Kevin Sylvester says that when most people see a 6-foot-2-inch, 260-pound black man, they don't expect him to also be a classically trained violinist. A recent exchange with a woman in an elevator, when he happened to have his instrument with him in its case, drove that point home.
"She's like, 'What do you play?' " he recalls. "I'm like, 'I'm a violinist.' And she was like, 'Well, obviously you don't play classical, so what kind of style do you play?' "
Sylvester says he explained that while he does have a degree in classical music, he plays all kinds of styles. "She didn't mean it maliciously," he says, "but I hope she gets to see us in concert and we can change her perception."
Moments like this inspired Sylvester and his partner, violist Wilner Baptiste, to call their new album Stereotypes. It's the latest release by their duo Black Violin, whose seeds were planted years ago when the two met as high school students in Florida.
Both men say that when they were kids, studying stringed instruments wasn't exactly Plan A. Sylvester was nudged into music classes by his mother in fifth grade, and grew to like the violin despite initially dismissing it as uncool. Baptiste, meanwhile, originally wanted to learn saxophone — but when he signed up for summer band, he was put into a string class with a different teacher accidentally. Or so he thought.
"I didn't find this out until 2012, that the reason why I got put in his class was because he and the band teacher had a bet," Baptiste says. "They basically said to themselves, 'Listen, let's play golf, and whoever wins gets this kid in their class.' So it wasn't an accident — it was actually done on purpose."
Stuck in string class, Baptiste looked around the classroom until he found an instrument nobody else seemed to want.
"No one would pick up the viola," he says. "Literally, I was the only person who wanted to play the viola. So I picked that up, and 20 years later I'm still playing it."
Before they were introduced to the strings, Baptiste and Sylvester were kids who loved hip-hop. They met in their high-school orchestra class, where they began to study classical music and learned to love the great composers.
"It started for me with Bach, 'cause Bach is the equalizer, you know?" Sylvester says. "To me, Bach is the hardest thing you can play, because he exposes everything about you. He exposes your weaknesses and makes you work harder. I always think of Bach as, like, the closest composer to divinity."
Baptiste and Sylvester say that while classical music and hip-hop may seem worlds apart, both are meant to bring people together.
Baptiste puts it this way: "They had little shindigs going on back in the days, right? They needed music. So just think of it that way. Like, I'm this guy, I own this big palace — 'Mozart, listen, what can you whip up, man? I need some new tunes.' "
"So it's the same kind of thing with hip-hop," Sylvester offers. "It's just like, I need Grandmaster Flash to DJ my party. You know, hip-hop and classical, in a lot of ways, are both party music for different eras."
And, Sylvester says, Black Violin's music is helping to introduce hip-hop to people who might not be into it otherwise: "I remember this one woman comes up to me — she has to be like a 60, 65-year-old white woman — and she's just like, 'Man, I don't even really like hibbity-hop, but you guys are amazing!'
The two musicians are hoping the conversation will flow both ways, and that their music will help keep classical music alive for the next generation.