Blu Bone's 'SWAMP' Is Hip Hop Horror

Blu Bone beckons PAPER into the world of “SWAMP,” a “fever dream Hip Hop Horror monstrosity straight from the mud.”

We caught up with the daring Minneapolis artist, fresh off a series of Hi Cotton live experiences around the world, about his latest release. In Blu’s “visual epic,” as the artist describes it, the swamp monster at its center “stakes claim, and dominion, over every corner of his underwater world.” The visuals are stunning and Blu’s first time doing the whole “sha-bang.” He tells PAPER, “I’m a ballroom kid and I’ve pulled some cute butch queen shit before, but it was time for me to really twist my entire being and elevate.”

The video for “Swamp,” off 2023’s Hi Cotton EP, took years for Blu to conceptualize and execute, as he tells us, alongside creative collaborators Leelaa Guillory and Vincent Martell of VAM STUDIO. The film, sumptuous and lush, also stars artist and cultural preservationist Chipo Kandake, whom Blu says is a “hurricane force.”

Since the release of his Hi Cotton EP, Blu has activated installations of the Hi Cotton Ball everywhere from Minneapolis to Germany. “I began to use Hi Cotton as a way of locating this phenomenal, cultural and spiritual experience of Black indigenous populations across space n’ time.”

You can check out the visuals for “SWAMP,” and read our interview with Blu Bone, below.

What is the larger message behind your album, Hi Cotton?

“Hi Cotton” is a phrase that I heard in my early life around the people who raised me — people that came from the bottom of the Mississippi. It was said during times of celebration, of gathering: ripping laughter and a table of narcotic-like foods. An exclamation of raw, unabashed pleasure, ecstasy and fulfillment. It was strange to me, because what I knew of cotton — being born one of the first generations in Minnesota — was that it was directly tied to our oppression and subjugation, a history of pain and endurance, something that we had fled.This material being conjured up in the room during some of our most beautiful times sparked a curiosity in me.

I began to understand as I grew older, watching the cycles of oppression follow us up from Natchez, Mississippi all the way to Minneapolis, Minnesota. I had a deep realization during the uprisings of 2020: that transmutation of the deathly grief and pain we experienced into ecstasy, and deep radical pleasure, was the technology of survival that we had carried up the river with us. So I began to use Hi Cotton as a way of locating this phenomenal, cultural and spiritual experience of Black indigenous populations across space n’ time. “I grow so high you can’t pick me now.”

Why did it take you so long to produce the video for “SWAMP”?

I first wrote “SWAMP” in 2017 waiting for the train. I’ve been sitting with these words forever. The visual got into motion in 2020 when I linked up with collaborator and peer Lee Laa Guillory to talk about really producing and excavating these images with me. She brought her know how, analytical prowess and visionary muscle to the table, and things began to really multiply. After securing a strong pitch deck, research drawings and prototype shots, we brought in Vincent Martell of VAM STUDIO to execute the production and co-direct alongside me. He brought on DP Kevin Veselka, and production designers Kaden Maloney, and Rachel Cole.

After filming wrapped in October of 2021, I took over a year to edit the video myself — navigating pursuing my MFA at the time, workshopping it with trusted friends and ultimately keeping it close to maintain a visual integrity. I later pulled in artist Sati Vm for the final edit, she has a blessed touch.

How do you think the visual treatment amplifies the message of the track?

“SWAMP” is a fever dream Hip Hop Horror monstrosity straight from the mud. The visual treatment set out to animate the swamp as a womb and a bowel — consuming, gestating and decomposing all that call it home. I narrate the vision as a Swamp Monster Griot taking you on a journey through the intimate nest and habitats, while staking my claim and dominion over every corner of this underwater world. It all becomes a theater set for the bending slide guitar and the boom of my voice turning into many at times. Sharing the screen with me is Chipo Kandake: a hurricane force, dancer, cultural preservationist and filmmaker. Together we tell an ancient, futuristic prophecy between our bodies. I coo my blues into the winding river of Chipo, as we are caught in one another over and over, time and time again, before making our way back to the ocean. Throughout this epic, memories, beast and babies mutate, and in the end all is wedded in black water and mud.

What is the message of “SWAMP”?

“SWAMP” is honoring the spirit of the maroon — those who chose life in the damnable swamps, rather than weather the abuses of the plantation. I began to think about what this position, resistance and way of life looks like in our digital age. In this imagination the song “SWAMP” found me. There were also juxtapositions that came through my research, such as the terroristic practice during chattel slavery of using enslaved infants as alligator bait — in contrast to the prominence and exhalation of the crocodile in many West African and Indigenous traditions as a wise, adaptable, resilient, clever being. This is why I create a visual harmony between the crocodile and the maroon body, using the gator as a chariot for the Black baby — reverse spell work if you will. I look forward to sharing more about this in my forthcoming Hi Cotton Monograph.

What was the process like getting into glam and character?

Getting into glam was a trip, it was my first time doing the whole sha-bang. I mean, I’m a ballroom kid and I’ve pulled some cute butch queen shit before, but it was time for me to really twist my entire being and elevate. I drew my preliminary sketches and pulled my references before looping in my team: makeup artist Mac Do and hairstylist Mo G of Chicago. Together they really helped me to design and animate Hi Cotton as a deity. Lia Perez, also from Chicago, made a whole collection of custom pieces for the shoot. I pulled some pieces from Dauan Jacari for the project, as well. I brought my own big boot though.

Hi Cotton has also served as a series of global installations. Do you plan to bring this music video to life at all?

Yes, The Hi Cotton experience is now international and our next activation will be in our home city of Minneapolis on June 29. The theme this year is BUSH-BABE. So far we’ve installed in Rio De Janeiro, Berlin and Columbus, and are looking to continue our expansion.

Photos courtesy of Blu Bone

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