It’s difficult to come up with something that’s startlingly unique in the music world – but that’s exactly what Kev Marcus and Wil Baptiste did when they formed Black Violin. Crossing classical music with hip-hop, their sound is entirely distinctive. Since their 2008 self-titled debut album, they’ve embraced even more genres, from rock to pop and R&B – but always with their violin playing as the constant element. “The violins thread everything together,” says Baptiste, on a recent conference call with Marcus. “As long as that’s consistent, then it will work. Sonically, it’s all in the same space.”
Black Violin’s latest release, Give Thanks (out on November 20), is the latest showcase for their innovative, uplifting work. It’s a holiday album – but, given this duo’s inimitable style, it’s unlike any such collection that’s come before. “We knew we wanted to do about half of them covers and half originals,” Marcus says of the songs, adding that for the covers, the goal was to “reimagine them.”
“We’ve been asked to create a Christmas album for years and years,” says Baptiste, “but honestly, we just never really had time because we tour so much.” In fact, they had begun recording Give Thanks in January before they had to stop in order to undertake their next run of shows.
Baptiste estimates that Black Violin has averaged 150 shows a year, and they seemed on track to do so again in 2020 – but in March, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, they found themselves suddenly off the road for the foreseeable future. Instead of dwelling on the curtailed tour, they decided to take the opportunity to complete Give Thanks.
As they began figuring out how to approach this album, Baptiste says they “threw a bunch of stuff against the wall for two or three days. Just trying to catch a vibe and understand what it is sonically we were trying to do.” As they worked out their ideas, the overarching concept for this album was clear: “We always landed on the idea of giving thanks and what that means to us. We wanted to portray that in music,” he says.
“We really try to go into writing where we want to get a feeling,” Marcus says. “This album, the feeling we were going for was, we wanted a holiday album, but we wanted it to have a vibe that you could play it in July. We didn’t want it to be super Christmas’ed out sonically. We wanted it to be a bit more universal.
“That’s why it’s titled Give Thanks,” Marcus continues. “It’s about just being thankful. It’s not about Christmas or Hanukkah or Thanksgiving or New Year’s. It’s about the idea of understanding this is the time of year when we’re thankful, and hopefully we set a soundscape for that season in a way that’s more vibey and something more unexpected, but still with a holiday push to it.”
Marcus says Black Violin’s songwriting process has always been dynamic like this. “With writing, we approach it a lot of different ways,” he says. “It’s sort of like cooking. It depends what you’re cooking, whether you preheat the oven or not, or whether you put it on high or low.”
This method has been quite successful for Marcus and Baptiste. Their four previously released studio albums have all been critically acclaimed, with their last one, 2019’s Take the Stairs, charting across the classical, hip-hop, and R&B categories.
Baptiste and Marcus both began training for this career when they were children – though neither of them realized that they were destined to play the violin for a living. In fact, both of them were reluctant to take lessons at first.
“I’m coming on 30 years of playing the violin,” Marcus says. “I remember walking into this room and there’s this violin my mom was making me play on a Saturday morning.” He says putting him in lessons was her way of keeping him out of trouble in the rough neighborhood where they lived. It wasn’t Baptiste’s idea to start playing the violin, either. “I wanted to play the sax,” he says. “They put me in the wrong class. I was mad. But I was stuck in the class for a summer.”
Soon, though, the benefits of playing this instrument became clear. “I’m a big black dude: six foot two, always been heavyset,” says Marcus, “and early on I realized that when I would tell people that I play the violin, the perception of who I am, the possibility of what I could be, was altered to them. The violin, the perception of that instrument is so diametrically opposed to the stereotype of what I am that for me, once I figured that out, I was like, ‘I’m never going to quit this instrument.’ The number one reason I play the violin is because I’m not supposed to. The number two reason is, I love it – it’s a way I can express myself in a different language. But the number one reason is because it’s not expected of me to do that.”
As for Baptiste, he says he had many reasons why he continued taking lessons even after that summer session was done: “I think for me, early on what made me keep playing this instrument is just the prestige that was behind it,” he says. “I had a teacher, he kept telling me, ‘You’re getting better – you should keep doing this,’ and it made me feel special. Like, ‘Man, maybe I can be somebody.’ It kept me distracted from other things, whether it’s going back to the hood or whatever. It was an escape for me. And over time, it grew into this passion that I feel.”
When Marcus and Baptiste met at their Fort Lauderdale high school, both had become proficient players – and they recognized kindred spirits in each other. They decided to play together, forming Black Violin as a way to pursue their common goals. “We always thought that the violin can be a way to escape where we were – trying to find a way out of the hood without playing basketball or football. So I think we always looked at it like that, and we always tried to push the art form forward,” says Marcus.
They went to college but continued to play together, getting gigs opening for hip-hop groups at clubs around Miami. Baptiste recalls that it wasn’t always easy convincing people to give them a chance. “We had some funny looks,” he says. “Especially being in south Florida, performing at a club and you’ve got these two black guys playing the violin. Even to this day, we come across people that are like, ‘What is this?’ We welcome that challenge to be introducing people to the idea of these two worlds coming together.”
Black Violin finally got their big break in 2005 when they performed at the prestigious Showtime at the Apollo show at New York’s legendary Apollo Theater. Buzz from that concert led to collaborations with Alicia Keys, Wu Tang Clan, and 2 Chainz. They’ve toured relentlessly, becoming headliners in their own right at shows around the world.
Now that they’ve established themselves in the music industry, they are using their position to help others – especially children who may be more at-risk, as they themselves once were. They do this through various charity shows (including performing at juvenile detention centers), and at regular concerts where they frequently bring youth orchestras onstage with them. Two years ago, they founded the Black Violin Foundation, Inc., a non-profit organization aimed at helping children gain access to quality music programs. “We feel like we have a responsibility,” Baptiste says of these charitable endeavors.
When they perform for children, Marcus says that he and Baptiste always ask them, “What can you do that no one has seen before? Run to what makes you different to everyone else.” That is certainly the case with Black Violin. As Baptiste says, “Ultimately, we’re creating and doing what comes naturally to us, and we feel good about doing it.”