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Black Violin And Mad Keys Liven Up Classical Music By Adding Hip-Hop, Other Genres To Strings

Musicans Kev Marcus (at left) and Wil B. make up hip-hop violin duo Black Violin. Their performance at the Touhill Performing Arts Center on Nov. 17 was their final show of 2019.
Lara Hamdan | St. Louis Public Radio
Musicans Kev Marcus (at left) and Wil B. make up hip-hop violin duo Black Violin. Their performance at the Touhill Performing Arts Center on Nov. 17 was their final show of 2019.

Hip-hop violin duo Black Violin performed their final concert of the year last night at the Touhill Performing Arts Center. Concertgoers danced and vibed to a setlist fused with what Black Violin crafts well — classical music and hip-hop.

Violinist Kevin Sylvester, also known as Kev Marcus, and violist Wilner Baptiste, also known as Wil B., make up the group. They released their new album “Take the Stairs” earlier this month. PBS described the pair as “two former high school orchestra nerds who use their love of Bach and Beethoven to reimagine classical music and connect with new audiences.”

The classically trained musicians joined Sarah Fenkse on St. Louis on the Air alongside St. Louis artist Brandon McCadney, known as Mad Keys. McCadney is classically trained in violin and plays the piano. 

Kev Marcus (at left), Mad Keys (center) and Wil B. joined "St. Louis on the Air" to talk about their musical craft and influences.
Lara Hamdan | St. Louis Public Radio

Sylvester's and Baptiste’s introduction to classical music happened early on in elementary school, and as they mastered the craft, they added their personal twist to it.  

“We grew up listening to hip-hop, loving hip-hop, especially in the late '90s, and we studied classical music in middle school and high school at a really high level. So for us, the opportunity kind of presented itself: We would play classical music on top of hip-hop beats, and people [would] lose their mind,” Sylvester said. 

That fusion caught the attention of many — with it came approval, but also pushback and skepticism. Sylvester and Baptiste faced comments such as they shouldn’t perform in the classical music genre, or that they don’t look like the typical classical musicians. 

Baptiste reiterated the need for more inclusivity in the classical music world and respect for how people express themselves in the genre. 

“The culture of classical music has always been this prestigious, elite, untouchable entity, so to speak,” Baptiste explained, “and historically, black people haven't really had access to, not just classical music, anything that has that stigma behind it.”

“We have interviews all the time where classical individuals [ask], ‘What's the state of classical music as we stand?’ And I'm just like, ‘Well the state is, it's literally dying away.’ So it needs people like Black Violin and Mad Keys to bridge these two gaps, so younger kids are more interested in the music and art form — because it is a beautiful art form.” 

McCadney began exploring the world of fusing different genres with his friends in high school by translating songs they would hear on the radio onto a violin. 

“That's when I started learning [that] violin isn't just one dimensional; it's not just classical. It can [be] what you want it to be,” McCadney said. He is now a music producer who works in hip-hop and jazz with electronic and funk, and has drawn inspiration from the messages Black Violin encourages. 

In an effort to combine his passion for musical craft and making an impact on the community, McCadney is in the midst of organizing a one-day music conference Dec. 14, called Beat Day

“We're just really trying to give so much value and give so much [to St. Louis] because … there are a lot of music creators here; there are a lot of people that are highly talented, and we just want to do what we can to give them resources so we can ... be better and to grow,” he added.

Listen to hear the full conversation, including music samples of Black Violin and Mad Keys: 

Related Event

What: Beat Day 2019 - St. Louis
When: 10 a.m.-11 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 14, 2019
Where: CIC St. Louis - CET (20 S. Sarah St., St. Louis, MO 63108) & TechArtista (4818 Washington Blvd., St. Louis, MO 63108)


St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill, Lara Hamdan and Tonina Saputo. The engineer is Aaron Doerr, and production assistance is provided by Charlie McDonald.

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Lara is a producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.

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