If the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the words “classical music” is stuffy older folks politely clapping for elevator music, you may want to reconsider. Chargaux, a Brooklyn-based duo that play the violin and viola, are using classical string arrangements in bold, soulful ways, and incorporating stunning visuals to help you see their sounds. (Think neon-colored box braids moving furiously over a classical orchestration of a Beyoncé cover.) Chargaux produces sounds that would have kept you focused in your high school music class.
Jasmin “Charly” Charles and Chargaux Whitney met on a street in Boston and immediately connected over their love for music. Both classically trained, it wasn’t long before the two started jamming in New York City train stations, drawing diverse crowds of strap-hangers from across the world–and it took off from there. The beautiful chords at the end of Kendrick Lamar’s “B*tch, Don’t Kill My Vibe” is also Chargaux’s work. This year, they performed at Opening Ceremony’s fashion show and their latest EP, Broke and Baroque was released this month. EBONY chatted with the duo on their creative process, what it’s like to be Black classical musicians in the industry and why there is really no one quite like them.
EBONY: What kind of stories do your music and visual art pieces tell? What kind of people do they speak to or do you hope they reach?
CHARGAUX: I love my generation despite our flaws, so I want our music to reach them. The Internet has made us a little impatient. Everyone wants what they want right away and likes what they like. Our art is a way of changing that, of giving people something they didn’t know they wanted, a new experience. On the other hand, I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t want to reach, well, basically everyone. If somebody’s grandma is jammin’ to my song, I’d be ecstatic. As girls from Detroit and Atlanta braving New York and experiencing some of the best and challenging moments in our lives thus far, I think the music tells a beautiful story. We want you to have fun and enjoy what you hear but also feel the passion and drive behind it.
EBONY: What does a day in the life of Chargaux look like?
CHARGAUX: There are no two days that are exactly the same. As creatives, our focus shifts from visual art, to writing music, to rehearsing, to crafting a performance, to just chilling and enjoying the moment. We may have a meeting to plan our performances for the next couple months one day, and just meet up to jam and paint on another. It’s about creating a balance between friendship and business partnership.
EBONY: You take the sounds of more traditional compositions in a different direction. How do you add soul to classical music?
CHARLY: Classical music is inherently soulful. I believe it is one of the most misunderstood art forms in modern society. The average person has very specific exposure to classical music so they associate it with old men in fancy wigs when really it is incredibly expressive. It’s music to fall in love to, to move to, it’s political, it’s incredibly diverse. Incorporating classical influences into our music is completely natural for us. The violin has a soul. We are just its muse, awakening it every time we play.
EBONY: How do you think being Black violinists is unique or differs from what is currently shaping the music industry?
CHARLY: I understand the politics around being Black, politics around being a woman, and politics around the music industry. I also understand there are no politics around being a violinist because no one else is doing it the way we are–which is why we introduce ourselves as an art collective. We compose our own concertos, we perform with our own rotating band, and we make all our own art, and we wear our own friend’s custom miniskirts.
CHARGAUX: Music is one of those art forms that embraces newness as much as it embraces the familiar. You can be a Black kid straight out of Compton and become a millionaire because people are willing to listen to your voice if it’s through a song. Are we what people imagine when they think of a violinist? Absolutely not. Is that a bad thing? Definitely not. It means we have the opportunity to create history.
EBONY: You have one chance for a jam session with any artist. Who would it be?
CHARGAUX: This might be a cliché, but Pharrell. Vocalists and string players collaborating with producers is always amazing.
CHARLY: Dorothy Ashby.
EBONY: You describe yourselves as “two girls with one instrument and one purpose.” What is that purpose?
CHARGAUX: To create, to enjoy our youth, to thrive.
EBONY: You composed the infamous strings at the end of Kendrick Lamar’s B*tch, Don’t Kill My Vibe and performed a Kanye West and Beyonce songat Opening Ceremony’s runway show. How much do the lyrics of music influence the sounds you create?
CHARGAUX: What we create definitely has more to do with the emotion the music itself conveys than the lyrics. But in all honesty, most of the time that we cover songs or create arrangements, it’s all in good fun. We’re challenging ourselves, like “how can we make Drunk in Love sound like us and sound like the song at the same time?” It’s for enjoyment. When we have the opportunity to perform what we’ve created and people vibe with it, that’s icing on the cake.
CHARLY: Lyrics are there to help you know what language the song is in. I don’t listen to their lyrics, just their emotion. That’s how we learn other people’s songs so quickly. As a child, Beyonce’s voice was simply a specific color I needed to learn, along with Christina Aguilera’s and Toni Braxton’s. Each of them have rich red timbres that turn violet, deep blue, even black, depending on what they were expressing in each song. They might have cussed out 40 people in the studio before recording the happiest songs on their albums, and I can hear that.
EBONY: Charly, you can actually hear colors. Describe what that is like and what pathways it has opened up for your during the creation process.
CHARLY: It’s extremely extrasensory, and can only be described visually. So I paint. My peers from Berklee, were intuitive enough to know why I would wince and say “that’s too red, play a green chord.” Most people are just like, “what?” The paintings I create look like how music sounds to me.
EBONY: How have fans received you all so far? Any Chargaux groupies?
CHARGAUX: I wouldn’t go as far to say we have groupies but we definitely have some long time supporters. I think the people that love what we do vibe with us because they can feel that we’re having fun with our art and music, but also know that we take it incredibly seriously. We have dreams of performing and creating on a huge scale and there are definitely people out there that see those things happening for us as much as we do.