Wilner Baptiste grew up in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., but he spent his teenage years in two different worlds.
After practicing viola in music classes, "I'd put my headphones on and listen to whatever record was happening at the time. We started off with hip-hop before we even picked up an instrument."
"We" is Baptiste, 34, and high-school classmate and violinist Kevin "Kev Marcus" Sylvester, who comprise Black Violin, the duo that's busting the barriers between hip-hop and classical, old and young and—no denying it—black and white. Only 4 percent of musicians in American orchestras are black or Latino, and less than 1 percent of the music played by those orchestras was written by minority composers.
Enter Black Violin, whose members say they love classical music, but they live hip-hop. Reconnecting after college, the pair started adding beats to classical tunes and, conversely, covering pop musicians from Kanye West to Wiz Khalifa. In 2004, they brought their act to the toughest audience in America: Harlem's renowned Apollo Theater. "I remember thinking before that first show, 'Everyone else before us got booed. We got these violins. What's gonna happen?'" Baptiste says. "The crowd went crazy. That's validation. That's all we needed right there."
The performance impressed Alicia Keys' manager, leading to gigs opening for Aerosmith and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and collaborations with Wu-Tang Clan and Wyclef Jean. They even played President Obama's second inauguration, and lately have been working with symphony orchestras.
Released last year, the duo's fourth album, Stereotypes, places its target right in the title. "Every time we step onstage," Baptiste says, "we shatter every stereotype, every perception—violin, classical music, black man, whatever."
It seems to be working. "After a lot of our shows, kids will come by and tell us, 'I've been playing violin for three or four years, and I started because of you,'" he says. "Before they came to one of our concerts, they never listened to classical music. It's incredible to get kids to look at this art form in a different way."
SEE IT: Black Violin plays Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, 1037 SW Broadway, on Wednesday, Feb. 24. 7:30 pm. $22-$32. All ages.