Art Works Blog

Art Talk with Wilner Baptiste of Black Violin

Wilner Baptiste met Kevin Sylvester in high school orchestra, a place that initially, neither of them particularly wanted to be. Baptiste had wanted to play saxophone instead of viola, and Sylvester’s mother had thought the violin would help dissuade him from hanging out with the neighborhood’s rougher crowd. And yet there they were, learning classical music technique in class while listening to hip-hop together after school. Through the magical alchemy of creativity and friendship, the teens began experimenting with marrying these musical genres together, eventually formalizing the sound as the duo Black Violin, which has been supported indirectly by numerous Arts Endowment grants.

With the release of their third record, Take the Stairs, last year, Black Violin continues to stretch their hybrid form in new directions, creating music that smashes boundaries and defies expectations. In the process, they’re attracting young people—particularly young people of color—to classical music, a field where fewer than 5 percent of professional musicians are black or Latino, and where audiences are increasingly graying. As part of this, the duo is devoted to arts education, providing grants through their Black Violin Foundation to help young people pursue innovative musical paths regardless of their socioeconomic circumstances, and mentoring students at Mary M. Bethune Elementary School in Hollywood, Florida, through Turnaround Arts, which integrates the arts into struggling schools as a way to boost academic achievement and student engagement. We recently spoke with Baptiste about Black Violin, how hip-hop helped the duo find their creative voice, and how they hope to encourage creative innovation in the next generation of musicians.

NEA: You and Kevin met in high school. What made you two click as friends and also as musicians?

WILNER BAPTISTE: I think what made us stay good friends is our mutual understanding of what it is that we're doing, particularly playing classical instruments. Not too many black kids at that time—or even black adults—played those instruments. So I think we not only had a mutual respect for each other, but we had a common ground. It was easy for us to always keep in touch. As we were creating music, it was always like, "Oh, this makes sense."

NEA: When did you two first start to seriously explore pushing the boundaries of classical music and marrying it with other genres?

BAPTISTE: It started in high school. It was something that was always in us, and we've always dabbled in it but we were not necessarily serious about it—we were just having fun with it. We grew up in the hip-hop era. We grew up in the early '90s. Hip-hop is a huge influence now, but back then it was just incredible. Hip-hop was about expression and being yourself. We just took the instruments that we learned in high school and middle school, and we incorporated our own sound, our own expression in those instruments. It was a very organic thing. We definitely didn't wake up one day and thought of the idea. It naturally happened because of hip-hop and the way that hip-hop is structured. Over time we started becoming better at doing it, and after college and producing and working with artists, it started to be something that was second-nature to us as we move around and as we create.

NEA: Not every artist pushes boundaries quite as far as Black Violin does. Where do you think that drive comes from?

BAPTISTE: I think as an artist we feel like that's what you're supposed to do. You're supposed to stretch the envelope. You're supposed to do things that are very uncommon. You're supposed to do things that are not the ordinary. You're supposed to push the boundaries. That's what artistic expression is. If you're not doing that, then you're just being a carpenter or you're just being a plumber. We've always thought of it that way, and again hip-hop has a huge part in that, because that's what hip-hop was all about. It's like, "Oh, here's a new dance. What can I do with this dance that can make it better or explore it even more?"

NEA: And yet, when we're teaching kids the arts, we're often teaching them that this piece of music is played this way, a story is written with this sort of structure, we paint a tree green. I know you work with young people extensively. How do you strike a balance in terms of teaching children technique and encouraging them to find their own creative expression?

BAPTISTE: We do this thing called “jump training” where we play something very simple, let's say, a G-major scale—one octave. We start off with that, then we start off with this really simple rhythm playing on the viola or violin, and we'll tell them to just play whatever they want. It doesn't matter what you play. You can play a G-minor or G-major scale. It doesn't matter, but just play something and make sure that it's coming from you. It's difficult for them at first, because, like you said, they only play what's in front of them. The idea of creating something is just foreign to them.

In terms of technique—we don't really go into that. We tell them, "That's for your teachers to do. Your teacher is going to talk to you about technique, how to hold a bow, how to hold an instrument. What we want to do is we want to expand your mind to allow you to express yourself with this instrument, because it's something that is not taught." When [Kevin and I] started doing that, it kept us playing. I think without doing that, we wouldn't have been playing for as long as we have. So we try to do that for these kids and allow them to just have fun with the instrument. Playing scales and being very structured can discourage people from continuing to play. I think this approach allows kids to be free, allows them to be more open about themselves, about their expressions. Next thing you know they've been playing for ten years, and they don't even realize it. It keeps them engaged. It keeps them playing. That's our approach.

NEA: How did arts education become such a big priority for Black Violin?

BAPTISTE: We understand how important it is, how positive it is, because we're literally the product of it. So for us it's necessary. Because of the arts, I was able to come out of my shell. I was able to be more confident in school in different subjects, not just music. We have a mic—why not use it for the purpose of good? So that's why we're a huge advocate of it. We know it works, we know that it's helpful, we know that it's necessary.

NEA: In terms of arts education, you have the Black Violin Foundation, and you're involved with Turnaround Arts. Can you tell me about those projects?

BAPTISTE: Turnaround Arts is an amazing foundation. The idea of infiltrating the curriculum in school using art was amazing to me—how you can incorporate art in science and math. These kids are learning in a way that they've never learned before, and we see schools that were once F schools or D schools are now C and B schools because of it. It works. For us, when we saw that and we saw the effects of it, it was just a no-brainer. We jumped in head-first.

As far as the Black Violin Foundation, it's literally the extension of Black Violin. It's doing what we already do, just times three. Our goal is to be able to provide a leg up to kids that are incredibly talented but just are missing something. They're trying to apply for a music camp, but they just don't have the funds, or they're trying to audition for a college, but they need a better instrument. So we try to fill in the gaps as much as we can. But again, the foundation is literally the extension of what we already do, which is trying to engage with kids and try to show the idea that you can do this no matter who you are, where you are, or what your circumstances are, where you're from, what your color is. It doesn't matter. You can do it.

NEA: You just put out Take the Stairs last year. Where do you see this album fitting in musically and conceptually with your other records?

BAPTISTE: Our music has always been the kind of music that brings people together. That's never changed. We've always just created music [that] feels good. I think with this album, we were a bit more purposeful in terms of our theme and what we're trying to say. The theme was the idea of hope—where does hope come from, what does it look like, what does it sound like. That was the whole concept. We want people, whenever they feel like they need someone to talk to or they need something to help them throughout the day, to pop in this album. This album kind of gets them through the day, almost like it's a medicine, or if you're thirsty, you want some water.

NEA: Where did the name come from?

BAPTISTE: The name Take the Stairs came from our careers, how we've always felt like we've took the road not taken. We've had a lot of opportunities to do things that may have sounded or looked good at that moment, but in terms of longevity in our careers, I don't think it would've been the best decision to make. Even though we've turned down a lot of different things, we're happy now, because we control our own destiny. We control our music. We control whatever it is that we do, and that's important. So that's the idea of taking the stairs. You can easily take the elevator, but to be able to sustain yourself when you get to that 15th or 20th floor, you’ve got to be strong. I think taking the stairs will create a certain kind of strength and endurance and will allow you to be able to deal or handle anything, and I think that's necessary if you're trying to be successful. You’ve got to be able to stand on your two feet. I think taking the stairs not only strengthens you, but makes you appreciate the journey.

NEA: You mentioned that your music brings people together. Can you talk more about how you hope it accomplishes that?

BAPTISTE: We live in dire times right now in the world and in this country, and I think music is one of those singularities that can mend open wounds. We feel like our music brings people together. When you come to a Black Violin concert, it's amazing to see the different kinds of people that are in the room that wouldn't necessarily be in the same room together, unless it's a football game or something. And even then they're segregated. So it's amazing to see that, and they're there for one reason and one purpose: it's a Black Violin concert. We try to make our music and our shows very inclusive, and I think it's necessary to add that music heals. Music heals, and it's one of those things that can break boundaries. So we're going to continue to do that, because we understand how amazing it is to bring people together.

NEA: Black Violin frequently collaborates with other artists, including Wu-Tang Clan, Wyclef Jean, and Alicia Keys. What about an artist might spark your interest in working with them?

BAPTISTE: I love an artist that's real and honest about themself. No one's perfect. I remember Adele was accepting an award, and she was so excited, and her nose was running, and a little bit of snot come out. She just wiped it off and was like, "Oh, I'm sorry. I got a little snot here.” I thought that was just such a beautiful, real moment. It happens to everybody. People sometimes want to think of artists as almost like super humans. But these are real people that go through real issues, just like you and I or anybody else. So I love artists that can be themselves and be honest and be real. Obviously talent is needed, but talent is maybe the third or fourth thing. Because you can have talent but no drive, and who wants to work with anybody like that? You’ve got to have drive. You’ve got to have a reason for being, a reason for your expression. If you have those things, it doesn't even matter about the talent, man. Let's create. Let's work.

NEA: Can you walk me through your creative process?

BAPTISTE: Our creative process differs. We try not to limit ourselves when it comes to creativity. It happens in different ways. It could be a producer bringing a beat to the studio, and [we think,] "Oh, that beat's hot," and we make it ours. Or it could be something that I come up with on the violin or viola, and then it starts from there. It could be a video idea, like the video comes before the actual song. So it just varies, especially when it comes to creating with different artists when everybody has their ways of doing it. I'm always interested in knowing and experimenting in things that I've never done before.

NEA: Where do you look for inspiration?

BAPTISTE: Inspiration can come in so many different places, from listening to my dad talk or listening to a certain song that just kind of clicks. I listen to Curtis Mayfield, Bob Marley, and artists like that. As soon as I hear a cut, it just inspires me. Or some new artist that I hear. So it comes from different places. When I hear music, it literally paints a picture in my head, so that inspires me to create. I get a lot of inspiration onstage too during soundchecks. I think I come up with my best creative things onstage just soundchecking, just being free and vibing. There's something special about being onstage.

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