Detroit Piano Phenom BLKBOK Channels His Experience Into Neoclassical Poetry

Charles Wilson III released his first album in June
Charles Wilson III, aka BLKBOK, channels the modern Black experience into a collection of musical musings. // Portrait courtesy of BLKBOK

A lot of kids growing up on Detroit’s west side in the ’90s worshipped artists like Mos Def, Biggie, and Busta Rhymes — and Charles Wilson III was no exception. But alongside those hip-hop icons, he revered classical greats like Debussy, Mozart, and Bach. So much so that when his peers started adopting rapper names, Wilson took on the moniker “BLKBOK” (pronounced “Black Bach”).

Born into a family of entertainers — tap-dancing cousins, saxophone-playing uncles, and even a Memphis jazz legend grandfather who has his own brass note on the Beale Street Walk of Fame — Wilson grew up in the jazz clubs of Detroit. It was never a question of whether he would exhibit musical talent, but how that talent would manifest.

The affinity revealed itself when 4-year-old Wilson gravitated toward the family’s keyboard. His parents promptly hired an instructor and swapped the small instrument for a real piano. “It was the biggest piano I’ve ever seen in my life,” Wilson says. “But it was cheap, so my parents bought it and got it tuned, and my dad painted it.”

Like most students of the keys, Wilson began his instruction by learning the foundation of technique through classical music. But unlike many young pupils, Wilson fell instantly in love with the genre. He’d go on to study jazz, blues, and eventually even pop and hip-hop, but he maintained a particular fondness for classical. By age 8 he was recognized as a piano prodigy, regularly winning statewide accolades and collegiate-level tournaments. 

Wilson’s mother foretold early on that her son would pursue music professionally, telling him, “If you’re not doing music for a living, you’re going to be a very unhappy man.” Wilson says he took her words to heart. “At that time, I understood the depth of my love for performing.”

His big professional break came in 2001 at age 21, when Justin Timberlake’s musical director, Kevin Antunes — whom Wilson had befriended while rehearsing alongside ’NSync’s band a few years earlier — offered him a job as Timberlake’s new keyboard player. Two weeks later, Wilson appeared on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, and before long, he was performing with musical heavy hitters including Rihanna, John Mayer, and Demi Lovato. As he puts it, “It all just kind of happened.”

“My vision is to use music as a way of connecting people. That’s the most imperative thing for the human race right now.” —BLKBOK

Still, Wilson says he’d had no plans to record a solo album and only minimal composing experience before the pandemic wiped a slate of gigs off his calendar. When his label suggested he spend this newfound free time penning an album, he was hesitant. But once he sat at his piano, he stayed put for 121 consecutive days. The result was his first album, Black Book, which was released in June.

The name is an homage to the 2018 biographical drama Green Book and its subject, Don Shirley — a Black pianist who braved the Deep South in 1962 to share classical music with Black audiences. Wilson was inspired by the idea of forging connections through music, and he references the theme throughout the album.

Wilson describes Black Book as “a collection of neoclassical musical poems that reflect the world I’m in as an artist and as a Black man in the 2020s through the piano.” Its 12 tracks are auditory illustrations of Wilson’s experiences — both personal and collective — which coalesce to create an almost stream-of-consciousness effect. The piece “George Floyd and the Struggle for Equality,” for instance, was a real-time expression of the emotions he felt in response to the May 2020 police killing in Minneapolis that sparked a nationwide racial justice reckoning: “The beginning of the piece is just anger — just banging on the keyboard, to get out these emotions.”

Wilson says he hopes his background as a Black, hip-hop-infused pianist from Detroit will act as a bridge to classical music for audiences who might not typically identify with the genre. “My vision is to use music as a way of connecting people,” he says. “That’s the most imperative thing for the human race right now.”

And he’s wasting no time. Just weeks after Black Book’s release, Wilson was already contemplating his next endeavors. New music is a certainty in the coming year, he says, hinting at a mixtape and potential collaboration with opera singer Lawrence Brownlee. Plus, he plans to delve deeper into his interest in film scores. “I’m a fan of film and TV composers like Danny Elfman, John Williams, Ramin Djawadi, Bear McCreary, so that’s where I’ve always pictured myself.”

But nothing is out of the question. When asked what’s next, Wilson’s answer is always the same: “I turn nothing down but my collar.”

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This story is featured in the October 2021 issue of Hour Detroit magazine. Read more stories in our digital edition.