Wil Baptiste and Kev Marcus love to upend people’s expectations. As Black Violin, they startle audiences with their unexpected blend of classically trained musicianship and hip-hop beats and inventiveness. But they also delight in upending people’s often unconscious prejudices about two physically imposing black men.
“We’re gonna completely destroy what you thought was gonna happen when you see two six-foot-two black men playing the way we play,” said Marcus, the violinist and more muscular half of the duo. “We break stereotypes by our existence. … My second favorite thing is to mess with people’s heads. They don’t even see it coming, and I love it.”
They don’t just surprise people onstage.
“We live it every day,” said Baptiste, who plays viola. “This happens all the time at airports. People look at my case and assume it’s a trumpet. I have fun telling them to keep guessing. They almost never do.”
Their combination of originality and virtuosity has taken them from the Apollo Theater to President Barack Obama’s second inauguration to slots opening for Alicia Keys, Kanye West and Aerosmith. Now the Broward-raised, Broward-based duo is bringing its latest album, Stereotypes, home to South Florida for a sold-out 4 p.m. concert Sunday for the University of Miami’s Festival Miami. Because of demand, a second show has been added at 8 p.m. Sunday at Gusman Concert Hall, 1314 Miller Dr., Coral Gables. Call 305-284-4940 or visit www.festivalmiami.com for tickets.
The two owe their careers to a former Fort Lauderdale music teacher, James Miles, who saw the pair’s potential before either was able to do so himself.
“All I really did was make them realize they have talent and ability and are special,” said Miles, 52, who mentored the boys in middle school and then as orchestra director at Dillard High School, which has a performing arts magnet program. (Other high-profile graduates are Daniel Bernard Roumain, also a classical and fusion violinist, and rapper Jason Derulo.) “I couldn’t be prouder of them if I was their father. I think the sky’s the limit for both of them.”
All I really did was make them realize they have talent and ability and are special.
James Miles, former Dillard High orchestra director
Neither Marcus nor Baptiste, both 33, started out wanting to play strings. When Marcus was 10, his mother, worried that her son was hanging out with a rough crowd, sent him to a summer band class.
“I wanted to play drums or something cool,” Marcus said. “But I came late, so all they had left was violin.”
After a security guard, annoyed that Baptiste was always drumming on tables in the lunchroom at Sunrise Middle School, suggested that he could make money with his talent if he learned to play in a band, Baptiste thought he’d try trumpet or something similarly bright and shiny. Instead, he ended up in a summer class for string instruments.
“I was like, ‘Where’s the metal and the brass?’ ” Baptiste said. “I didn’t sign up for this wood stuff.”
Miles, who’d connived to get Baptiste away from the band teacher into his strings class, was confident he’d excel at the “wood stuff.”
“I started Wil immediately on viola,” Miles said. “He was tall, intelligent — I always put the most intelligent kids on viola.”
(You have to be smart to play harmony, he explains.)
Miles drove Baptiste, who shuttled among his three older sisters’ homes, to school in seventh grade, gave him private lessons and helped him get into the arts magnet program at Parkway Middle School.
At Dillard, Miles was a voluble, passionate force who soon had his students, most of them black and from families with few resources, playing in the prestigious Florida All-State competition. He bought them instruments and arranged concerts at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts. He demanded discipline. But he also engaged students with stories of Mozart being a sex-obsessed scoundrel, or how Shostakovich’s jagged, atonal chamber symphony expressed the horror of Stalin’s murderous Soviet regime.
“You tell the kids [Mozart] was a rebel beyond anything they know,” Miles said. “And you play these great pieces, and they ate it up. As soon as you convince them that if you work hard enough it doesn’t matter how nice these other kids’ instruments are, you can beat ‘em. The ball starts rolling and they go, ‘Hey, this is cool.’ ”
Miles’ combination of high expectations, support and creativity inspired Marcus and Baptiste. They spoke earlier this month after a concert in Lawrence, Kansas, where they’d introduced Miles, now retired, to a standing ovation from a crowd of 1,400.
“So many opportunities and so many doors opened,” said Baptiste of their time studying with Miles. “But the thinking outside the box also kept us going. I started hearing music differently. … Mozart and so on were the Timbalands of their time. You hear these stories behind the composers, and it opened up my mind.”
“I realized the opportunity classical music gave me,” Marcus said. “People have a different perception of you when you play the violin, and I got addicted to that. You tell a girl’s parents, ‘I got a full scholarship to play violin,’ it’s a validation like being a doctor. That made me want to be better and better.”
Even as they were drilling their skills, they were also listening to hip-hop and improvising on their own. Both got music scholarships — Marcus to Florida State University, Baptiste to Florida International University. After graduating, they became roommates in a Miramar apartment, and they started experimenting.
“We wanted to be the next mega producers, to use our classical training to make more progressive pop music,” Marcus said. Instead, they found a way to merge their two musical worlds.
“Hip-hop in terms of its essence is all about creativity, doing something that’s who you are,” Baptiste said. “It was natural to put them together.”
They started playing South Beach clubs, then got a break in 2005 when they won the famous Showtime at the Apollo competition at the legendary Harlem theater. Stereotypes is their second album but their first for a major label, Universal Music Classics, which has a partnership with UM’s Frost School of Music. Produced by Eli Wolf, who’s worked with Wynton Marsalis and Elvis Costello, Stereotypes includes a mix of R&B, jazz and rock musicians, and it has topped various Billboard, iTunes and Amazon charts. A video for the title track, which includes images of Black Lives Matter protests and of black people as doctors and astronauts, as well as an interview on NPR, have also given Black Violin new visibility.
Marcus and Baptiste, who live in Broward with their families, hope to keep breaking musical and social barriers.
“We’re all about doing what people don’t expect,” Marcus said. “Maybe you’re 6, and people don’t think you can do anything. Maybe you’re Muslim — look at how the politics of that goes down. We start the conversation, about race, gender, age and pushing the envelope. We felt we had the music and experience to convey that message in a powerful way.”
If you go
What: Black Violin
When: 8 p.m. Sunday (4 p.m. show is sold out)
Where: Gusman Concert Hall, University of Miami, 1314 Miller Dr., Coral Gables
Info: $28 - $44 at festivalmiami.com or 305-284-4940