Jasper Marsalis prefers to do things the hard way. “Most things I gravitate towards, I don’t like,” the soft-spoken 26-year-old fine artist and musician said in a recent interview, before bursting into laughter.
His is an unorthodox approach to facing his fears and biases through artistic expression. It’s what drove him to painting, a pursuit he initially thought was “dumb”; how he ended up a hip-hop producer working in a genre with which he has an admittedly “antagonistic” relationship; and why he started playing the acoustic guitar, an instrument he had associated with banality and Ed Sheeran. Not merely an exercise in challenging his own snobbery, his commitment to the revelatory power of discomfort has led to explorations of self, society, and existence in his work.
“Things that stick in my mind are things I dislike,” Marsalis said. “They kinda put a hook in my brain, and I keep thinking what about it do I not like.”
Born in Los Angeles and currently living there, Marsalis cut his teeth as a creator in New York City. He moved to the city as a teen, attending Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts and later the Cooper Union’s School of Art. Jasper, the son of lauded jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis and actor Victoria Rowell and grandson of late legendary pianist Ellis Marsalis, chose not to follow in their giant footsteps.
Instead, he began his career in music as an electronic music DJ. He became a hip-hop producer under the name Slauson Malone and was a founding member of post-genre collective Standing on the Corner, before evolving into the fine artist and experimental musician he is now. His penchant for confrontation shows up in paintings and sculptures that engage with dichotomous concepts like absence and presence, freedom and fugitivity. His music uses melody, rhythm, dissonance, and cacophony to express emotions and ideas meant not only to be heard, but also felt.
On Saturday, Sept. 24, at Abrons Arts Center on the Lower East Side, Marsalis is inviting an audience to hear and feel his brand of artistic-exposure therapy in “Slauson Malone 1: The Stone Breakers.” Marsalis wants to retain the element of surprise for attendees, so he’s tight-lipped about the specific details of the performance. But he's clear about his intention to blur and even disintegrate the line between spectacle and spectator or audience and performer through music, speech, and noise. In Abrons’ historic Playhouse Theater, Marsalis and a band of musicians on alto and bass clarinet, sheet metal, tuba, guitar, cello, tuba and a specially crafted sound system plan to metaphorically — and literally — shake structures up.
On a warm late summer afternoon, Marsalis sat down for an interview in Abrons’ Underground Theater, a space in the bowels of the building characterized by bare concrete walls and brutalist architecture. Clad in a thin white tee, baggy black raver-style jeans, and a silver choker that looked like a necklace of metal ball-bearings standing in for pearls, he was warm and inviting, greeting with a wide smile, a dap, and a hug. Though his past recordings, like 2019’s "A Quiet Farewell, 2016-2018 (Crater Speak)" and 2020’s "Vergangenheitsbewältigung (Carter Speak)," deal with weighty subjects matter like Blackness and anti-Blackness, reckoning with the past, and dealing with loss and loneliness, Marsalis himself is unmistakably a beacon of light.
“Confrontation is important to me, because it signifies the breaking of something,” he said of his work. “I definitely love this moment in the performance where I ask people a question, and that gives them total freedom to express themselves. They can say whatever they want, but it’s interesting that in that moment, people really don’t know what to say.”
For Marsalis, exploring the territory of the unknown, the unknowable, and the spontaneous is both scary and exciting. “When I'm in a more uncertain space, I'm more vulnerable,” he explained. “I feel like my decision-making has a different set of principles, and I don't really have time to think about ‘is this good or is this bad?’ because I don't know, I'm trying to figure it out. I’m doing it. ”
For Marsalis, who is prone to rumination, a space of uncertainty is liberating. “I've always been jealous of other people that can say ‘I'm this,’ or ‘I'm from this place,’ or ‘I represent this,’” he confessed. “I find that the unknown, the ‘not from anywhere,’ “Brother from Another Planet” — these kinds of things are really what I identify most with, and try to illustrate for other people to [have them] feel a sense of belonging in that space.” His self-interrogations aren’t navel-gazing, but rather attempts at creating a world that is inclusive of misfits and outsiders like himself.
Ever on the lookout for art that creates such spaces, Abrons artistic director Ali Rosa-Salas saw Marsalis and his bandmate, cellist Nicholas John Wetherell, perform in their “Slauson Malone 1” incarnation at the Bowery Ballroom in 2021. “I had long been a fan of the project because of Jasper and Nicky’s courageous experimentation with sound,” she said. “This performance, though, was different than anything I had seen from Jasper — or at Bowery for that matter. Jasper is a beautiful mover, and guided the audience through simple but effective choreography in the venue that challenged what folks were expecting to experience at a concert.” Excited by what she saw at the concert venue, Rosa-Salas invited Marsalis bring the "Slauson Malone 1" performance piece into a theatrical context.
Marsalis, a vowed opponent of hierarchy — “It’s so boring to have a vertical organization of the world … then you have to eliminate so many people from your heart” — hopes to subvert it with his “Stone Breakers” piece. “The flatness of performance is similar to painting [in that] all the humans are staring in one direction,” he said. “I hope that over time, with me exploring performance, people will start looking backwards or to the side or something.”
New perspectives and new ways of being are exactly what Marsalis’s work invites, according to Taja Cheek, a fellow fine-art and music-world straddler who performs as L’Rain. “In general, I’m interested in artists that invite us into brand new worlds, worlds that allow me to see our own spinning planet with fresh new eyes,” Cheek wrote in a message. “I really like to see Jasper negotiating these things in public. I think it’s brave, and for me, purely on a sonic/performance level, it’s exciting and surprising in a time where most things I’m told should excite and surprise me just bore me to death. Many artists are performing ‘GeNrE-dEfYiNg’ music that is in actuality just run-of-the-mill pop music, but they’re wearing ‘edgy’ clothes. But thank God we have Jasper.”
All of this engagement with oneself and the world across mediums is no easy task, but Marsalis’s love for people and expression make it worthwhile. “I feel a real, serious sense of power from being able to exist in not one universe — it allows me to retain some sense of agency in these power structures,” he said.
“But it’s not fun!” Marsalis added. “I’m learning that it’s really twice the work.”
"Slauson Malone 1: The Stone Breakers" will be presented at Abrons Arts Center on Saturday, Sept. 24 at 8 p.m; abronsartscenter.org
Correction: In an earlier version of this article, the name of the venue Abrons Arts Center was misspelled.