Whenever Wilner Baptiste travels, he's invariably asked about his viola case. It's not because the case is unusual in any way, or because the inquirers have somehow never seen one before. It's simply because he doesn't fit the narrow stereotype of what a violist is supposed to look like.
"I always play around with them, like, 'Why don't you guess what's in the case?'" says Baptiste, who goes by the stage name Wil B. "And they'd say it was a piano before they say viola. ... If someone saw me walking by, they would never assume I play the viola."
Baptiste and violinist Kevin Sylvester (aka Kev Marcus) are the duo Black Violin, a genre-busting project that blends complex string arrangements with the beats of contemporary hip-hop tracks. In the decade-plus since they started playing together in earnest, Sylvester and Baptiste have opened for Alicia Keys, performed with the likes of Jay-Z and Kanye West and are now headlining their own high-energy concert.
"It's a fun, inclusive show, no matter who you are, where you're from, what color you are," Baptiste says. "It's always about the music. It's a universal language. And here we are, 13 years later."
In the beginning, though, neither Baptiste nor Sylvester really wanted anything to do with classical music.
Baptiste was actually drawn to the saxophone, but a mix-up in scheduling placed him in the string orchestra at Fort Lauderdale, Florida's Dillard High, a magnet school for the performing arts that also produced R&B star Jason Derulo. That's where he met Sylvester, forced into the same class by his parents, who shared Baptiste's love of rap. The two were initially more concerned with becoming the next Timabaland than the next Tchaikovsky.
"Just like any kid in the public school system, (playing classical music) is just what we did in second period," Baptiste says. "Hip-hop was something we experimented with just to keep our interest in the instrument. It was just fun. We didn't think anything of it."
But after college — Baptiste attended Florida State in Tallahassee, while Sylvester went to Florida International University in Miami — they realized they had an unusual angle, and they started playing their stringed instruments over pre-programmed beats. The Black Violin concept initially inspired skepticism ("Just imagine going up to a club promoter saying, 'We have these two big black guys and they're going to rock it on violins,'" Baptiste laughs), but they started drawing attention by playing in front of the very venues that wouldn't book them.
"This is before YouTube, Twitter, before Facebook. To convey what we did, we just had to do it," Baptiste says, and the gigs soon followed. In 2005, Black Violin won an amateur talent showcase of the long-running Showtime at the Apollo series, "and that's when we realized, OK we've got something here," Baptiste says. "That was the beginning."
In discussing his own musical influences, Baptiste is as quick to rhapsodize about Kendrick Lamar as he is the Russian pianist Dmitri Shostakovich, and he loves the romantic, atonal compositions of Brahms as much as anything from the Motown era.
You can hear all of those disparate stylistic muses intertwining on Black Violin's most recent album, 2015's Stereotypes, their first release on Universal Music's classical imprint. Despite being signed to one of the industry's biggest labels, Baptiste says he and Sylvester still feel like independent artists: They're hands-on when it comes to every aspect of recording and writing, from the producers they work with to the themes they want to explore.
The title track of Stereotypes is the most concise and forthright communication of Black Violin's self-professed mission statement: Not only does it feature audio clips of people reading various definitions of the word "stereotype," but you can also hear Sylvester and Baptiste discussing the preconceived notions they encounter as black men.
"Just because I'm 6-foot-2 and 260 pounds doesn't mean you're supposed to be afraid of me," Sylvester says on the recording, noting that he often gets sidelong glances when stepping onto an elevator. "The reason I smile onstage is because I know I'm completely crushing people's perceptions."
"We try to break stereotypes in one state at a time, not just about what a black man is capable of, but what a violin is capable of," Baptiste says, echoing the sentiments heard in the song. "Kids call it ballerina music. But we're here to make that art form cool." ♦
Black Violin • Sat, April 1 at 8 pm • $35-$45 • Martin Woldson Theater at the Fox • 1001 W. Sprague • foxtheaterspokane.com • 624-1200