Folk Fest Insider
Saved by the Blues: Marquise Knox on “getting through” with music
September 18, 2016
Blues music is known for its seasoned performers—songwriters who have had a lifetime of experiences that they can draw upon. But at only 25, Marquise Knox is well on his way to being a bona fide blues music legend. He draws upon his own life, but also the tradition handed down to him from his grandmother, his uncle, his mentor, and all of the musicians who came before him.
Originally from St. Louis, Missouri, Marquise has strong family ties to Grenada, Mississippi. Blues country. It was in St. Louis, however, that he started working with Henry James Townsend, and it was there that he overcame initial shyness and started to perform for others. He was 16 years old, and now, he’s one of the most sought-after blues performers in the country, with a knack for both recreating the songs of the greats and creating his own compositions.
During his stay in Richmond for the 2016 Folk Festival, Marquise Knox will follow in the footsteps of tap dancer Leonardo Sandoval and Native American hip-hop artist Supaman and perform for inmates at the Richmond City Justice Center. The performance, which will exist courtesy of the Folk Festival, the Justice Center, and JAMinc, will include both music and conversation. Marquise will get to tell a little bit of his story, and inmates can experience the blues for themselves before having the opportunity to ask questions. Last year’s Justice Center performance inspired inmates to start thinking more about expressing themselves creatively, and Marquise looks forward to continuing this new Folk Festival tradition.
Richmond Folk Festival: How do you feel about the opportunity to play for and engage with the inmates at the Richmond Justice Center? Have you ever done anything like that before?
Marquise Knox: When I first started playing, when I was a teenager, I used to go to a kids’ home and play there for little kids. So I’m kind of familiar there, they never seemed like they had no hope.
I’ll just let them know who I am. I think circumstances are what separates people, but come to find out we’re all the same. I’ll just share who I am and my upbringing and what got me up to the blues and stopped me from winding up in jail. I could have been a drug dealer and been in jail. The blues saved me, so I’ll hopefully help them.
RFF: And how did blues save you?
MK: It kept me out of the streets. I lived in St. Louis, Missouri. I grew up in Berkeley, right next to Ferguson, so I understand the life that you sometimes find them talking about in the Black Lives Matter protests, and I can relate to all that. It's like what we went through but magnified. I didn’t lose my temper and stayed cool, I learned that from my great-uncle and my grandmother. I didn’t want to disappoint them; they had a lot of faith in me. And then I found out what the blues was and wanted to carry the tradition on for my people.
RFF: What do you expect them to get out of the experience? What do you think blues music can say to the incarcerated?
MK: No matter what you go through, you're going to get through it. As time goes on and you understand what happens, you understand what you get through the blues, and that the blues is about getting back up with a smile on your face. Ain’t nothing like being somewhere where you don’t have a future, and you feel like you can make more money selling drugs, and you can’t get a job, and you feel like you lose opportunity, you lose hope. And the blues speaks to that. As long as you stay true to yourself, you can survive.
RFF: How do you think music can transform a person? And why is it so important to keep traditional music alive?
MK: Well, music represents a particular people, no matter what the music is. It's a tradition, it’s a culture, it’s a history. When you try to keep it going, you try to represent. I try to play traditional blues as much as possible, I try not to deviate too much in other music but just stay straight up blues, because that’s the backbone of what everyone falls in love with for the blues. I try to pay homage to older generations: Muddy Waters, Blind Lemon, and all those guys.
RFF: You used to be shy about taking the stage, what changed that? What do you feel when you’re on stage now?
MK: It just happened one day, I just came outside of the box. I didn’t really want to entertain, I just wanted to play and not say too much and do what I wanted to do and then leave. But then something happened, I love to talk to the people, that’s really what it’s about. They come for the music, but there’s something about when we all come together and touch each other and say hello.
RFF: What can Folk Fest-goers expect from your performance?
MK: To be entertained, for one, but to really feel how passionate I am about performing the blues and keeping alive the tradition. I play a lot of the old songs that they know, combined with a lot of the songs I wrote. Those who don’t know might be shocked that the sound of what made the blues in the beginning is still out there and going in the same form.
RFF: Is it ever intimidating, writing songs to play along with the songs of the greats?
MK: No, because we all talk about what we’re going through, and whatever comes to mind. We're all just adding verses to what we call the blues.