An encounter with a security guard in Wil Baptiste’s Ft. Lauderdale middle school cafeteria changed his life, propelling him into the world of classical music, and allowing him to encourage other young African-American children to dream non-traditional dreams.
Baptiste is one half of the duo Black Violin, known for their breathtaking use of the violin and viola to play popular music and hip hop. On December 10, they will play Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony in Baltimore. The show is part of the band’s winter “Give Thanks Tour” — attendees can expect to dance along to hits from the band’s GRAMMY-nominated album “Take the Stairs” as well as holiday favorites from their “Give Thanks” album.
Baptiste recalls the security guard marching over to him and asking him to remove his feet from the lunch table. The directive somehow led to the guard sharing with Baptiste that he was a saxophonist by night. Inspired to become a saxophonist himself, Baptiste went to his music department, visions of coolly playing the sax in smoky bars, dancing in his head.
Those dreams crashed and burned when he was enrolled in a program playing the viola instead. It annoyed Baptiste, but as fate would have it, he stuck with it.
Baptiste would eventually spend hours in the bathroom of his childhood home. “It allowed me to escape,” he explains. “I was a kid living in the ‘hood,’ so it is what it is but playing it allowed me a way to kind of escape.”
TV shows and the hip-hop music he heard on the radio ushered in a way for Baptiste to love the viola outside of its escapist function; he started using it to play whatever he wanted whether it was classical music or not. “When I started connecting with the instrument is when I started playing things that I wanted to play.”
Baptiste became so talented and proficient at the instrument that he was admitted into the prestigious Dillard Center for the Arts at Dillard High School in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. It was here he met Kev Marcus, who would become his musical partner.
“I actually did like classical music,” he explained. “But I started using hip hop to express myself almost as a defense mechanism. “In high school, I’d been playing for three, four years and I was really good. I’m going around the state of Florida and entering competitions and winning. I’m in youth orchestras. But- outside of school, the energy is very different. It’s not the most welcoming.”
In college, he and Marcus decided to produce. “We wanted to be like Timbaland and produce hip hop but incorporate classical instruments,” explains Wil. “That was the whole goal. We had a full production company, label, everything.” They began producing, playing their instruments for many hip hop compositions.
They soon started noticing an interesting thing. The audience seemed to be connecting more with them in the background playing, than it did with the main performers. “We started thinking hmm- maybe we should just put ourselves in the forefront. Instead of playing behind artists, let’s be the artists.”
They began putting medleys of songs together and performed wherever they could. They entered the famed Apollo Amateur Night competition in 2005 and won week after week. “We never lost once,” recalled Baptiste. “As soon as we started playing the crowd started going nuts. That’s when we realized we really had something special because Harlem is the toughest crowd. If Harlem likes you then the world must like you. Playing there was just amazing.” This was the ultimate proof that they really had what it took to strike out and make a name for themselves on their own terms.
Now, in addition to a grueling touring schedule, they work to make sure that young kids doing the same thing now, don’t have to feel the same way. Their foundation provides workshops and financial assistance for students of color training in classical music. “When the kids that look like us see us doing something that almost seems impossible, and they look at themselves and they are inspired by that. It started off with just creating music. Now it’s a mission.”
He also finds it gratifying performing their music for diverse audiences. “We’re grateful to be able to bring people together. You go to a Black Violin show, you’d be amazed at the crowd in the room. It’s people who wouldn’t be in the same room together unless it was a Black Violin concert.”