Classical music in the United States has long been associated with social class and race—accessible mostly to those of wealth and influence. In nearly 250 years, the culture has not changed much. According to a 2018 article from NBC News, less than 2% of musicians in professional orchestras in the United States are African American.
Blending classical, jazz, hip hop, and funk music, the band Black Violin, featuring Wil B. and Kev Marcus, two classically-trained African American string players, will be bringing their new sound to Logan’s Ellen Eccles Theatre on Friday, January 17. Their music is not only breaking genre boundaries, but the band itself is breaking stereotypes and hoping to inspire disadvantaged youth to look to music as “a positive alternative to other, more destructive pursuits.”
True to its mission, Black Violin welcomed any local string musician to audition and join in playing their last piece. Auditioners were not limited by training nor age.
“Just submit a good audition and we’ll use as many prepared string musicians as we can fit!” Black Violin stated on their audition website.
Both Wil B. and Marcus were raised in economically disadvantaged homes in Florida. Recently, the group launched the Black Violin Foundation Inc., a non profit organization dedicated to empowering youth by providing access to quality music programs in their community.
“I ain’t supposed to playing the violin,” Marcus also said in a 2016 HondaStage interview. “How many jobs are there where you can change the way people think when you’re finished with your job. … I think stereotypes are something we’ve always dealt with in a very direct way. I mean, we don’t look like violinists. When we are in airports, they always try to guess what’s in our case and they are always wrong.”
“It’s motivating, too,” added Wil B., “PLEASE tell me I can’t do something. That gives me that extra boost to show you and prove to you that I can do it.”
Comparatively, both Marcus and Wil B. got late starts learning their instruments. At age 9, Marcus was caught stealing candy and his mom took action.
“When I found out about it,” Marcus’s mom said, “I took him back to the store and he gave it back to the manager, and I decided I had to get him off the streets.”
The next day Marcus’s mother put him in a music class and the only instrument left was a violin—something he had absolutely no desire to play at first. He eventually found a great love for the music and instrument he was learning.
“Before I began playing the violin,” Marcus said via email with the author, “I thought that classical music was boring and difficult to master. I was very intimidated by it. The kids in my neighborhood thought the same thing and that’s why I would often hide my instrument while walking home. But after a couple years, I began to get good at it and it started to empower me. … My favorite composers are Bach, Brahms, and Beethoven. Bach’s music exposes a musician’s strengths and weaknesses. His music is the closest to divinity. Brahms and Beethoven are my favorite chamber music composers mostly due to their searing harmonies and progressions.”
Wil B. started playing the viola when he was 12. He had wanted to play the saxophone when he signed up for the summer program, but fortunately, he got put in the wrong class and ended up having to play the viola.
“Before I picked up the viola,” Wil B. said, “I was a 12-year-old kid in the hood. I didn’t have a lot of clothes and things that are taken for granted.”
Both men graduated from Dillard High School for the Performing Arts where they met and earned full scholarships to Florida State University for Wil B. and Florida International University for Marcus. Both give credit to James Miles, the high school teacher who cared and pushed them to succeed. Miles even bought Wil B. a $2,000 advanced viola which he treasures today.
“He pushed us and made sure we practiced,” Kev said. “He told us that this violin could open doors for you that you’ve never imagined—and, boy, was he right.”
In 2005, Black Violin’s career took off after they were awarded the title of Apollo Legend by Apollo Theater in Harlem. Long before Simon Cowell was slinging critiques at amateurs on American Idol, audiences at the Apollo were “boo-ing” performers off-stage. Starting in 1934, The Apollo was the premier amateur debut venue for African American talent in front of perhaps America’s toughest crowd.
Ella Fitzgerald, Lena Horne, Count Basie Orchestra, Billie Holiday, Sammy Davis Jr., James Brown, Dionne Warwick, Bill Cosby, Gladys Knight, Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Wonder, The Jackson Five, Luther Vandross, D’Angelo, and Lauryn Hill are just a few of the American icons who all got their start at The Apollo.
Black Violin just released their 2nd album, “Take the Stairs,” in November which debuted No. 1 in such categories as Current Classical, Classical Crossover, and became #1 on Billboard’s Classical Crossover chart. They have been featured on the Tonight Show, Ellen, The Wendy Williams Show, The Queen Latifah Show, and NPR. They composed music for the FOX TV original “Pitch.” They were the official artist of the 2017 U.S. Open.
Inspired by the music of African American swing era violinist Stuff Smith, Marcus and Wil B. took their group’s name from his final album entitled “Black Violin” because it was Smith who had “shown them there were no limits to what the violin could do.”
“If I didn’t end up being a professional musician,” Marcus said, “I probably would be living a life devoid of passion and purpose. I truly believe that I was put on this earth to perform for the world, so I’m just so blessed that I found my calling and I’m fortunate enough to play music for a living.”
Tickets to Black Violin are $40 and can be purchased at cachearts.com.