique. How do you make sure it’s not a novelty sound?
B: Because we have original music. If you see our performance, it’s 90 to 95 percent original music. Our album is our music. No covers. It’s a lot of elements to it too. I do a lot of singing on stage. We really tried very hard to get out of that novelty type of music. We used to do a lot of gigs where it was like, “Okay guys, I want you to stand on this barstool and just play.” We’re just hoping we fought really hard to get out of that. We’re artists. We want to express ourselves (and) not be limited.
At Hooligan, we believe in bringing the abnormal to the mainstream. How does Black Violin do that?
S: When’s the last time you heard two violins playing a song on the radio and leading the group?
The cool thing with it is that we’re definitely chameleons. We can come in-and-out of many different genres. Our album is very much hip-hop and R&B, but it’s also very much classical and pop, and also has some jazz to it as well. We kind of weave in-and-out of genres. We’re comfortable that it’s not sticking in one particular place. You hear us on either a television commercial, or the TV show we score, or HBO's Ballers that’s coming out next week, or whatever. For us, we like to be a chameleon that pops up everywhere. To us that’s mainstream, because we’re in everything. Rather than just, “Okay, that’s the hit on the radio" -- which we can do as well and welcome. I think we are in that category, but we relish in that. We love that. We’re always trying to be the best we can be and find different creative ways to be mainstream.
Like you just mentioned, you do more than perform live. You do score many different projects. How did that come about?
B: It’s all about connections. The first thing we’d done, we scored this CSI: New York episode. One of the directors saw one of our shows, and then they were like “Oh, they would be perfect for this show.” That's kind of how stuff happens. We did this commercial. It was like a Kobe and LeBron battle commercial. I don’t know how they got our contacts, but our musical travels. Our music was on Dancing with the Stars. A lot of people hear that, and they’re like "What is that?” We get a lot of opportunities that way.
If you go to the show, you see what it is. Sometimes people in the audience may know someone that's in Hollywood who needs music like this. Our music is very different. We’re scoring this TV show that’s coming out in the fall. It’s called Pitch; they wanted our music. They didn’t want anything else, because our music is unlike anything else. They wanted our sound. That’s a great opportunity to get our sound really branded in that world. To me, that’s fun. We’re tip of the iceberg. We haven’t really gotten there yet. The opportunity is endless. We’re doing this TV show; we’re doing this season. Just because of that season, somebody might hear that sound. “Yo that’ll be perfect for Captain America 4.”
S: I wish. I wish.
B: You never know. Our sound is very different, so we just need a chance. We know people love it. We’ve been doing it for 12 to 13 years. The sound is there; people love it. It’s just a matter of continuing to break barriers and getting these opportunities
S: We’re classical musicians who like really hard hip-hop. Not like trap stuff that’s going on now; I like that too. We can relate more to that party hip-hop of the early 2000s -- more southern hip-hop. Something that like Lil’ Wayne would jump on. When you take that beat, blend it with lush classical music. We make epic awesomeness on accident. We don’t even try. I think it lends itself really well to that. We just do that naturally. That’s what we do at our shows, and it connects. For us, we just weave it all together. It shows up in different places. You will be listening to us, and you won’t know.
Lastly, why are you here?
B: Why am I hear? I feel like me personally, I’m here to inspire, uplift, and help people. The joy I get when I either play with somebody, play with some kids, or just talk to some kids -- they can see me. They’re inspired, they're happy, and they’re smiling. That gives me so much. I’ll be there for the rest of my life. That’s what I’m here to do.
S: I’m here for you to listen to music we create.