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Blu Bone Hi Cotton press shot 2
Photography Blu Bone and Nik Nerburn

Blu Bone, the world-building artist forging music from the swamps

Fresh off the release of his new EP Hi Cotton, the artist talks musical inspirations, astrological placements, and the swamp monster-deity at the centre of his project

There’s an old Vine video from the mid-2010s, and in it are two young women, both Black and from America’s Deep South. In the 15-second clip, the woman who’s holding the camera starts to belt out an apparently earnest rendition of Sam Cooke’s civil rights anthem “A Change Is Gonna Come”, but quickly flips the lyrics, chanting “I was born by the river, I was shaking that ass, bend it over, popping pussy, we was making that cash”. The second woman dances energetically in the background until they both collapse into laughter, no longer able to finish their song.

“River”, the groove-laden third track on Blu Bone’s new EP Hi Cotton, references both Cooke’s original and its Vine descendent, rapping the line “Born by the river, we was shaking that ass” across the song’s chorus. “The Sam Cooke song, it’s very melancholy,” says Blu Blone in a conversation over Zoom, “very melodramatic. But ‘we were shaking that ass’ – that’s like, we were wild, we were free. We just don’t give a fuck. There’s resistance in us shaking our ass and living our life. Having pride in that and chanting that, I feel like it’s a lot of power there.”

The artist speaks with an unlaboured sense of ease despite the fact Hi Cotton is the product of half a decade’s work. “This is an independent release”, he tells me, “I’ve been working on it for five years. All of the visual material, all of the rollout content I’m producing myself.”

While creating the universe of the record, Blu researched Minstrel era images of Black people, ones that were coded as indigenous or grotesque. “I feel like the real poison of those images is that it got us as Black people to have an aversion to all of these things, like indigeneity, supposed ‘savagery’ coded as Africanness,” he explains. “Hi Cotton is all about taking that power back and really embracing the monstrosity of it all, because we live in a monstrous world.”

In the conversation below, the musician talks about his Minnesota upbringing, creating the Hi Cotton universe, and the one thing he’ll eventually be cancelled for.

Hi Blu Bone! Congratulations on the release of Hi Cotton. What was the inspiration in creating the universe of the project?

Blu Bone: Hi Cotton is an amalgamation of different trickster deities and forces. I thought about, in this very Black, American present, who are these new deities that surface out of mass migration and movement? Hi Cotton was the one that I found. In the folklore that I’ve created, he presides over the Mississippi River. He’d escaped a lynching and ran across the river to flee but was seemingly consumed by an alligator. He then resurfaced from the water as this swamp monster and deity. So as ships of enslaved Black people are travelling up and down the Mississippi River, he’s mutinying and liberating these steamboats. Everyone thinks they die in a mysterious steamboat accident on the river, but they all resurface as these reptilian, hybrid, funky, free, swamp beings. So that’s the worldview and the folklore that I’ve created around this.

How has your Minnesota upbringing inspired you creatively?

Blu Bone: My family’s story really begins in Mississippi. I’m one of the first generations born in Minneapolis [Minnesota]. So, Mississippi is still very fresh for me, in terms of my references, the people I was raised by, all the food I ate at home. I was raised in Minneapolis but when you get home it’s all of this Mississippi culture that’s informing you.

A place like Minneapolis, it isolates you, naturally – it’s the Midwest. You have a lot of people taking that sound from their homes, the rhythm and blues. A lot of their homes are from the South, but it travels up. You see a lot of experimentation with those sounds – it’s still the same bluesy sound, but sometimes a bit more technological. It’s also made in isolation. It’s not made thinking about “oh, let’s pitch this to a record label.” It’s not like you can go down the street to Arista, or to Capitol Records and pitch an album. There’s no Motown in Minneapolis. It’s people just making the things that they want to make, and I think they make cool results.

“Azealia Banks is a witch. I like those who know how to cook in a cauldron. I like those that know how to make a stew” – Blu Bone

Who are your musical inspirations?

Blu Bone: Larry Heard, Busta Rhymes, Missy Elliott. Azealia Banksshe‘s a witch. I like those who know how to cook in a cauldron. I like those that know how to make a stew of things. All of the artists that I’ve named know how to make a stew from sound. Also, as much as it’s sonic, it’s also visual. Azealia takes you to a place and creates a world even if it’s in a really small song. She’s seeing things. It’s cinematic. It’s spellbinding. I will say the same for Missy Elliot and Busta, Andre 3000, Erykah Badu.

I’m also inspired by how an artist works. Because you have to find your own style, but it’s how those artists work that allowed me to think, ‘oh shit this is what I can do with a song’.

So when did you find your own style?

Blu Bone: It’s been a process. I feel like the thing that gives me my greatest voice is my poetry. That’s where I feel the strongest sense of my authorship. The way I work with language, it’s very sermonic. I did a lot of public speaking and Pan African oratorship as a child, so I’ve adopted a lot of these ways of speaking into my lexicon, and I write from places that are very much informed by that.

In terms of sound, I’m a Gemini, so I could go anywhere. I’ve found my sound on Hi Cotton which I will call Hi Cotton sound, and I think the only commitment to a Hi Cotton sound is that it needs to be potent. Whatever I make I want it to be potent, I want it to feel visual, and I want to make you feel things on a physical level. 

When did you first become aware of the power of good music?

Blu Bone: The first album that I couldn’t stop playing was Missy Elliott’s So Addictive. I was probably around three or four years old and I was obsessed with “Get Ur Freak On”. That video used to scare the shit out of me, but I was like, “whoa, where is this at?!” My disbelief is totally suspended and I’m like, three years old. I remember my mom had the CD and we were on a super long bus ride from Texas to Minneapolis, and she had a CD player and I just listened to the album top to bottom. So I was three years old getting my freak on.

What’s your ghost outfit? 

Blu Bone: My ghost outfit would be this two-piece white linen suit that I have. I’m very much on float time. I already kind of feel like a ghost when I wear it. I feel like I could wear it for the rest of my life. It’s just like something your uncle would wear. I’d like to wear that. I feel comfy in it.

What’s the last text you sent?

Blu Bone: ❤️❤️❤️

What’s your star sign and are you a typical one of that star sign? 

Blu Bone: I’m a Gemini. In some ways, I definitely am – creatively, my attitude, the way that I push through the world. But I’m a Cancer rising, so there’s a lot of sensitivity to me, and a softness in spirituality. I’m also a Virgo moon, so I can be just a bit slower moving sometimes, in terms of making life decisions.

What’s your love language?

Blu Bone: My love language is touch.

What would your funeral song be?

Blu Bone: “Salaman” by Toumani Diabaté or “Send It On” by D'Angelo. Probably both.

What adjective would you least like to be described as?

Blu Bone: Thoughtless.

What do you reckon you’re most likely to get cancelled for?

Blu Bone: Reading someone to oblivion! They probably would have deserved it, but I would have taken it to the next level. You know, typical Gemini situation. Very Naomi Campbell, very Azealia. There’s always going to be something with their mouth.

What fictional character do you most relate to and why?

Blu Bone: It would be like between Little Bill and Matilda. Little Bill just because he’s always daydreaming and curious, and I was a bald-headed little Black boy. And Matilda going to the library in the morning, making her own pancakes, being in a crazy family that maybe didn’t quite understand her, in a crazy world that didn’t quite understand her – I think I related a lot to that growing up.

You encounter a hostile alien race and sound is their only mechanism for communication. What song would you play to them to inspire them to spare you and the rest of the human race?

I would play Twinkie Clark “Awesome”. I just think it’s amazing.

Hi Cotton is out now.

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