Wil B and Kev Marcus of Black Violin are an anomaly, and they are not afraid to admit it.
Both black men and classically trained string instrumentalists, Wil B, who plays viola, and Kev Marcus, who plays violin, formed their duo after college. They began covering popular hip-hop songs on their instruments, gaining popularity at local clubs in their home state of Florida.
After receiving overwhelming positive feedback for their unique style, the duo eventually decided to compose their own original music, and haven’t looked back since.
They have worked with the likes of Kanye West, Tom Petty, 2 Chainz and Alicia Keys, among other notable artists and have also performed on “The Tonight Show,” “Ellen” and “NPR.”
Wil B grew up listening to hip-hop artists like The Notorious B.I.G., Tupac and Snoop Dogg. He originally wanted to play the saxophone, but got placed in the wrong class and fell in love with the viola.
He took the idea of self-expression, a key component of hip-hop, and paired it with his instrument, along with his friend and fellow group member Kev Marcus. Together they have created a new sound for the violin and viola that expands on traditional classical or jazz music.
Wil B says the group is inspired by hip-hop artists like Kendrick Lamar and Mos Def, as well classical musicians such as the 20th century Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich. The hip-hop influence carries significant weight in their music, as it is packed with themes of cultural expression and celebration, but is especially apparent in their music videos.
Their music is also technically sound and quite experimental, however.
Black Violin’s mix of the classical and hip-hop genres makes their music truly one of a kind. They fully embrace their position as black artists performing a genre of music that society does not typically associate with them.
Social activism is just as important to the group as music, and Wil B alluded to this.
“For us [social activism and music], it’s one in the same,” Will B said. “We’re an anomaly, and we try to embody that. We’re able to project ourselves in a way where everyone is able to come in and enjoy a concert. We can’t ignore the elephant in the room. We’re not afraid to talk about subjects that are important to us.”
Being black musicians performing on classical instruments, Wil B and Kev Marcus want to show that aspiring musicians are not confined to one style of music based on their society’s perception of them.
Every year the group performs for thousands of kids, largely from lower-income backgrounds, in conjunction with Turnaround Arts, a non-profit program which works to bring arts education into schools.
According to the program’s website, Turnaround Arts provides “education resources and expertise, coaching, program methodologies, baseline evaluations, training and peer-to-peer learning structures.”
The program also provides resources such as “arts supplies, musical instruments, licensing rights and kits for school musicals, and high-profile Turnaround Artists who work with students and teachers.”
Black Violin is one of many high-profile musical acts to work with the program, which brings many different schools to a single venue to host performances and workshops.
“We can see it in their eyes for that hour we have their complete attention, and they can dream and see themselves doing things that society says are impossible,” Wil B said. “We both have kids ourselves so we understand the power we have as musicians. We want to use [music] to motivate and help kids.”
Black Violin experienced success with their most recent album “Stereotypes,” which reached No. 1 on Billboard’s classical crossover chart. Their upcoming album, “Take the Stairs,” is set to release Nov. 1, 2019, and I had the chance to listen to the album early.
Black Violin’s new album is definitely a shift in sound from their previous music, and most notably has more vocal features, all of which are done by Wil B.
The album places a bigger emphasis on other instruments as well, and the violin is no longer always the dominant sound on every track. While the album is still a genre-bending work, it leans more toward a rhythm and blues-centered sound than classical.
Wil B said the shift in sound was not necessarily an intentional decision, but rather a sign of the group’s progression.
“There are definitely more vocals and we are trying to broaden our strokes,” Will B said. “We’re about hope and inspiration. It just happened to come out that way. The album showcases our talent not just as violinists but vocalists. We want to make music that challenges the way people think. If you’re wondering what this is, we feel we’re doing something right.”
If you want to catch Black Violin live in action, check out their concert at the Overture Center for the Arts on Friday, Oct. 25. Tickets are available at overture.org.