Notes of History Rendered Into Melodies of the Future



Marcus Shelby inspires PRESENCE, the Red Poppy Art House Development Cohort, with his artistic process and snippets of his life’s journey.

Following an hour of discussion, Marcus Shelby, composer, teacher, bassist, and Artist In Residence at Yerba Buena Gardens Festival, sat down to play the piano placed against the red curtain and evoked Duke Ellington’s “On A Turquoise Cloud.” Immediately after, his iPod was plugged into the speakers and PRESENCE, the Red Poppy Art House Development Cohort listened to the piece transformed, the melody rendered with additional instruments like opera voices and horns. Shelby was showing the cohort how a musical composition transitions from a modest melody to a series of chords and collaborations.

Marcus Shelby, PRESENCE’s June 18th speaker, collaborates with artists and foundations to compose and present music inspired by historical characters such as Emit Till and Harriet Tubman and their journeys of spreading awareness. Shelby told the room, “Take what you can to empower yourself, to understand.” In his own work, that is what he strives to do, often asking himself, “How do I empower somebody?” His chosen form of empowerment is through music. Shelby uses music to create an emotional connection to historically and politically meaningful events. His current project is “Pipeline to Prison,” centered around the prison industrial complex, about which he has been researching for the last two years and hasn’t yet written one note.

Shelby’s process is consuming. He spends hours reading and educating himself with statistics and history while also physically immersing himself in the difficult realities of our world. For Pipeline to Prison, he brings music into prisons, teaching that “being creative is much more exciting than being destructive.”

Shelby got his passion to become a bass player when, by his father’s advice, he attended a Wynton Marsalis concert. Now, more than twenty years later, Shelby finds himself on stages.

His work has been funded through grants. In terms of grant advice, Shelby offered that you must “articulate your vision” and “know the mandate of the foundation” to which you are applying.

For Shelby, the Red Poppy Art House has been an “inspirational fountain,” a place where ideas have been invited to incubate and artists have had a chance to collaborate. In addition to researching and immersing himself in the environments of which he writes, Shelby advocates collaborating with organizations and learning from other art forms. Shelby reveals that when it comes down to achieving what you want to achieve, it files down to two main components. The first is knowing that help is out there and reaching for it. The second is, as Shelby put it, “you have to try.”

-Aleksandra Bril, Red Poppy Art House Writer