- Lisa Leone
- Black Violin, who’ve performed with Alicia Keys and The Roots, want to break down genres and stereotypes.
The duo started out wanting to be producers, making beats. “We used our classical training to give us an upper hand,” says Sylvester. But when they’d run the playback of those beats for rappers, the duo would often head to an adjacent room, pick up their violins, and begin playing along. “The rappers would lose their minds,” Sylvester says with a laugh. “They’d say, ‘I’ve never heard anything like that! ’So we thought, ‘Maybe we should try to do this more.’”
They took their nascent act around to Miami clubs in hopes of lining up some gigs. “Our manager would go inside and talk to the owner or the manager or the promoter and say, ‘Hey man, I’ve got these two black guys, and they play violins with hip-hop. You should see it!’”
Their manager was routinely “laughed right out the door,” Sylvester says. “But he wouldn’t take ‘no’ for an answer.” Instead, he would return to the lot where his SUV was parked. “We’d drive up right in front of the club, open up the trunk, turn to whatever was on the radio, turn it up full blast, and we’d play along, right there,” Sylvester says. They’d draw a crowd, and as often as not, score an engagement at the venue.
The show developed from there, but the duo soon bent their repertoire in a direction that hybridized classical music with those hip-hop beats. “We play classical music that people can recognize,” Sylvester stresses. “But we do it with hip-hop beats that people can identify with. We do both simultaneously, without losing either side.”
The Black Violin show is paced like a rock concert, Sylvester says. “It’s a party, and people are out of their seats dancing the whole time. We’ve got a light show, and we’re playing everything from Bach to Bruno Mars and in between.” The program includes as many originals as covers, and features the two musicians switching between violin, guitar and other instruments.
The title of Black Violin’s most recent album, Stereotypes, which includes guest appearances by members of The Roots, goes a long way toward defining the duo’s perspective and mission. It’s all about defying those preconceived notions. “Whatever it is that you love — whatever makes you smile — you should do it over and over and over, and think about it from a different perspective,” Sylvester says. “And someday, somebody will pay you to do it.”
But there’s a motivation much stronger than profit for the Black Violin. Their current run of dates is billed as the Unity tour. “When you have a platform, when you do something that people pay to see, there needs to be a message attached to it,” Sylvester insists. “Otherwise you’re just blowing it. If thousands of people come to see us, we need to send them away with something.
“You danced and you were entertained,” Sylvester says. “And if you look at everybody else who bought a ticket, you see that they’re people just like you. Now we want you to go home and I want you to think about what happened here today — our message of unity — for weeks, for months, for years to come.”