Classical/hip-hop group Black Violin honors their roots while paying the whole thing forward

By Cameron Lee

February 9, 2022

Kevin Sylvester, better known onstage as Kev Marcus, one half of the classical/hip-hop string duo Black Violin, sits backstage at Milwaukee’s Marcus Center as we chat about his musical origins. I had learned not long ago the name Black Violin came from the prolific jazz musician, Stuff Smith, a violinist who attended Charlotte’s own Johnson C. Smith University in 1924 at the age of 15. Sylvester explained that, on his first day of college at Florida International University, his professor gave him a tape of Smith’s 1972 album, Black Violin

Kevin Sylvester aka Kev Marcus, one half of the Grammy-nominated classical/hip-hop duo Black Violin. Photo: Kimberly Jane

“It just felt like every note that he played, it felt like a Black guy playing it. And I could never tell that by listening to a violinist before,” Sylvester said. “And I don’t know what that even meant, you know? What I do know is that it completely opened my mind to what the violin is.”

Album cover for Stuff Smith’s 1972 album, ‘Black Violin.’

The professor who handed him Smith’s tape was Chauncey Patterson, a Burlington, North Carolina native who is a proficient musician and educator in his own right. The tape would retroactively become a pivotal moment for Sylvester and his musical counterpart, Wilner “Wil B” Baptiste. Prior to getting their first big break in 2004 on the renown Showtime at the Apollo, Black Violin was the name that perfectly encapsulated their musical essence, representing a legacy of the past and pushing forward their contemporary hip-hop sound. The duo dazzled the famously harsh crowd at the historic Harlem theater with their renditions of the classic Pete Rock & CL Smooth track, “They Reminisce Over You,” Biggie’s “Juicy,” and Usher and Lil Jon’s 2004 mega-hit, “Yeah.” Utilizing their classical musical training and seamlessly blending hip-hop hits with the house band, Sylvester and Baptiste knew at that moment, this would be their careers. 

“I remember after we won the first show, Wil was backstage on the phone with his boss quitting his job, you know, it was like, that was it. At that moment, we are Black Violin. Harlem said it, no one can take it from us,” said Sylvester. 

While playing the storied Showtime at the Apollo was certainly a launching point for the duo, as they went on to be honored with the 2005 Legends title after four consecutive wins, their aspirations weren’t always set on playing the violin and viola as a profession. Prior to sending the audition tape to the show, Sylvester and Baptiste wanted to be more like Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo of The Neptunes than pioneering classical/hip-hop musical phenoms. In college, Sylvester had a condo where he and Baptiste would cook up beats in their small studio, pitching to artists like Rick Ross, Trina and PitBull, who were lesser known at that time. 

L to R: Wilner “Wil B” Baptiste and Kevin “Kev Marcus” Sylvester of Black Violin at Dillard High School of Performing Arts. Courtesy 

Although Sylvester started playing violin at the age of nine (at his mother’s insistence), and both he and Baptiste earned full music scholarships, it was the deep fondness of hip-hop culture and music that rooted their relationship. Sylvester and Baptiste first met at Dillard High School of Performing Arts, where Sylvester would arrange strings to popular rap songs like Busta Rhymes’ “Gimme Some More”– a track that used a violin sample from the opening theme to Alfred Hitchcock’s, Psycho. They would arrange strings to mimic the song with classmates using violins, plucking violas and bass lines from the cello. They ended up performing a cover of the song in a Florida competition called Solo & Ensemble, a student music festival that takes place annually in the state. 

“As I do interviews, I remember those times, and those things planted seeds that turned into, you know, what we became,” said Sylvester. 

Kevin “Kev Marcus” Sylvester and Wilner “Wil B” Baptiste of Black Violin. Photo: Mark Clennon

While the concept of performing hip-hop music with string instruments seemed cutting-edge at the time, for Sylvester and Baptiste, it all felt very natural. It was the stereotypes– which happens to be the title of their 2015 album [Stereotypes] featuring Robert Glasper, Black Thought and Pharoahe Monch– that divided their hip-hop upbringing and classical music surroundings. 

“Music is universal, you know, it’s all just notes and chords, which turns into vibes and feelings,” he said. 

Shortly after their breakthrough run at Showtime at The Apollo, Black Violin performed with Alicia Keys at the Billboard Music Awards, which then led to an international tour with Fort Minor, the side project of Linkin Park’s Mike Shinoda. Over the years, they’ve worked with countless acts contributing their unique instrumental talents, and even performed at an inauguration concert for kids in 2013 for President Barack Obama. Sylvester details in a TED Talk what he told the president when he met him: “Everything that I’ve ever done in my life has led up to this moment.” According to Sylvester, the president replied, “Well the tough thing is to figure out what to do next.” He was perplexed by the profound response. As an accomplished violinist and a member of a successful, trailblazing musical duo that has traveled the world, Sylvester was indeed searching for what was next. 

As Black Violin, the two have released five studio albums, and earned their first Grammy nomination for their 2019 album, Take the Stairs. But what was ultimately next for the duo is the non-profit organization they created, the Black Violin Foundation. It’s headed by ​​Sylvester’s wife, Anne Sylvester, and Baptiste’s wife, Corryn Freeman. The nonprofit provides aspiring young musicians with resources to foster creativity in the community through scholarships, instrument distribution, and a diversity grant. The ​​James Miles Musical Innovation Grant Scholarship is named after their orchestra director at Dillard High School, James Miles, who was instrumental in both their developments as young musicians. 

Kevin “Kev Marcus” Sylvester works with students at Mary M. Bethune Elementary School for The Kennedy Center’s Turnaround Arts program.

“He bought me my first instrument and I paid him back the 50 bucks a month for like, two years, three years, my mom paid him back. But even that was such a big deal because he didn’t have to spend 3,000 of his own dollars on a kid like me, but he did…and I’ll never forget that,” Sylvester said. 

Black Violin’s stage performance has also evolved over the years. Joined by DJ SPS, drummer Nat Stokes, and new edition Liston Gregory III on the keys, Sylvester describes the production as a full meal, not a snack. 

Kev Marcus and Wil B performing as Black Violin. Photo: Ron Valle

“There’s much more focus and money spent on production. There’s a full light show, the lights are synchronized to what we do. So you know, the show isn’t just the music anymore. There’s really beautiful sets, it interacts and moves with us as the show progresses,” he said. 

And just like Sylvester’s professor Patterson introduced him to Stuff Smith, and James Miles supported their collective talents, Black Violin strives to leave a legacy to inspire the next generation to innovate through music: “We’re kind of still paying that whole thing forward.” 

Learn more about the Black Violin Foundation and check out the full 2022 tour schedule for Black Violin. 

Read next: 

In this article