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Black Violin, classically trained hip-hop duo, bring beats to York on Nov. 2

Lindsey O'Laughlin
York Dispatch
Black Violin, a classical hip-hop duo comprising Violinist Kev Marcus and Violist Wil B., will perform at the Strand Theatre on Saturday Nov. 2.

Even as he was learning the classical standards by composers such as Johann Sebastian Bach and Dmitri Shostakovich, violist Wilner Baptiste enjoyed playing around with popular music, riffing on tunes he heard on TV and songs he learned from the radio.

He met friend and violinist Kevin Sylvester in high school orchestra class in their hometown of Broward County, Florida, and the two began collaborating, blending their love of hip-hop with their classical training.

"Hip-hop is about expressing yourself, so we were just doing the same thing that anyone would do in any art form," Baptiste said. "We just made it connect with us in our own way."

Baptiste (stage name Wil B.) and Sylvester (stage name Kev Marcus) attended different colleges after high school, but they reconnected once they graduated from college, and the duo Black Violin was born.

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More than 15 years later, the duo has collaborated with Grammy-winners Wyclef Jean and Alicia Keys and sought-after strings performer and arranger Rob Moose — who has worked with Bon Iver, Ben Folds and Chris Thile —  and many more.

Black Violin will make a stop on the Impossible Tour, along with drummer Nat Stokes and DJ SPS, at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 2, at the Appell Center for the Performing Arts, 50 N. George St. in York City.

Their latest album, Take the Stairs, will be released Nov. 1.

Baptiste said "hope" is the theme that emerged while they were cutting the new record.

"We were very intentional with that on this album, with every single song, making sure that it provokes this strength, this hope, this optimistic idea," he said.

A major component of the duo's work is education and outreach, particularly to students in urban communities who often don't have access to music education.

Surprising students: When Black Violin performs for students, the concerts are usually held at a theater, and local students are bused in from area schools.

The students are told they're going to a traditional ballet performance, Baptiste said. So when Black Violin comes out on stage and starts performing hip-hop and rock on their stringed instruments, it's the last thing the kids expect to see.

"They’re dancing, they’re moving, you can definitely see joy in their faces and their eyes," Baptiste said.

What the duo wants to instill in the students they meet is that it's OK for them to be different, to express themselves and embrace their interests.

"It’s not necessarily about music at all," Baptiste said. "Obviously, we’re playing music, but ultimately the idea is think outside the box, be yourself, be true to who you are, no matter what you're doing."

Black Violin is a Turnaround Artist with Turnaround Arts at the Kennedy Center in New York City, a program designed to bring arts education and opportunities into underserved schools and communities.

Other Turnaround Artists include world-famous cellist Yo-Yo Ma, actors Forest Whitaker and Sarah Jessica Parker and ballerina Misty Copeland.

Tickets for the Nov. 2 performance start at $30. For more information, visit appellcenter.org or call the box office at 717-846-1111.