At face value, one might not think the classical composer Bach and the rapper Future could occupy the same space. However, classically trained violinist Meredith Ezinma Ramsay (also known as just Ezinma or “Classical Bae”) proved that it's a magical combination when she responded to the viral #MaskOffChallenge on Instagram in 2017 with a violin rendition of the rapper’s hit song.
“I was practicing a piece written by Bach,” the violinist tells XoNecole. “I just sort of had this idea: ‘What if I just sort of looped it?’” By looping, or continuously repeating, the classical piece with the “Mask Off” melody, Ezinma said that for the first time she created something that felt true to herself. She posted the video of her performing her classical rendition to Instagram “on a whim,” and not long after, the video took on a life of its own.
“[The video] just went viral, like crazy viral. I woke up the next day to 22,000 followers. I had two hundred the day before,” Ezinma recounts.
For the violinist, her interest in the violin began at just the age of four years old. “At the school I went to, they had a very small violin program. And just because I saw these kids with violins, I begged my parents if I could play,” she says. It took a bit of convincing for her parents to finally rent her a tiny violin, but once they gave in, Ezinma says that she was a natural at playing the instrument.
Her love for violins led Ezinma all the way to New York after she finished her undergraduate degree at the University of Nebraska where she studied both science and the violin. “[New York is] such a fertile ground as a creative person, especially as a musician, because there are so many genres everywhere,” she says. “You walk down the street, you hear jazz, or you see a hip hop club or a classical concert. So I was really in heaven.”
Not long after moving to New York, she received a phone call that changed her life while at the gym. “I was living in Harlem at the time and I get this call from this contractor in New York City. And she was like: ‘Hey, can you be at Central Park in 30 minutes? There’s a gig with Stevie Wonder. We're going to do a quick soundcheck. We need a violinist,’ for whatever reason, so-and-so fell through.” Ezinma recalls.
“There was no sheet music. There was hardly [any] rehearsal. It was just really being up there and jamming," she says. "And it was, I think for me, such a pivotal moment because it was super early on in my career. And when you show up for yourself and you see just how capable you are, it kind of empowers [you.]”
The experience of playing with the legendary musical genius who Ezinma says is her “favorite artist of all time,” reminded her of the old industry adage: “when you get the call, you better be ready.”
Another lesson Ezinma learned came after she toured with Queen Bey for years. Ezinma performed with Beyoncé and Jay-Z during the On The Run 2 tour, as well as Beyoncé’s iconic Coachella performance, Beychella, which became the Netflix documentary Homecoming. Still, Ezinma said in a 2020 interview that there was a part of her that felt unfulfilled, even after having achieved such an illustrious milestone in her career. “For me, purpose is very closely aligned with service,” she tells me after I ask her if she still feels that way now that more time has passed. “Success is great and awesome and it's wonderful, right? But, for me personally, just sort of doing things without getting to connect, especially with kids, it feels like I'm missing out on a really important part of the puzzle.”
Born in Lincoln, Nebraska, Ezinma was 13 years old and had been playing violin for nearly 10 years before she'd ever met another Black string musician. Now, she’s making it her mission to help more kids of color have access to string instruments and lessons.Recently, Ezinma founded the non-profit Strings by Heart which aims to bring classical music to underprivileged communities through education. “There's this really sobering statistic…that less than 4% of people in orchestras are Black or brown,” Ezinma says. “And when I saw that number – and also just based on my experience – it was like, gosh, how do we improve this?”
While going on a tour of schools in Harlem and the Bronx, she says that so many of the kids she met were natural when given an instrument. It’s reminiscent of her own early connection with the violin when she recalls how she doesn’t think she would’ve ever played the instrument if she had never seen those kids at her school playing the violin. “So much of what we do is because of what we're exposed to,” says Ezinma. “It's not because of a lack of talent among Black and brown people. It's really about a lack of opportunity.”
As for her own future, Ezinma hopes to broaden her musical talents onto the big screen. “I did my first project as a film composer maybe six years ago,” she tells me. “And I really, really loved it!” At the beginning of the pandemic Ezinma says that she decided to go back to school at Berklee College of Music in Boston, Massachusetts to pursue a degree in film scoring. “I live and breathe music and that could either be on the violin, that can be on stage, that can be teaching, that can be film scoring. I really see it all as one.”