Marques Martin: Brave and Afraid
Marques Martin just dropped “Hailey,” the song off his soon-to-be-released mixtape, Brave and Afraid. Though just released, these songs have been in the works for a while thanks to Martin’s detail-oriented approach to music. Featured in Highsnobiety, Complex, and Hunger, Martin hails from Maryland; his music career took off after he moved to New York and collaborated with fellow Prince George’s County rapper KAMAUU. He debuted his EP About 2 Die in January after his debut single last November, and most recently released “Dinner Date” in May. He effortlessly weaves old school East Coast riffs, mainstream rap production, and a hint of funk and pop into his own sound. It’s got multi-layered textures of deep bass and soft melodic tones pulled together by the brave but vulnerable self-awareness that his mixtape title suggests. Martin sat down with Milk to chat about his journey to music, his upcoming mixtape, and musical and non-musical influences—including the novel Brave New World, another important element to his story in Brave and Afraid. The themes of his music resonate widely with young artists in a fast-paced media world—creating in an oversaturated industry, balancing risk-taking creativity with stability, and resisting expectations. Martin approaches these themes with a sometimes serious, sometimes cheeky self-awareness. In short, his music tells the story of a young creator fighting to keeping it real in a sea of other young creators. Listen to Marques Martin’s latest release, and keep an eye out for the full mixtape release early next year.
Can you tell me about the concept behind your new mixtape?
I came up with the title Brave and Afraid during my first move to New York, maybe two or three and a half years ago now. Basically I just felt like the conflicting words reflected exactly who I was, and who I am to this day. It’s basically who I am—brave and afraid. I’m brave enough to risk the easier life—the more guaranteed life of going to college and getting a normal job. Rather, I’m pursuing music, I’m moving to New York. Even in the music, lyrically and sonically, I’m not exactly doing what’s popular right now. In that way I’m brave, but all those things terrify me.
How do you see your music in contrast to what’s popular, or mainstream?
I think what’s more common or popular right now is kind of—a lot of people are very boastful about making songs in like one hour. Or like, ‘Yo, I made this song in two minutes.’ It’s like, yeah, it sounds like you made it in two minutes or an hour or whatever. There’s not as much thought to the music, and that’s not a bad thing. I’m definitely not bashing that. But there definitely is this spur of the moment type of sound that’s trending.
I think in my music, I really try to focus on a topic or an idea or sound. I really try to translate myself into the music a hundred percent, as much as possible. For me I feel like you hear the music, and then when you talk to me, the music kinda makes sense. Is that confusing?
No, that makes sense. There’s a pressure to produce things, like right away.
Yeah. A pressure to be making content constantly.
And a pressure to sound improvisational.
Yeah, that’s actually the perfect word. A lot of music feels kinda like improv. It is actually, and everyone freestyles. There’s nothing wrong with that because there’s some really cool shit that comes out of that, but it does get monotonous after a while.
What’s your lyrical process like?
It’s sporadic, I guess. It’s never consistent. Sometimes I come up with some lyrics first, and I make a beat around it. Most of the time I think it’s vice versa. I’m just making a sound, jamming out on my computer, and I come out with like a melody.
When I write, it usually stems from an experience. I get inspired by a lot of things that happen to me. I always try to focus on a central topic. I always try to come up with a very specific thing first and add the vague shit after. Like in “Hailey,” the specific topic is this girl Hailey, and I add all the details afterward.
Can you talk about “Hailey”?
It’s a true story. Everything in that song is true—every last word. Like the joke “skippin on dinnertime” is creating a setting. But going to the girl and saying that her dad’s intimidating—that really happened. It happened when I was about seventeen, maybe like a year before I started recording and rapping for real. My friend, he was kind of well off, invited me on a cruise and paid—it was like a high school graduation present. We go on this cruise—long story short, I met this girl Hailey on a beach called Half Moon Cay in the Bahamas. We really hit it off, I guess. When we were leaving on the last day, I saw her. My friends were like, ‘You gotta get her number, stay in contact with her…’ and at the time I was in Maryland and she was in New York, and it’s funny looking back on it because I’m in New York now. When we were talking, I was thinking in my head there was no point in keeping in contact with this person because I live in Maryland, and I’m not gonna be in New York. Sure enough, I fell on my ass. But that’s why on the hook, I’m like, “I cannot find you…”
Some of those themes seem to resonate throughout the mixtape, like “Dance Songs.” I really like that one.
It’s kind of self-aware. It’s cool how you switch between different narrative voices—like even though they’re all autobiographical, some are funny and some are more serious.
Yeah. That’s a good word to describe it—self-aware. I try to be self-aware. It’s also autobiographical, about my first move to New York when I came to college, it was called The King’s College. It was a very white school, a lot of rich white kids, and of course, this black kid that’s a rapper comes in and everybody finds out you’re a rapper, and every stereotype just lands in your lap when you’re in that setting. That’s what initially inspired this song. Also just like being an artist in any situation. People kind of just say that everybody makes music.
Can you talk more about how you address those stereotypes in your music?
First of all, being black- I mean, in that song, I literally say “I’m black, I’m not helping any stereotypes.” I could push back, but at the same time, it’s being stereotyped about things that I’m not. Being black and being a rapper, they expect you to be kind of hood too. They expect that you come from more humble upbringings.
And even outside of race—if I were to talk to you on the street and I told you I do music, you’d probably think, ‘Okay, my brother does music. My sister does music.’ You’d probably just think that it’s trash, and I totally understand that, too. That’s the main stereotype. It’s really hard to go anywhere and make connections or even get your music out in social media. People just scroll by and think, ‘Oh, Marques is trying to do music—more trash.’ It’s a one in a million chance to be actually good.
So you’re also kind of thinking about how the industry’s oversaturated.
Yeah, I feel that in the song too.
How did college culture contribute to your musical voice?
If I didn’t go to The King’s College, I never would have made “Dance Songs.” The school is really small; it’s like 500 kids. Everyone knows you. So when I was there and trying to do music, it’s like you said earlier—it kind of made me self-aware. Before, I wasn’t really getting that feedback from people.
Being in a small school puts you under a microscope, for sure.
You know that lyric, from the Hamilton play, about getting a scholarship to King’s College?
The only reason I know that is because of King’s College. Like, Hamilton was playing right across from my school, and also every kid at my school mostly knew about hip hop from that play. So that’s also the environment I was in. People just didn’t know anything about black culture—I mean a few people did, but mostly from Alabama or the South or something. Those were the kinds of perspectives I was getting that made me more self-aware.
What were your musical influences from Maryland?
Not many of the artists that influenced me are from Maryland, to be honest. I wish they were, but the ones that came from Maryland that make me proud to be from there are IDK, Animal Collective, David Byrne from Talking Heads, and the director Spike Jonze. Oh and JPEGMAFIA, he’s really cool, and he’s from Maryland. Most people that really inspired my sound aren’t from Maryland, but I’m proud as hell to be from PG County. Rico Nasty’s from the same black county as me. Oh, KAMAUU is also from Maryland.
Oh yeah, you did the collaboration for “Dinner Date.”
Yeah. He’s the one who got me out to New York.
Your sound goes back and forth from like, melodic and soft to heavy synth. Can you talk about your influences in rap and outside of that?
Things that really influenced me—I’m guessing anyone who starts their music would say Kanye, Kid Cudi—okay, you got me, those are big influences. I think other influences are St. Vincent, Tupac, Michael Jackson, grunge bands like Sonic Youth, and The Beatles were huge for me when I was in middle school. Their songwriting and approach to music—I can never shake that, and same with Kanye and Kid Cudi. I feel like when they go into the studio, it’s like, ‘Fuck everything you know about music. Let’s just make something,’ you know, and I’m still catching that grasp. When I make something I’ll be like, ‘I can’t do that, because you’re not supposed to do that.’ But then I realize I actually can. And that’s also the mood of “Dance Songs” or “Hailey,” which have no slurs or high hats, or drums on it. I can just whisper on the hook, which can almost sound creepy in a way, but also still addicting. Like “Dance Songs” has the Ariel Pink sample. There are so many others—David Bowie, Geto Boys, Tribe Called Quest, Lupe Fiasco, Lil Wayne, of course—I could go on. I think you kind of get the palette.
Definitely. I know you were also influenced by skate videos.
Yeah. So when I was 11 or 12 I got into skating. It was starting to be okay to be more of a renaissance person in terms of style and taste, and these videos really changed my perspective on that. I was watching Lakai Fully Flared by Spike Jonze, I was watching Emerica, Baker Skateboards, Jerry Hsu was my favorite skater forever, Theotis Beasley. I used to be a huge skate nerd and I used to skate every day. I forgot what video I was watching, but it got me on to punk music. Basically everything I listen to outside of hip hop I found through skateboarding.
Can you talk about other points of inspiration outside of music? I know you mentioned Brave New World.
Oh yeah, Aldous Huxley. That’s another thing from college. That was one of the assigned books for my Intro to Politics class. I was reading this and I was like, ‘Oh my god.’ I like those sci-fi, surrealist stories. The same with art too, like paintings, I love surrealist, Salvador Dalí type stuff. Brave New World influenced the title Brave and Afraid.
What story are you telling in Brave and Afraid?
I’m out doing things taking risks and trying out ideas from different influences, but also being afraid of being stereotypes and fighting through this oversaturated industry. It’s very terrifying, especially when you start getting into it and failing.
Following the influence from Brave New World, how that inspired my story is that in Brave New World, there’s this guy who fucks the system, pretty much. He’s basically like brave and afraid too. He refuses to conform to what everybody else is doing in that society. But at the same time, this guy is like, ‘I don’t know if I should do this,’ and then he finds the cave—and if you know the story, you know how it ends. I feel like this in a way, I’m fighting against what new artists should be doing.
My expectations are what made me afraid, but also what made me brave. It all ties to that contradiction, that juxtaposition of feelings.
Stay tuned to Milk for more music moments.