Marquise Knox said when people see him without his guitar “they don’t see a blues man.”
“They just see a black man, and think I’m up to no good,” Knox told inmates at the Richmond City Justice Center on Friday.
If it wasn’t for music and his family, Knox said he might be sitting in the same place as the men before him. Rather than slacks and a button-up shirt, he’d be wearing a jumpsuit. Instead of his guitar — a Gibson ES-335, the same as blues legend B.B. King for whom Knox opened when he was just 16 — he’d have handcuffs.
“All of us are the same,” he said.
Knox, now 25, of St. Louis, is performing all three days of the Richmond Folk Festival. Organizers have arranged for a festival act to perform at the jail for the past three years and Knox said he jumped at the chance.
The music festival is free Friday through Sunday night with stages and activities throughout the city’s riverfront areas. Last year, more than 200,000 people attended.
Knox spoke to inmates in two different cell blocks Friday morning about the blues. Many said they’d never heard the music style before.
“It is our story,” he said of the black community. “It is our struggle. It talks about the condition that you find yourself in.”
But Knox quickly made it clear that blues doesn’t just embody the melancholy often associated with the genre. It can make people smile, too, he said.
“I’ve got a problem with my woman,” he sang. “She’s trying to break up me and my wife.” The crowd laughed and clapped along.
Alman Lowry said the performance was unforgettable.
“My first time hearing the blues,” Lowry said, “and how he brought it, it was uplifting.”
James Bullock called it the best blues show he’d ever seen. He’s a blues fan, but hadn’t heard Knox before.
“I just closed my eyes and I went away,” Bullock said. “It took us out of here.”
During his second set, Knox relaxed more and joked with the men between songs.
This is Knox’s first time in Richmond, and first time playing in a jail, he said. But he’s no stranger to being locked up.
He was recently picked up in Missouri after a police officer claimed he bumped him at stop sign.
“I guess I got arrested at just about the right time — when I got to jail, they were serving dinner,” Knox said to chuckles from crowd. But his mother bailed him out so quickly he couldn’t even enjoy the meal. “She used my money, instead of her own, I guess that’s why she got there so quickly.”
Despite poor acoustics in the cinder block cell blocks, the rich combination of Knox’s guitar and deep, soulful voice carried well. Often, Knox belted out songs not needing the microphone he’d pushed aside. When he finished, he walked through the crowd shaking hands and hugging the men and jotted down his address.
“If any of you want to reach out to me, even if it’s just to say hello and goodbye, I’ll write you back,” he said. “I want you to know there’s somebody out there who thinks about y’all.”
He asked jail officials if next time, he could bring his band. He also requested to hear some of the music the inmates had recorded in the jail’s recording studio and music program.