Kevin Sylvester, aka Kev Marcus, plays hundreds of shows each year with his classical/hip hop fusion duo Black Violin. But a career in music was far from a sure thing for Sylvester, who wasn’t raised in a musical family.
“My mom pushed me into it when I was in fifth grade, trying to get me to make some new friends and get me out of my neighborhood a little bit,” Sylvester said. “So she signed me up for a music class. Once I was put in the right situation, I flourished.”
Sylvester and his Black Violin duo partner, violist Wilner Baptiste, aka Wil B, bring their genre-straddling show to the Wharton Center Friday. The two performers, both 35, met at a performing arts high school in Florida. After college, the duo planned on a career in music but expected to work behind the scenes.
“We wanted to be beatmakers,” Sylvester said. “We wanted to be the guys who make those hot hip-hop beats.”
Sylvester and Baptiste discovered their potent blend of hip hop and classical music “by accident,” Sylvester said, as they layered violin and viola over the tracks they were producing.
“There were times when we would blend it together, and people would lose their minds,” he said. “It was really people’s reaction to it, when we would do something that felt easy and effortless to us, that we thought maybe we have something here.”
Sylvester said his influences range from classical greats like Brahms and Debussy to hip-hop artists like Jay-Z and Mos Def to jazz legends like Miles Davis.
“We put it in the pot and stir it together, and that’s Black Violin,” he said. “People seemed to like the blend of popular music with classical music. And we can do it in a way that’s very organic. We don’t lose the classical purists, and we don’t lose the hip-hoppers.”
City Pulse spoke with Sylvester the day before President Trump’s inauguration, the last day of Barack Obama’s presidency.
“Four years ago, we were performing at his inauguration,” Sylvester said. “It’s crazy how fast things can change. He definitely will be missed.
“I have three daughters, and this is the only president they’ve ever known. That’s the impact he’s had on me, the role model that he is for me and my children,” he added. “He’s a great leader and an effective communicator — exactly what I want my kids to be.”
For Sylvester, getting more African American youth interested in classical music is an important thing.
“Diversity seems to make everything better,” he said. “Once you start including everyone in what you’re doing, women and people of all colors, it takes on its truest form. Once it becomes inclusive, it becomes bigger, better, stronger.”
This diversity, he said, is critical to the future of classical music.
“The audiences are dying, and classical music isn’t educating young people the way it should be,” he said. “We’re trying to be part of the solution. We perform for hundreds of thousands of kids each year, showing a different side of classical music.”
Black Violin is calling its latest tour the Unity Tour, a title that tries to capture the duo’s social message. “Too often we live in our own bubbles — these are the people we deal with and these are the thoughts we agree with,” he said. “If you look around at our shows, you see all kinds of people. We don’t have a demographic. Last night we were in Phoenix for a free outdoor concert, and there were 3,000 people of all colors, shapes and sizes.”
Sylvester hopes that Black Violin’s bridging of genres can help facilitate a bridging of cultures.
“We have this platform, and we have this diverse audience, so we feel like we need to say something, to use this platform to unite people who normally wouldn’t be,” he said. “It gives that 10-year-old kid who listens to nothing but Drake all day and the 70-year-old lady who has season tickets to the opera, it gives them something in common, something to speak about.”
8 p.m. Friday, Feb. 17
Tickets start at $14
750 E. Shaw Lane, East Lansing
(517) 432-2000, whartoncenter.com