Kev Marcus and Wil Baptiste — two artists from Fort Lauderdale, Fla. — met 25 years ago, in a high school orchestra class. Growing up, neither one had had much exposure to classical music; both said their parents were more likely to listen to reggae or calypso. Classical music felt like it was supposed to be for other people, which had the effect of drawing them even closer to it. Today, they play as a duo, with Marcus on violin and Baptiste on viola.
Race and challenging assumptions about race is central to what Black Violin does: Outside of playing for fun or for creative expression, Marcus finds it particularly satisfying to disarm people who don’t expect him to be a violin scholar. “The number-one reason I play violin,” he says, “is because I’m not ‘supposed to.’ ”
It’s only fitting that the pair join Morning Edition Song Project for Black History Month, with an entry called “Time to Shine.” When the pair was invited to participate in the series, Black Violin moved to write a song about where the nation is now. They titled it: “Time to Shine.”
Black Violin spoke with NPR’s Rachel Martin about challenging stereotypes, finding creative space during lockdown and the collaborative nature of live audiences. Hear the radio version at the audio link, and read on for an edited transcript.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Rachel Martin: You have said in interviews before that breaking down stereotypes was your main agenda through your music. Can you talk about that?
Kev Marcus: Yeah. You know, I love playing the instrument. I love being able to express myself with another instrument. But just the idea that I do something that people are like, “What? You play the violin?” I just love it. I kinda got hooked onto it early with girlfriends’ parents, and just being able to disarm them. “Yeah, I have a violin scholarship.” Like, “You? Really?”
Because what? Because young Black guys aren’t supposed to play the violin?
Marcus: Not even just young black guys. I’m a young Black guy [with] sagging pants, hip-hop listening, [Honda] Civic hatchback-driving. You know what I mean? I look like I should be playing football or basketball. But instead I play the violin at a high level. So, I felt that I was able to switch people’s perceptions of who I was, just by telling them what I did. I didn’t even have to play it for them.
I want to talk about the song that you’ve written. How did it come to be?
Marcus: It was funny because when you guys asked, I know, for me, I wasn’t even in a really creative mindset in that way. When I heard I was like, “Agh! We’re gonna write a song? Okay, about what?” And it’s just about … what we’re thinking right now — a response to everything that’s going on. And for me, soon as I heard that, I said, “silver linings.” I was thinking about the good that has come through after all of this.
It’s interesting, you say you just weren’t in a creative space. I mean, Wil, was it the same with you? We’re all living in isolation — quarantined with our families or alone and watching or participating in all the protests that were happening over the summer. Did that feed your creativity? Or did it leave you empty?
Wil Baptiste: Being creative is my outlet. It’s my way of venting. And doing the song and going through the process … there’s just so much to say. There’s a lot going on. So, how do we convey this in a way that, at the end of it, people feel inspired — people feel like, “Okay, here’s the light at the end of the tunnel”?
Being in that space is always something I welcome, but I think processing last year and what’s happening still, this year, it becomes — it almost feels like your hands are tied. Like, what do you do? You feel helpless.
What difference has it made for you to not have an audience? That platform that you had to talk to people about whatever it is you wanted to say through your music?
Marcus: Yeah, I think that’s one of the things I miss the most, just being able to perform for a live audience and be able to heal together. It’s the biggest difference. This virtual stuff is cool, but when we finish the song and don’t hear the applause — it’s just, you know, so weird! And I don’t think us, as artists, realized how collaborative it really was until you take the audience away from us. We’re able to truly have a conversation. We’re able to talk to thousands of people in an artistic way and be able to, like I said, heal.
You say in the beginning of the song, “I’m trying to make sense of it all.” And lots of us are. President Biden’s election may have been a repudiation of some of the divisiveness of the Trump years, but there’s still a lot of evidence that the country isn’t ready to move on. I mean, how do you, as artists, absorb that and then try to, to focus on the light?
Baptiste: Man. It’s a hard road. It’s a long road. I mean, it’s this huge mountain that we have to climb. I think that’s what we’ve been doing for a long time. And you see it, you see it till this day. It’s almost … it’s more divisive. It seems like it’s more divisive, but … it’s really just more transparent. And as bad as it is, if these things didn’t happen, how would we have known that there’s this internal cancer within ourselves? The cut that’s been there — you put a Band-Aid over it. But unless you rip it apart and expose what it is, how are you gonna fix it? How are you gonna address it? We have to do the work. We have to do the work.
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