Marcus Jade’s music has the ability to pull listeners into different dimensions. He’s just that good: when he plays guitar, the notes seem to take on physical form and shape, and time crystallizes until there’s nothing but a present moment, informed by centuries of history and bottomless dreams for the future.
The Brooklyn-based blues musician played at SXSW in March, but he’s long been a fixture of NYC’s underground music scene, filling rooms with his powerful guitar playing and heart-wrenching vocals that seem to expand and reshape every room he graces with them.
In addition to his work as a musician, Jade is also a poet, a beard oil manufacturer, and the host of the UNRULY Collective’s Friday Night Feature, a biweekly event at an underground venue in Bushwick that makes space for a huge variety of artists to share their work. He’s frequently seen performing at and hosting shows through the platform Artery, which sets diverse performers up with local hosts in apartments, laundromats, and other unconventional spaces.
His music is both ageless and vitally present. It’s an unblinking look at the lives of black folks in America, at the epidemics of incarceration and gentrification that are suffocating communities; but it’s also a deeply personal examination of a complex and singularly creative mind. Like his poetry, Jade’s music pulls notes from the ravages of the past and alchemizes them into gold.
Honeysuckle intern Eden Gordon, a longtime fan and close friend of Marcus Jade, interviewed him once in the fall of 2017 at the Hungarian Pastry Shop, and again in the fall of 2018 in the basement of the UNRULY Collective, both equally atmospheric spaces that led to fascinating conversation. Here is a collection of her favorite responses, along with a selection of some of Jade’s unpublished poetry.
EDEN GORDON: You’ve said you grew up listening to your parents’ music, and then your brother’s, and then you branched off on your own. How did you figure out other music was out there, other than what was directly in front of you?
MARCUS JADE: What influenced me and made me really want to get out and seek other music was — to really be honest — this sense of isolation. I don’t know what it was, that I couldn’t fully relate to people. I grew up poor on the West Side of Indianapolis. There were these moments I remember as a kid where I’d be by myself, alone in my room, left to my own devices. I think that is what led me to find my own path.
That’s at the heart of blues music. I always try to tell people a little blues history. Blues music is black people’s music. There’s no way of sugarcoating that. It came from slavery, it came from oppression, it came from the hard times that black people endured in the South and in America.
The musician Son House talks about isolation, going back to the South when black men and women were not able to say what they wanted to say, and those times of not being able to relate even to their own people and their own kind — blues is that sense of loneliness, of isolation, of feeling left out. But overall blues is probably one of the most joyful things you’ll ever hear. It’s music that came from isolation and loneliness but at the end of the day it’s music for everybody. It’s for the lonely, the downhearted, the underdogs.
People are going to look at me, be it good or bad, differently. They’re going to look at me and develop an opinion before I get to open my mouth and say something. That’s a barrier that I’m always trying to push. You don’t know me, you don’t know what I’ve been through, but you’d be surprised that I can relate so much more to you and we can sit down and not talk about politics and race or gender identity or gender politics—we can get to the meat and bones of what it means to love, and what it means to want, to want to be noticed in a city of eight million people.
There are a lot of powerful activist and political messages in your music—like in your song about gentrification.
I live in Bushwick right now, and you can see the dramatic change. Hispanic and African American people are disappearing, in a sense being replaced by people that—for me, it doesn’t matter if they’re black or white, but people who have no real connection with or understanding what’s going on in a neighborhood, that don’t take part in the block parties, that are only there for the apartments.
There’s this theme, also, of trying to make gentrification seem funny, or like not such a big deal, but the thing about it is in New York there are no games. This is a real thing that affects people’s lives. In my song “Gentrification Blues,” there’s a line, “Gentrification is worse than the KKK but they don’t wear no hoods.”
The gentrifiers are glorifying what people were already doing. Like with the marijuana laws—young African Americans were getting arrested, getting four or five months, for just having a sack on them. But then 2014, 2015 comes along and marijuana’s legalized, and now there’s this new cash crop of people glorifying marijuana, but for the past fifteen years the glorification of smoking marijuana to African Americans was detrimental to our society.
“This is coming from a black man, so this is a story that won’t be told.” They won’t take my word for it because I dropped out of college and don’t have a diploma, but they’ll take someone else’s word for it because they studied sociology at some formal school.
At the end of the day, I really love being around people that are receptive. It’s not about politics, it’s about people getting to know people, wanting to know who we are and what we do. The fact that we can find the place where the walls come down…without music we wouldn’t have had this moment. That’s what I really live for.
Can you talk a bit about your writing process and influences?
I treat it as a process, and clock in and clock out. As for influences—Anis Mojgani (The Feather Room), Robert Frost, Patti Smith (Early Work, Auguries of Innocence, Just Kids), Lauren Hilger (Lady Be Good), Joanna Valente (Sexting with Ghost), Laura Buccieri (On Being Mistaken), and Amiri Baraka are some of the main ones. I still journal every day. It’s a form of meditation for me, a way of coming back to myself. All of it ties into the music and the process of making music. A lot of the times they really do just come out, both as a part of the writing process, and for making music. I try my best to control its spontaneity, but it’s almost as if it comes out of necessity.
How do you feel your work has changed over the past year?
I’m more focused on my writing, a bit more conscious of trying to speak my own truth. I just play my way of thinking. I focus on my own worldview, my own experiences. I try to step out and look at everything with a clear sense of view. I didn’t have that as much the past few years, and it’s something naturally taking time to make into a habitual thing.
[The past year] I was traveling a lot and writing a lot. I was in Austin, Texas; I was in Boston, Massachusetts; I was also in Columbus, Ohio for a few days, and in Fort Wayne, and in Colorado, Chicago, Indianapolis… I went back to Vermont and stayed there in the mountains for two months, and then came back to New York for Northside Fest. I came back in August to settle in and then had shows in Baltimore and D.C , and Philadelphia from October thru November.. This past year has changed me a lot and show me my strengths and weaknesses throughout my last journey. I’m a bit more settled now, taking on more responsibility at UNRULY. I’m just hoping to be better.
What are your thoughts on the future of art in New York?
There’s a really robust amount of creative people in New York—there’s kind of always been, and now there’s a creative influx happening, a cultural renaissance. But it is New York City; you still have to have a way to support yourself. Avenues like Artery make art and its culture more accessible, especially to people who don’t necessarily have those kinds of experiences in their communities. I think that’s changing, and artists have communities and voices, and the Internet makes unlimited sharing possible. It’s still everybody’s hustle.
But New York is a place where things happen that couldn’t happen anywhere else. So many things had to come together that we could be sitting in this room together, so many histories and aspects of America. This probably couldn’t happen in the Midwest. It’s something for right here.