Breaking Down Walls

Black Violin
When it comes to listening to music, absolutely nothing compares to a live performance. I enjoy recorded music like most people. I also enjoy music videos that have become a major mode of entertainment for all popular music today. However, the live performance tells us much more about the musical artist than any recorded efforts. I don’t attend many live performances, but I choose which ones I might need to attend in order to help my blogging efforts. As with last year, I took advantage of an opportunity to attend a performance at the Festival Miami 2015. The festival is a multi-genre fall music program that this year started October 16th and ended yesterday, November 7, 2015. The lineup of musicians last year was impressive, but this year may have topped the last. As I looked over the scheduled artists I found one musical group intriguing. I really wanted to be in attendance at the performance by the hip-hop string duo Black Violin.

Why was I interested in Black Violin? One reason was that I had heard only good things about them, but did not really know much about their music first hand. I understood the versatility of the violin, but even I was surprised by what the duo accomplished in the live performance. For those of you out there who have not heard about Black Violin, it might be good to offer a small introduction.

The members of Black Violin first met in Ft. Lauderdale, and played together in the orchestra at the Dillard High School of the Performing Arts. Classically trained by day, they faithfully put on their headphones and listened to the hottest rap records each night. They went to different colleges—Marcus attended Florida International University and Wil B went to Florida State—but then reconvened, moved into an apartment together, and started trying to produce other musicians.

They developed an act covering hip-hop songs on their violins, which became popular in local clubs. Two years after sending in a tape to Showtime at the Apollo, they were invited to appear on the show—which they won, and kept winning. They were approached by the manager of Alicia Keys, who asked them to perform with the singer on the Billboard Awards. Other offers followed—they toured with Mike Shinoda of Linkin Park, opened for the Wu-Tang Clan, scored an episode of CSI: New York, and even performed for President Obama at his second inauguration in 2013. Individually and together, Wil and Kev have worked with everyone from Kanye West to Tom Petty, Lupe Fiasco to Aerosmith. All the while, Black Violin continued touring non-stop (playing as many as 200 shows a year) and released two independent, self-financed albums.

That pretty much brings us up to date. The group was making their way to the University of Miami Frost School Of Music with a fresh new album aptly titled Stereotypes. I view Black Violin like a walking sledgehammer that breaks down stereotypical walls. As I walked into Gusman Concert Hall, I noticed the stage setup with the drum set, turntables and miscellaneous DJ equipment. As the show began with the opening music I thought to myself, “Yes they are a hip-hop group”. There was no doubt the style of music coming from the group. Just a few moments into the program there also was little doubt about the skill level of musicians Marcus and Wil B. These guys are good! Marcus and Wil B gave an interactive performance, inviting the audience to be a part of the show.

After the third song, I was enjoying the show much like the sold out audience around me. Black Violin was successfully delivering what everyone wanted to hear. “A hard-hitting beat with lush string sounds,” says Wil, “Something you can listen to if you don’t listen to hip-hop, or if you don’t listen to classical music—we bridge that gap.” The audience was diverse, with just about all age groups well represented. However,  it appeared everyone left feeling happy they were in attendance. By the way, there was so much demand for Black Violin that Festival Miami added a second show.

I spent a good amount of time listening to the Black Violin album Stereotypes. It is a special collection of songs, and again an album for everyone. From beginning to end the group displays talent and versatility. “Wil and Kev’s DNA is all about shattering and breaking stereotypes,” says producer Eli Wolf, who has worked with the likes of Norah Jones, Wynton Marsalis, and Elvis Costello. “We wanted the album to thread their sound through a kaleidoscope of styles, and bring out ways to break down categories and barriers into something multi-faceted and expansive.”  When I listened to Stereotypes, I could readily hear many sounds and styles being worked into something appealing to the ears. “These songs really put the message in the music, instead of being more instrumental,” Wolf says. “The lyrics reflect those ideas. A lot of them speak to racial strife today, in ways that are timely and timeless.”

I must admit as I listened to the concert, this blog post was being written. I thought about how far hip hop music has traveled since humble beginnings. Primarily in my mind was how hip hop is now accepted by a widespread, and diverse music audience. Groups like Black Violin might have played a big part in helping hip hop break down stereotypical walls and find larger audiences worldwide. I also had a thought about students who start learning how to play musical instruments in school. Black Violin may be part of a wave of talented instrumental musicians who choose hip hop as a genre choice, instead of classical or jazz. We’ll see how that turns out.

On my way out of the concert hall I spoke to Dean of Frost School of Music Shelton Berg and said, “This concert was amazing, you did it again.” I can’t wait to see what’s planned for next year.

5 thoughts on “Breaking Down Walls

  1. This sounds like an amazing group. The fact they use violins is great. Usually the only time you hear that is during a classical music concert or as a fiddle in country music. Thanks for sharing this and introducing me to this group.

  2. You are so right that a live performance is impossible to really recreate with a recording. I love seeing my favorite music groups in person but of course we hear most of our music through recordings. Second best but still satisfying. Thanks for introducing me to this amazing group!

  3. Black Violen sound amazing! They are definitely taking hip hop to another level. Bar a few songs I have never been a great lover of hip hop. As a teen I found it rough and round the edges and felt it attracted a certain crowd – one I did not fit into.

    I am going to look for them on YouTube. Not the same as seeing them live but it will do for now!

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