More than just ‘classical-meets-hip-hop,’ Black Violin is centering education and opportunity for underserved students

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Courtesy Black Violin/Mark Clennon
Black Violin’s Wil Baptiste and Kev Marcus.

When Black Violin's Kev Marcus and Wil Baptiste met in high school in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, music was already at the center of their world. Now the duo, who incorporate modern electronic sounds and vocal samples into traditional string compositions, is giving back that love to other students.

After college, the two produced beats for South Florida rappers and built a local club following. They won Showtime at the Apollo in 2005 and sold out headline concerts nationwide, including a two-night run at The Kennedy Center in 2018.

Before the pandemic, Black Violin averaged about 200 shows per year. In 2019, the band played for more than 100,000 students. 

Then the COVID pandemic happened, and it all stopped.

Returning to live shows after pandemic restrictions is bringing the musicians back to the heart of their work – and back to Denver with a stop at the Paramount Theatre Thursday.

Kev Marcus said it feels like they are finally catching up to where we were the day before the pandemic hit. 

“For us as artists, in a sense, we've kind of caught up and, you know, lost three years in some ways, you know, and a lot of other ways as men, as fathers, as humans,” Marcus said. “I think we've grown quite a bit from experience.”

Both men agree their live show is the heart of who they are as artists, and Wil Baptiste said this tour reflects that.

“We try to take some of the old stuff that we haven't really performed in a while. Kind of take those and reinvent them in a way that, you know, it's interesting,” Baptiste said. “The Black Violin concert is high energy, it's incredibly inclusive. We encourage the crowd to take part in this amazing celebration that we're having on stage.”

The live show isn’t the only way the duo connects with the community, however. The Black Violin Foundation, which connects youth with music through educational programs, is a family affair. The Foundation is co-directed by their wives: Anne Sylvester, wife of Kev Marcus; and Corryn Freeman, wife of Wil Baptiste. The nonprofit awards grants in the name of their first music teacher, the “Mr. James Miles Musical Innovative Grant.

“We're trying to get more instruments in the hands of BIPOC students,” Marcus said. “Only 4 percent of young violin students are Black or Brown, you know, everyone else is getting that experience. And it feels like some certain communities are robbed from it. So, you know, there's a whole arm of the foundation that's focused on kind of the systemic things — like us sitting now with superintendents and mayors, whether it's lobbying or whatever we have to do — to allow a more equitable situation for young musicians to be able to find this instrument.”

Black Violin plays Denver’s Paramount Theatre Thursday, March 30, at 8 p.m.