The hard worker: An interview with IC hip hop artist Marques “Marq Divine” Brooks

Originally from the Quad Cities, 29-year-old Marques “Marq Divine” Brooks has spent the last fifteen years in Iowa City working day jobs, going to school and rhyming whenever he can find the time. He released a music video for his track “Study Hall” last month, produced by Cedar Rapids’ Wes Ferguson of Finger N Thumb films, and recently spoke with Little Village about the video’s production, his music and the broader Midwest hip hop scene.

“To me, [Ferguson] seemed like he was the most open as far as ideas go, so that’s kind of how ‘Study Hall’ came along,” Brooks said. “School is definitely one of my strong points. I’ve done it all on my own, so that struggle, going through a college and university without the support, without the family looking out, kind of made me experienced in being independent. That’s where the song comes into play.”

Brooks is aware of the sort of baggage that can come with being an Iowa-based hip hop artist of color. He’s lived it his entire life, and much of his music explores these topics in a way that’s both authentic and unfiltered. He’s not the only hip hop artist in Iowa City by any means, but his sentiments carry a certain kind of wisdom that’s otherwise uncommon. It’s the kind of wisdom that’s borne out of experience. The kind that can’t be taken in through a sound system or television set.

He says much of his music is a response to skewed perception, or rather, to those who’ve only ever looked at Brooks as a troublemaker.

“Being looked at as someone who wasn’t going to make it. I’ve definitely been told that, and people kind of looked at me throughout my years, being in Iowa City, as if I wasn’t going to make it — that I was a troublemaker or whatever you want to call it,” he said. “It gets a little rough and discouraging. You kind of sit back and look at other people, and they have families and things like that. And you think, wow, I don’t have that, you know? So I had to stick with music to get my mind off that.”

Brooks admits that his reputation, in part, comes from the decisions he made as a teenager. With his mother on drugs, he lost his chance for a normal upbringing and found himself heading down a troublesome path.

“I feel like back when I was younger I constantly kept getting into things,” Brooks admits. “I kept going in the wrong direction, and I was very down on myself, and I didn’t really care about a lot of things. I feel like a lot of opportunities I didn’t have, like a normal person would … I came from crack, weed, liquor, mourning family members dying off left and right — stuff like that … That shit can turn you either the right way or the wrong way, and with me, I knew where I was going. I knew how I was feeling, and I didn’t want to feel like that anymore.”

Brooks grew up, and devoted himself to school and music to help drown out the problems at home. And although things would eventually improve for Brooks, his reputation still preceded him. It’s a continuing point of frustration for the hip hop artist, but one that fuels his music.

“People would come up to me like, ‘Oh, I didn’t think you were going to do anything,’ and well, I understand that, but you need to give me a chance to evolve. I was young then, I’m a man now, and it’s different,” Brooks said. “I would hope that you would think that things change, but a lot of people are kind of stuck in one mind frame. That’s where that perception comes into play.”

So, how does that perception manifest for Brooks?

“Honestly, it’s more subliminal than direct,” he said. “Before I shake a person’s hand, they may look at me think that I’m not ‘doing anything’ or that I’m a trouble maker, but then once you sit down and get to know me, like anyone else, you would think, ‘Oh, I didn’t expect that from him.'”

What motivates Brooks in both his music and studies isn’t fame and fortune, but rather, the harsh reminders of ‘what could be,’ that he sees while walking around town. Upon spotting a homeless person, one’s typical reaction might range from empathy to anger. For Brooks, the reality is much more grim.

“I see homeless people out on the street all the time, and that’s another wake up call for me,” he said.

“I’m not trying to be Drake or Lil Wayne or nothing in that aspect of music, but I want to have a career. I want to have my things together. I want to be able to take care of my family and not have to worry about the financial hardship. I’ve done that shit in the past. It’s very draining, it’s not positive, and its not all about money, but you need those things to survive in this world.”

Brooks says this is all about “Waking your ass up.”

“It’s very scary. Most people, if I explain that to them, they’re not going to pay attention to it. They aren’t trying to hear that. They’ll say ‘You preachin,'” Brooks said. “People that only know hustling, what are they going to do after they can’t hustle anymore? What, you’re going to get a job? You had all that time to get a job because you were supposed to — that’s how life works — but you didn’t do that. You decided to go a route that wasn’t very successful for you, and now what? Now you’re homeless and one of these guys out on the street.”

Brooks says that this thought process is much of what drives his music. He sees practicing his craft as a kind of challenge. He knows he can make a track. He knows he can make a song and put it on Youtube, but for Brooks, the message is what’s important.

He admits that the ability to create a catchy song, to capture the “now,” is what sells in the contemporary music industry, but that’s not what he’s striving for. Brooks sees this music as short-lived and disposable — a far cry from the lyrical style hip hop that inspired him as a kid, growing up and listening to Wu-Tang.

“Everybody else is doing pop music. Okay, that’s cool, but how are you getting ahead?” Brooks said. “How are you guys getting ahead when it’s not anything that people can relate to? Not everybody goes to the club to pop bottles, but a person can relate to being depressed. Everybody gets depressed at times.”

The problem, according to Brooks, is that “As long as it’s catchy, that’s what people will focus on.” Short attention spans rule the day, and most people just want to hear something they can soak in for a few seconds, get the hook down and then pass off, he says.

“I have conversations with people all the time and they’re like, man, the lyrics don’t mean shit. It’s the hook and the beat,” he said. “But once again, I’m not going to focus my all into that hook just to get somebody to like my track. That’s kind of selling yourself short, I think. All the time that people spend in the studios, all the hours to come up with a song that’s only going to be hot for six months? Okay, cool, and maybe my music’s like that, but I want to be someone who’s remembered for years. I don’t want to be that guy who’s remembered for a year for making that one hit song.”

To find out more about Brooks, check out his page on SoundCloud.

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