Meet BLKBOK: The Pianist Redefining Hip-Hop and Classical Music
BLKBOK, also known as Charles Wilson III, is a neo-classical pianist making waves across multiple areas of the music industry and redefining hip-hop and classical music.
From a young age, Wilson developed his musical appreciation and abilities, eventually becoming music director for Demi Lovato, Rihanna, Justin Timberlake, and John Mayer before shifting his focus to his original music. CNN Entertainment's Lisa Respers France named Black Book one of “Two Things to Listen to,” along with Lady Gaga's reisssue of Born This Way.
Earlier this year, Wilson shared his piano rendition of Cardi B’s “Up” on TikTok; the video went viral, amassing over 338.1 thousand views on the platform and a reshare on the Atlantic Records Instagram feed.
Through both his classical arrangements of popular hip-hop tunes and his original music, BLKBOK creates a space of deep human connection and understanding of American history. Lovers of Mozart and Megan Thee Stallion, of Beethoven and Biggie alike, will love the BLKBOK sound and messages.
Wilson’s latest album, Black Book, was released on June 18, and is a masterful homage to his own experiences and emotions. The album takes listeners on Wilson’s 121-day songwriting journey; every crescendo, melody, and rest tells a vivid story in what is, perhaps, the most transformative and dynamically composed neo-classical album yet. Each moment of Black Book is a work of art, from the haunting and energizing dance of “The King’s New Drip” to the timeless melodies of “Cookie Waltz.” Wilson pays tribute to George Floyd and the ongoing struggle for racial equality with the evocative and poignant “George Floyd & The Struggle For Equality.”
In celebration and support of Juneteenth, BLKBOK performed at Live Nation’s Juneteenth Festival along with T.I, Domani, Chill Moody, and Derrick Milano in partnership with ADA Worldwide/Warner Music Group.
We spoke with BLKBOK about his influences, latest album, and the future of classical music. Read the full interview and listen to Black Book below:
Where were you born? At what age did you start playing music?
I am from Detroit, Michigan. I started playing music at age four; my mother started myself and my sister when we were young. I’ve been playing the piano and studying music ever since.
When did you first know you wanted to become a musician?
It struck me around my teenage years; there were two things that happened. One was a conversation I had with my mom after I had done a recital. She told me that if I was not playing music for the rest of my life, I would be a miserable man. I will always remember those words. The second thing happened when I was in middle school. My band teacher would have me play for the students there, and I just remember that girls liked me because I played music.
How would you describe your sound?
The BLKBOK sound is neo-classical. It’s classical music, but it takes influences from hip-hop, R&B, rap, blues, jazz, and all these things I’ve experienced throughout my career, and combines them into one sound.
Who are your musical influences?
My classical music influences are Debussy, Chopin, and Mozart, but I’m also inspired by Busta Rhymes, Biggie, and A Tribe Called Quest. It’s such a wide variety of artists. On the blues side there’s Muddy Waters and B.B. King, and on the world side I love Andreas Vollenweider. He’s my musical hero; he’s a master of musical storytelling, and that’s where I see myself as a storyteller as well.
What message do you hope to convey with your music?
My message is mainly one of connection and understanding. I think that this is an opportunity for people who are non-traditional classical listeners to come into the fold, and for people who are classical listeners to continue with it and see that there’s another angle to it. I think the BLKBOK sound is that connection-- it brings these two worlds together.
"I think that this is an opportunity for people who are non-traditional classical listeners to come into the fold, and for people who are classical listeners to continue with it and see that there’s another angle to it."
Tell me a little bit more about how you connect classical music with hip-hop.
It’s very organic. Being from the west-side of Detroit, all my peers were listening to hip-hop. Me being a classical student at the same time, I would practice Debussy, and then go to my room and pop in Busta Rhymes. I didn’t know that it could mesh together until later in my career, when I realized that they fit together. They’re the same language and basically the same foundation, they’re just stories told in different ways. I’m a rapper, but I tell my stories through my hands-- on the piano.
"I’m a rapper, but I tell my stories through my hands-- on the piano."
Talk to me about your latest release Black Book.
It’s one of the most amazing things I’ve done in my life. It was written over the course of 121 non-stop days of writing. I went to 107 days, and on day 108, George Floyd was murdered. I knew I had to continue and write one more song. The album is all true storytelling-- true, heartful, emotional storytelling, and that’s what I hope to convey to the audience.
If you could only listen to one song on the album for the rest of your life, what would it be?
It would probably be either “The King’s New Drip” or “I See You.” “I See You” tells the story of how I see the world, I see you, I see everyone around me, and how I am very conscious and awake. I believe in universal consciousness in that I am connected to everyone, and everyone is connected to all. This song conveys that story.
Why do you love music?
It allows me to venture into places and spaces that I could never go with anything else. When I say that it allows me to see the outside world, it allows me to travel, it allows me to see people, to connect with people, but it also allows me to have a deeper connection with myself. That is very much what Black Book is about: my connection with the outside world and what I see, perceive, or feel about these things. I always talk about being able to connect in a way that is very authentic, and I feel like that’s what music is. Music is my way to connect in an authentic fashion.
Tell me about your songwriting process.
Day one: trash. I always think that nothing happens on day one, but what ends up happening is that I sit down and just noodle around for hours. I press record and see what happens, and then on day two, I listen back to what I did the first day. Usually there’s one thing, one gold star, that sticks out. I pull from that gold star, and ask myself what it makes me feel. That’s usually where the seed gets planted. Some songs take four days, and others take 20 days. They kind of write themselves, and I’m just here to receive the downloads to write them. I’m just the vessel, and I don’t rush the process. I let the music come to me as it sees fit.
"Some songs take four days, and others take 20 days. They kind of write themselves, and I’m just here to receive the downloads to write them."
What do you think the future of classical music looks like?
It looks like this: different. For a long time, classical music has needed a bit of an overhaul. There’s an audience that wants to be a part of it, but they just can’t find the entrance ramp. I want to give people who want to enjoy this type of music a way in. I’m seeing a lot more instrumental artists come along, so I think there’s a wave of instrumental artists that are coming into this space to offer something to people who may or may not know a lot about classical music.
Tell me a little bit more about your performance for the Freedom Reception.
It was very cool to have Juneteenth become a federal holiday, and for my first concert to be at this time. The timing was impeccable.
What’s next for BLKBOK?
We’re looking at more performances, and as far as Black Book is concerned, there will be more content coming out to support it. I hope to connect with more people, see more faces, and talk more with everybody.
Is there anything else you’d like people to know about you?
I’d like people to know that this is something I’ve created for us all, no matter the race, color, creed, or religion. None of that matters; the only thing that matters is that we are connected. Through connection there is understanding, and through understanding there is love. Through love there’s peace, and through peace there’s happiness. I think that’s what we’re all searching for on this planet: happiness.