Over coffee at the Hungarian Pastry Shop, Rare Candy met with Brooklyn-based singer-songwriter Marcus Jade and talked about music as a way of overcoming isolation and of sparking activism, and much more.
By Eden Arielle Gordon
RC: Your website says that when you were growing up in Indianapolis, you were going to a lot of different shows. What was your musical upbringing like?
MJ: I sort of grew up in the church, so gospel music was a thing. Church music was something I was familiar with, and then Indianapolis at this point had a huge sprawl of these DIY house shows and basement shows. There were punk rock bands like Highway Magic, Bullet Wolf, New Creases, and I gravitated towards this DIY sense of being able to do your own shows. That was really revolutionary for me. I grew up on the west side of Indianapolis, which is like thirty or forty minutes away from everything. I had to beg, borrow and plead to get money for the bus or have a friend that had a car and convince them to pick us all up and take us to this house show and sit there and deal with it.
RC: One thing I noticed watching your show is that you had such a natural way of performing. You were almost moving with the guitar, and from what I’ve heard it sounds like you’ve internalized the music you listen to and play in an almost spiritual way.
MJ: I really had a hard time trying to fit in growing up. Hanging out with people and making friends wasn’t necessarily an issue, but I just was into different things and it was hard to relate to people. I had the moment that I was into Pokémon cards, but after I learned about *Nsync and Blink-182, and Boyz II Men, I was like—I gotta listen to this music. I remember I was trying to show someone My Chemical Romance. And I went to the record store to go snag it, and I was so excited to have this record, and I was telling people about it, and no one was interested. I felt like I had to internalize and hold in things that I really admired.
Music was like collecting baseball cards for me. I always had a deep sense of appreciation for it. It was very personal, and when I was like 15-16, starting to go through that teenage angst, music was a coping mechanism. That was a hard time, and when I was off listening to Canadian punk rock I couldn’t relate to people about it. But through it all, music has been the thing I cherish the most. Now that I’m in New York, I can tell people about all this. You never know what people are into here, and that’s the beauty about this place.
RC: You have a lot of self-released EPs. Are you currently working on anything?
MJ: Right now I’m working on a more cohesive album and more cohesive EPs. It’s not a day-to-day process; sometimes I’ll work on a song for a day and I’ll put it away and it’ll collect dust for a month or two. If there are songs that work well together, I’ll put them on an EP. I have seven EPs out right now.
RC: You’re obviously a prolific writer. I read on your website that you journal a lot, in addition to writing music.
MJ: I took creative writing classes when I moved to New York. I went to school for photography but I had to take the English classes there, and journaling was something that sporadically happened. Then about three years ago, I set my mind to journal every day. Now I have about 26 journals full of personal writing. It really helps me with my mental attitude, and with just being able to know my own thoughts and being able to stand in my own truth. I think it’s good to have this practice of writing. It’s like a meditation. I’ll get moleskin journals—that’s where I spend my money. My favorite places in New York City are the Strand — there was this Rebel Rebel record store in the Village — and this stationary shop on 6th Avenue in the Village. I always made it a ritual of going in there and saying I’m gonna get a new book today, a new color. It’s always keeping me fresh.
RC: What’s your songwriting process and what inspires you? I know you write about political and personal themes.
MJ: I love to create and I’m constantly practicing. There’s no scientific practice, though, no set way. When it comes to blues music, or anything with a blues influence, one thing I guess I’ve learned is that the music will always be there — the 1-5-4, shuffle, twelve bar blues — these things will be there because the masters put them down. But as for the words, I try to keep up with current events.
When I was in school I studied photojournalism and when I lived in Chicago I was part of the whole Occupy movement. I was a protester and lived in tent cities for days and days and talked to homeless people, and that influenced me in regards to my upbringing and relationships. In terms of my writing process, I write about what’s on my mind — about what I’m really feeling. Relationships are always on my mind, and love, and themes of feeling alone and vulnerable.
RC: 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?
MJ: 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. The majority of my friends were playing basketball and football. 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.
I lived right next to a record store called Karma, and my first job in high school was at another record store, so I was surrounded by music. Still, the fact is that I grew up in the hood where everyone’s listening to rap music and I’m trying to listen to Metallica and Blink-182 and Senses Fail and stuff like that, and that sense of being pushed off to the side kind of led me to be shunned away and feeling that loneliness. That loneliness evaporated into the music.
RC: I can definitely relate to the feeling isolated thing, and I feel like music is a great equalizer, a way to get closer to others. Have you written any songs specifically about isolation?
MJ: Yeah, there’s this song called “Old Me.” It was a song that I wrote when I was maybe 17 or 18. The lyrics go — there are some that you love more, there are some that you love less, but I’m afraid regardless because I keep my heart in my chest… Trying to make someone happy while you just lose yourself. Sometimes it can feel so hard to want to be with somebody and to experience them not accepting you for who you are, or maybe it’s them not knowing what love is or going through their own shit. I know how that feels. I’m a hopeless romantic — I’m capable of loving and giving somebody a lot. For a while there’s always been this feeling of me putting in 100 and them giving me 10. I guess that’s a feeling that people can relate to. I’ve felt like that many times. Writing that song, I guess that’s when I knew that I was capable of hitting those emotions and talking about them.
RC: To feel so alone in your own head is such a human thing.
MJ: 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. One of my favorite musicians is Sun House. He says that the fundamental theme of blues music is love between man and woman — and I expand on that by saying love between anyone because love is love — and he says that love hides all fault and makes you do things you don’t want to do, and even at times love can make you feel sad and blue. And that’s the epitome of blues music.
BB King, Buddy Guy, and even Jimi Hendrix were into blues music and they were influenced by those matters. Sun House also 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. Those are themes that seriously speak to me in blues music.
But overall blues is probably one of the most joyful things you’ll ever hear. It’s joyful and full and organic and it’s meant to be shared with people. 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. Those themes resonated with me a lot and I think that’s why I’m so addicted to blues music. Those themes in my life have never gone away. I don’t really have a social life. I play my music and my music brings people and I go out because of my music, but I still have a hard time just meeting new people in New York City, being shy and trying to open up, trying to be receptive. People in New York City are in their own bubbles, respectfully so — people have blinders and I’m from a place where manners exist.
RC: Has there been a relationship that’s influenced your music lately?
MJ: Well, there’s the relationship that I have with Artery, and the relationship I have with this other company called Sehiii—they are an all-black collective of musicians, artists, poets and more, and they incorporate being multicultural and multigenre. Sharing music with Sehiii has allowed me to build bridges with people and to open up. Every day I’m so surprised—I did a show on 157th street, and a group of people that I’ve never met before all just wanted to listen to my music. I was really taken aback. People wanted to give me hugs. They were like, your music is really good. The relationships with these collectives that I’ve been hanging out with, regardless of the business aspect, are relationships that open up to other avenues and meeting other people. They’ve really allowed me to be comfortable and to be able to stand in my own truth.
I’m 25—I’m sort of at this point where I’m opening myself up. To be frank, I don’t give a shit what people think about me. I have these feelings, I have these emotions, I’m in tune with them and I’m trying to figure them out, and if I can write a song or present a piece that can help that one person not feel so isolated… I’ve met really good friends through music. I really appreciate the founder of Artery because he loves my music and it’s allowed me to show him different aspects of my personality. We have a great rapport. And the founder of Sehiii also loves to hear me out and loves to speak to me. It’s like we’re brothers in arms and we’re just able to talk. As a black man, you don’t really get those opportunities to just be like—yo what are you doing? This is what I’ve been going through lately, this is what I’ve been going through the past few days… I love those relationships and I just hope that in the future, as I continue making music, blues music or singer-songwriter music, I continue to be receptive to other people’s feelings, and understanding in terms of what they’re going through. I think listening to other people helps me understand more about myself, and about what’s going on in the world. That’s what I’m really about. It’s not about having out and drinking and partying, it’s about that one person after the show saying I love your music, let’s sit down, I want to get to know you.
It’s hard, not giving a damn what everybody thinks about you. Racism is real, prejudice is real. 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.
I’m a thousand miles away from home, and to be honest, I’m proud of being from Indiana. I had an unique and good upbringing. It gave me a childhood thats kept my imagination intact so far all these years. There’s good and bad like most places, Indiana has its. Politics aside, Indiana can be a good place to grow up. Friends of mine who moved away and live in other cities can agree to that.
I think people are surprised that I’m from this small town with blue collar people and race cars. Sometimes they think I’m from Brooklyn, maybe because of the locks. But I grew up in a very Republican neighborhood—you went to church or went to work or went to school—and there were traditional values. You have to let those things go in order to be more receptive. It was like, if you don’t believe in Jesus Christ our lord and savior they’re not going to talk to you… Here you kind of have to let go of all that. Here I can almost form my own relationship and create my own identity within my upbringing.
RC: There are a lot of powerful activist and political messages in your music—like in your song about gentrification. How do you see yourself involved in those issues?
MJ: Well, as for 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. That is something that I notice and I’m often taken aback by it. You would think that people who gentrify neighborhoods want to be a part of the neighborhood, but actually they want to be part of the cupcake shops—not the Puerto Rican music and Latin salsa music all night Saturday night. That separation is real. And now there’s not a lot of Puerto Rican music anymore, because there’s noise ordinances now. Police come up and say—you need to turn the music down, the neighbor complained—and the neighbor is some young professional who needs to get up for work the next morning. I’m not trying to generalize, but these are the things I’m starting to see.
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.” You hear about what happened in Tulsa, Oklahoma a hundred years ago, when white people were so scared of black people’s neighborhoods that they were willing to burn a whole neighborhood down…or things like in Chicago, when they had a huge spurt of black and Puerto Rican people come through, and people were so uncomfortable with that they beat people and police weren’t stopping it. Nowadays we don’t have those formalities. People are getting displaced simply because they don’t make a certain amount of money, and they have to leave, but the only types of jobs available for them are in cities. Bushwick has dramatically changed in just a few months. It used to be illegal for taggers to tag buildings. Now they’ve got this Bushwick collective where they’ll go and tag the whole corner space.
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.
When it comes down to it, I stopped caring what people thought about me when I realized that there were much bigger things that need to be said.You can be the person that studies law at Columbia University, and you can talk about gentrification and have some kind of notoriety, but the guy that’s lived in the neighborhood for thirty years and talks about gentrification is crazy. Do people not understand that it’s actually the people who are on the ground that are being affected by this, that know more than people sitting up in a room studying it?
"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. They’ll take their word for it before they take mine.
RC: I always think of activist music in relation to the 60s—like Dylan—but now I think it needs to be made by people who are really in what’s going on.
MJ: I think you can have a critical eye and an educated eye, but personal and invested interest is really important. When I was doing political activism, which was my way of getting my foot in the door and really getting the story—I’d figure out who the people are who are actually affected. When I was in Chicago I did a whole expose in photography about the mental healthcare movement there. In 2012, the mayor of Chicago decided to close six out of the 12 mental healthcare facilities in Chicago, and the six were on the south and west side of Chicago, which are predominantly black and Latino. They were willing to give people a bus pass to go to one of the facilities, but the pass was only good for one bus ride, so it wasn’t helpful, especially when people need day-to-day healthcare. It takes an hour to get across the city. You’re wasting your time, and it was difficult to get paperwork transferred, and it hurt people.
The healthcare facilities all got closed. We lost that fight. Once they closed down the healthcare facilities, the people that have issues that could have been resolved through meditation and medication had nowhere to go.
Today the biggest healthcare facilities are prisons. Now you’ve made people who have mental health issues criminals. If someone goes out and harms somebody and it comes out that he has dementia or something, he’s going to do time, and because he’s criminally insane he’s going to go to prison to get help. Now you’ve made patients criminals. That doesn’t help people.
I saw that fear in myself. I have depression, I have anxiety issues—how can I rely on the city that made me a criminal? What if I had a breakdown on someone’s private property? Those things touched me in a way that moved me. I was willing to go out there to spend days in a tent. This was March-April of Chicago, it was freezing, and I was willing to stick it out because I believed in these people.
It’s things like this that have affected the way I looked at society, government, politics, and people that try to help these people. If you don’t truly know what these people are going through, you can’t really help them. There’s a sense of nobility in going out there and talking on people’s behalf—and this is a generalization, but there were people that had come down to help out people suffering from mental healthcare issues, putting up signs asking for healthcare reform, only to go back to the suburbs where they live comfortably. There’s the real disconnect.
I only hope that there’s always good people. I hope people will spend more time with people actually affected by certain issues.
RC: I remember you have that song “Correctional Facility Blues” which talked so poignantly about prisons.
MJ: Men in my family have had a hard time. I’m the first person to graduate high school in my family. I went off and did something—I left, I didn’t finish college, but I got out. What influenced me in writing that song is that my uncle was in prison for a long time and he just got out, and this is a recurring theme in my family. I wouldn’t say we’re proud of it, but we’re so used to it that we don’t see what’s going on. When you come from a background like ours, those statistics are stacked against you. I’m 25 now. At this point, statistically, I’m supposed to be dead or in prison, but I’ve never been to jail, never done anything illegal. I’m very cautious in my way of living, knowing that if you come from a background of people, of men in particular, whose options are to be dead or in prison—I had to do something else. And that’s not to be too general. There’s excellent men in my family that are great fathers. But this is the reality.
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.
RC: I think that goes back to the heart of music—sometimes, with music, the walls all come down.
MJ: Like I said, your life, the things that influenced you, are probably different from me, but 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.
Stream Marcus Jade's Music here: https://marcusjade.bandcamp.com/
“Black Life Blues”--Live at Bessie’s Brooklyn: https://youtu.be/ByH571DvuPk