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Live From The 305: Black Violin is Defying Stereotypes and Mixing Genres

Kev Marcus (left) and Wil Baptiste (right) performing in their duo Black Violin in 2019.
Ron Valle
Kev Marcus (left) and Wil Baptiste (right) performing in their duo Black Violin in 2019.

Kev Marcus and Wilner Baptiste make up the duo Black Violin. The homegrown Fort Lauderdale talents have performed on the "Today Show," been nominated for a Grammy and toured to hundreds of different schools spreading a message of hope and positivity.

When Kevin Marcus and Wilner Baptiste met at the Dillard High School for the Performing Arts in Fort Lauderdale, neither could have imagined they would go on to become Grammy-nominated professional musicians.

“When I was younger, real talk, I wanted to be a carpenter,” Baptiste said. “I used to watch my dad build things and I wanted to do that.”

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Both were gifted violin players and were a part of the school’s orchestra. After they graduated from separate colleges, the duo started performing as back-up violinists in groups around Miami. The music was a blend of hip-hop, R&B and their beautiful violin melodies.

“I got these two black guys who play violin and they want to rock out your night club, that’s how we started,” Marcus said. “People were like, ‘Who are the two big black guys in the back playing violin?'”

Black Violin formed in 2005 and was launched into the national stage after winning "Live at the Apollo." Over the past fifteen years they’ve toured around the globe, played on the "Today Show" and for thousands of high school students in South Florida and beyond. Inspiring children to see music as a path for their future is critical to their mission as a group.

“Exposing kids to different things and allowing them to see greatness in themselves and other people, its so crucial,” Baptiste said.

Their latest album is a holiday-themed album called "Give Thanks." It includes hip-hop inspired takes on classic Christmas songs like the "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy" and "Joy to the World."

Black Violin is the premiere group for season three of Live from the 305, WLRN’s series showcasing the South Florida artists shaping the local music scene.

Baptiste and Marcus spoke with Sundial senior producer Chris Remington.

Here's an excerpt of their conversation.

WLRN: Take me back in time to Dillard High School for the Performing Arts in Fort Lauderdale. Why were you both compelled to join the orchestra and play classical music? What was the inspiration?

BAPTISTE: Well, I got to go back a few more years before we got to Dillard. I wanted to play the saxophone and they put me in the wrong class, true story. And I didn't find out until 2012. It was actually the band teacher and the orchestra teacher had a bet and they said, "Whoever wins this golf game gets this kid in their class." And that's how I got into orchestra.

Kev Marcus playing violin (right) along with Wil Baptiste (left) at violin practice at Dillard High School for the Performing Arts.
Kev Marcus playing violin (right) along with Wil Baptiste (left) at violin practice at Dillard High School for the Performing Arts.

But then, you know, after middle school, I went to high school and met Kev. I was a freshman and he was a sophomore and we were stand partners. I was first chair, he was second or third or who knows (laughs). But it was a different environment than [most high schools] our high school was very vibrant and artistic. And literally, man, after rehearsal during fifth grade there's a rock band playing in this vibrant little section that the rock band would rehearse and it was just so dope.

I'm curious, early on when you guys were starting out, did you get pushback from record label producers or publicists or folks that would say, "There's not going to be a market for this, people aren't going to be interested in this mixed genre that you guys are doing?"

MARCUS: Yeah. You know, whenever people have never heard something before, they're skeptical. Even if they like it, they're like, well, other people like it? I don't know. I mean, there's nothing there's no track record proving anything, you know? So I think, there was some push back, you know, Just think about we were going down, Collins [Avenue in Miami Beach] or going to, you know, Ocean Drive and back in the day like Teasers, or Levels, we were playing at different clubs. And we were like, "Hey, you know, we've got these hip hop, you know, violin players. They want to come play at your club and rock out for everybody at the club." And they're like, "What, like classical? This is a nightclub, get out of here."

So we had to try and convince people of the idea of it before YouTube or Twitter or Facebook or any sort of visual medium that you can just pull out of your pocket and show people. We'd say, "I got these two black guys that play violin and they want to come and rock out of your nightclub. It sounds ridiculous." That's how we started. That's how the whole idea came about. Because we were producing and we had these artists that we'd play in the background with. And people were like, "What's going on with those two big black dudes in the back with them?"

Wil Baptiste (right) and Kev Marcus (left) performing at Jazz in the Gardens in Pinecrest in 2019.
Kimberly Jane
Wil Baptiste (right) and Kev Marcus (left) performing at Jazz in the Gardens in Pinecrest in 2019.

And for us, we were just trying to make beats and be a record label and be the next Timbaland or Neptunes. We wanted to be the next super producers.

The work that you both do with children is so critical to the band. You've toured to schools around the country. And I'm wondering if you've had an experience at a school in South Florida or elsewhere, especially now during COVID times when you can't travel to schools, that really resonates with you?

I mean it's not necessarily in school, but there were these students, who were playing a show like way back. We had just won at Apollo. We're playing at the [Joseph Caleb Center] Theater in Liberty City. And I don't know, this was like maybe 2004 or 2003. And I remember we played the show. You know, we had just played the show and we were on a high a little bit. And there was a guy and he was sitting there and then he said, "Hey, you know, my two sons, they they love you guys. And they study with the same person who gave you the violin" — Anne Fallick, who was my first teacher at Parkway Middle School.

And he was like, "Would you like to meet him?" I remember I walked over to them and I met them. And they're like nine and 11, something like that. And I talked to him a little bit.

And I was like, "You know what? All you guys got to do to be like us is practice, practice, practice." And then fast forward maybe like seven or eight years later. And we're playing at the Miramar Cultural Center. And the promoter is like, "Oh, we have this opener, these two guys that play violin." At this time we didn't know who they were, so I was like, "I don't want any violinist opening before us please. We want to be the first violins on a stage." But the promoter said they already told them and their dad knows too and the dad's here and they're kids. So I said it was all cool.

So then they go on and I'm sitting on the side of the stage and they are nice. They're so good with it. And at the end of the show one of the violin players says, "You know, it's such an honor." The youngest one says, "It's such an honor to be here. I remember talking to Kev eight years ago and he said, practice, practice, practice." And I just started crying. Oh, I was like, bawling.

And now they go to Dillard High School, they study at the same high school. So it's like it's all full circle. If you could just plant that one seed and then next thing you know, something amazing grows. So we take it very, very seriously.

Chris knew he wanted to work in public radio beginning in middle school, as WHYY played in his car rides to and from school in New Jersey. He’s freelanced for All Things Considered and was a desk associate for CBS Radio News in New York City. Most recently, he was producing for Capital Public Radio’s Insight booking guests, conducting research and leading special projects at Sacramento’s NPR affiliate.
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