Artist Spotlight: Danielle Mastrion
Shayfer James: The Music in the Mural
Singer-songwriter Shayfer James is cultivating community through creative collaboration
In a society that is readily conforming to more impersonal methods of establishing and maintaining personal connections, singer-songwriter Shayfer James is using his artistic vision to turn the tide in an altogether different direction.
Born in Mountainside, New Jersey and raised throughout several towns in the surrounding areas, James now calls Jersey City his home. It’s a place with an attractive blend of contemporary urban flavor and classic unassuming charm that seems to accurately describe James’ disposition.
As we casually strolled through his neighborhood to admire the various textures of the cityscape, it wasn’t long before I began to appreciate how much the environment itself could serve as a wellspring of inspiration. For James, that appreciation ultimately evolved into a desire to explore a more meaningful way of truly connecting with not only his environment but the people in it—laying the foundation for what is now known as “March of Crows.”
MOC is an innovative, community-based, collaborative project involving a variety of talented local artists that merges the provocative allure of visual art with the poetic essence of songwriting. Just a couple of weeks ahead of MOC 2017, I had the pleasure of speaking with James at length about the development of his craft, the nature of his creative process for MOC, and the motivation behind this bridge-building movement for the creative community in Jersey City and abroad.
So you’re a singer, a songwriter, and a musician. Of the three, speaking of craft, which would you say defines you first and foremost?
“I guess writing.”
So that’s the nucleus of it all.
“Yea, I enjoy it and it serves multiple purposes in my life. Performing is a great outlet. Singing is something that I do enjoy very much and it’s sort of been a natural part of me but the writing has many levels of importance.”
When did you realize you had a respect for the craft of writing in particular?
“I think I became interested in it late high-school, [but] around 25 is when I really realized there was something to it that wasn’t just, you know, playing at bars and getting drunk and being a musician.”
So it became less about the lifestyle that people usually attach to the craft and became something more.
“Yea, there was actually something in me that it spoke to and I started feeling like I could do better and start challenging myself more to do things that were out of my comfort zone.”
Speaking of doing things out of your comfort zone and challenging yourself—March of Crows. Let’s talk about the name. Where did that come from?
“So this area of Jersey City that we’re walking through right now is called ‘Harsimus Cove.’ And the best Lenape (referring to the tribe of Native Americans that first occupied the territory] translation of the word ‘Harsimus’ is ‘crows marsh.’”
“I wanted to use street art as a way to relate better to the city”
Oh wow, so we’re getting into linguistics.
“Yea, so I thought it would be interesting to do a play where I just changed the word ‘marsh’ to ‘march’ since it felt community-based and the project is community-based.”
What inspired you to do an interdisciplinary project and why did you choose street art as your muse?
“Well I started this last year so this is the second time I’m doing it but [in 2016] it was based on paintings and photographs and I started working on it for very personal reasons. I had just moved to Jersey City and I sort of needed a way to connect and I’m initially not very good at that without art as a transmitter so I reached out to the artists and the event last year was a huge success. But now [for 2017] I felt like I wanted to use street art as a way to relate better to the city and to actually walk around and go to areas of the city that I really don’t spend much time [in]. When you go through these neighborhoods and you look at the art and you look at how the art is happening and where these artists chose to do some of these murals and start to do a little research into the history of these spots, it’s fascinating. You learn a lot.”
Looking at the project as a whole, what do you ultimately want to achieve with “March of Crows?”
“For me it’s passion, it’s connection, and it’s collaboration with people I otherwise wouldn’t have any access to. I would be really interested in taking it as a sort of case study to other cities. That’s something I’ve thought about.”
That could be huge.
“Yea, like going to another city, planting yourself there, and doing this in a community. Because I knew people when I moved here but I didn’t have very many close friends here so I sort of just dropped in and started doing this stuff…and how it’s connected me to the community has been amazing so I wonder if it would be the same experience in other cities…if you could help other people in their process by just doing that and giving them a platform to connect.”
That’s a beautiful thing man. I certainly hope that’s the course it takes and I hope the spirit of this project reaches far and wide.