Florida Violinist Marques Toliver Got His Start Busking in Brooklyn

Marques Toliver was discovered busking on the streets of Brooklyn.
Marques Toliver was discovered busking on the streets of Brooklyn.
Photo by Athos Burez

Marques Toliver was in New York City for one week before he realized he wasn't leaving. The natural-born violinist left his hometown of Daytona Beach on a whim in 2007. He quickly began busking on Williamsburg's trendy street corners, but it was mid-November and the Florida kid didn't even have a coat.

"The woman who worked at the vintage store next to where I was busking comes out and asks if I want to warm up inside," Toliver recalls. "She had heard me play the violin, and she could just see I was genuine and liked what I was doing."

Toliver's talent has always brought him good fortune. Malin Landaeus, the owner of the store, was a cellist and close friends with others in the music industry. One day, Kyp Malone from the band TV on the Radio stopped by the store.

"She told me: 'Kyp wants you to swing by his studio. He has some work for you.'" Toliver spent the next year touring with TV on the Radio as a backing violinist and vocalist. But he never stopped busking.

"Busking was how I was able to work on my personal stuff," the now-28-year-old says. "It was how I was able to hone my singer/songwriter skills."

Almost ten years later, Toliver still exudes magical charisma while performing. In January, he performed at Saint Heron's full-moon Soul Cleansing party at Miami Beach's Standard Hotel. The party was hosted by the goddess herself, Solange Knowles, but Toliver's emotionally charged R&B/classical fusion was the focal point of the night.

He played songs from his album Land of CanAan. The LP was inspired by Underground Railroad songs that abolitionist Frederick Douglass described in his autobiography.

"I grew up hearing it in church a lot, and it spoke to me. I wanted to bring it to life within my album," Toliver says. "I definitely see my music as a voice of the human condition, whether that be a political, humanitarian, or a social approach."

Toliver's 2012 mixtape, Studying for My PhD, combines audio from author James Baldwin, news reports about the 2011 London riots, classical violin, and R&B vocals. The experimental mixtape doesn't feature much of Toliver's own voice, but somehow his personality shines through.

"I was living in Muswell Hill, London, when the London riots had just happened," Toliver remembers. "I was observing what was happening and putting the ideas in my head out in music form. This was my release."

For now, Toliver is back in New York, working in the studio on his next album. In April, he'll compose original music for the Public Theater's Romeo and Juliet.

His show at the Standard was his first South Florida concert, but he hopes to return and possibly live in Miami once he has that "Gloria Estefan money."

Standing in the middle of the Standard's dimly lit lobby/lounge, there wasn't much separating him from the swooning crowd — simply music sheets spread across the floor. As he closed with the Land of CanAan standout track "Control," the crowd joined in singing the melody: "Let the radio keep playing." And as long as it's Marques Toliver who's on, they meant it.


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