Ebony Bones is finding truth and beauty in a messed up world
South London-born Ebony Bones, has always made punk infused hip-hop and rock tracks that aren’t afraid to break down genre barriers. Her newest release, Nephilim is cinematic electronic-pop that uses musical collaborations and political themes as a means of uniting different cultures.
Bones' confrontational, antagonistic punk infused-classical-pop and no nonsense persona gave me clammy palms head of out interview - I had no doubt that she would eat me for breakfast. But within her work there are clues to her true character: from a preoccupation with childhood innocence and her subsequent collaboration with youth choirs to her passion for working with artists from a variety of backgrounds - notably the Beijing Philharmonic Orchestra on her new album Nephilim. This is an artist who has an incredible sensitivity and whose work and passions are close to her heart.
When we first speak, one of things I notice most about Bones is her passion for using music as a means of social cohesion. "I thought it was important to speak my truth creatively," she tells me. "I’ve gone into this industry to express myself and to bring people together. We can say we are more alike than unalike, I might be from Brixton, you might be from Beijing but we have a common ground and that is music. I think when you come from a place of love...that resonates with people as that is one of the ultimate human truths."
Brixton-born but raised by Caribbean parents, Bones is one of many whose wold was shaken by the majority vote to leave the European Union in the summer of 2016. Nephilim was written during the Brexit results, and had Bones fleeing to Tokyo in order to step back and write about what she was seeing and experiencing at the time. "I had noticed this emergence of nationalism post-Trump and post-Brexit which made me feel like an outsider," she says. "At first there’s a feeling of dread that the country you’ve been born into doesn’t recognise you as its own based on your demographic but at the same time you can use that feeling of otherness to create something magical, so it pushed me out of my circumference, and I think life is all about that - stepping out of your circumference to become something people never expected."
Many will already be familiar with the album's lead single "No Black In the Union Jack" which opens with Enoch Powell’s Rivers of Blood speech over pounding electronic beats. It has Bones staring at her messed-up homeland right in the face, calling it out on a history of quiet oppression and subtle silencing of people of colour. "I don’t I feel like a citizen in the UK at the moment," she explains, "and I don’t think I’m the only person that feels that way currently, it’s not always expressed because I think people of colour who are british, sometimes their stories are not always heard in the same way that african americans are documented in America. Many of my peers had no idea of the existence of the rivers of blood speech. People had no idea that this is what the tory party felt about people of colour in the U.K that if they didn’t get rid of them that the UK would become as multicultural as America."
"There’s a feeling of dread that the country you’ve been born into doesn’t recognise you as its own based on your demographic but at the same time you can use that feeling of otherness to create something magical."
Although propelled by the rise in nationalism, the creation of her new record is grounded in an innate love for England. Bones made sure to not shy aware from the darker side of her home, feeling she needed to understand the reason for the racial xenophobia and hate baked into England’s history: "I spent time researching those lyrics, infiltrating the BNP twitter profiles, seeing what was being said, and these were real opinions and how people honestly felt, the beliefs, that I have expressed in that track were their incentive for leaving the EU and given the U.K’s history of colonising its insane but this is where we are." She adds, "You can use fear in a good way though, to create something that is based out of love. In the song, 'No Black In The Union Jack', it’s a critique but I reserve the right to critique the UK because I love the country, I really think there are amazing, magical things about it, London in particular, there’s only New York really that has the same multiculturalism and those things needs to be celebrated.
"But deep down, really I felt very unsettled with things when I was writing the album, what with children being separated from their parents and the wind rush situation that affected members of my own family, and because of that I started thinking about one of my favourite books, Do Androids Dream of Human Sheep by Philip K. Dick. He implemented what it means to be human in a huge way, it speaks about empathy and how one of the main things that constitutes being human is compassion and empathy and I was questioning whether that still stands today."
Nephillism is a soundtrack to the dark underbelly of the modern world with haunting and vast string arrangements, akin to being swept up by the horrifying drama of a disturbing piece of dystopian cinema. Bones holds up a mirror to all manners of horrors - from knife crime to neo-colonialism. There are even tales of the pitfalls of consumerism, such as in "Kids Of Coltanft", where she explores the relationship between child slave labour and capitalism: "It wasn’t something I was made aware of until I did some research and realised that this mineral, that the entire world is run of, is mined in Congo, deep underground where only young children could reach…We live in a world now where we can’t communicate without devices, computer or phone or electronic cars. I just think with consumer pressures we can find other alternatives that don’t involve child labour. If you look at the companies that are using this these are multi-trillion companies they can find another way."
I ask her if there is a deep desire within her to answer all the problems in the world - to maybe somehow make a tiny change via her music? "Writing for me is therapy, I don’t have the answers but I’m always up for answering questions," she replies. "What the best music does is ask questions about society or is a reflection of what is happening at that time. With culture - whether it be music or fashion - they are meant to be reflections of society but again, I can’t find a more conservative time in art when we look at what we are going through right now. This isn’t to say that all music should have some political or societal message but things feel very vacuous in the mainstream world at the moment. Politics just doesn’t equate to profit."
"If I can’t authentically express myself in the way that I want to then there’s no point...only a fool goes into this industry to make money."
There few musicians making such bold political statements as herself and this is due to her one track mind, determination and refusal to agree to anything that's not in keeping with her vision. Would she would she be able to make such confrontational, honest music if she were not to produce her own work?
"Speaking truth to power can be a tricky thing," she says. "I’m an independent artist, I run my own record label, I have creative power over what I sing and talk about, but I can see how other artists may not be encouraged by their record labels. For me going into any creative industry using the medium of sound if I can’t authentically express myself in the way that I want to then there’s no point in being involved in that industry whatsoever. Only a fool goes into this industry to make money. Although there are many perks for being on a record label I’m not sure I would want to sacrifice my expression for that."
I ask her if she thinks fear - fear of judgement; of upsetting people, or of higher political powers - is why some artists refrain from speaking directly about politics? "Maybe there’s a self censorship that artists are going through where we monitor what we say and fear does that it makes us monitor what we say, it silences us in strange ways, and the only way to find a safe space for me was within my music, which is why it was important for me to not just compose my music but to produce it, so that I could feel safe.’
"There's such a low percentage of female music producers...which should be a huge concern for anyone who believes in dignity of thought."
Only five percent of female producers make up up the modern music industry today. Alongside the likes of Grimes and Linda Perry, Bones has spoken out about the difficulties that women face and how their point of view has a tendency to be over-shadowed and dictated by the patriarchy. She tels me that she grew up listening to self- produced female artists such as Kate Bush and always knew that she would aim to write and produce her own work so that she could create a singular, uncompromised vision.
"Of course you notice the difference in artists work such as Lauryn Hill and Kate Bush because it approached different themes," she explainbs. "These are themes that could only come from a woman with her own will, doing her own thing. A producer is like an architect, they select the song, they lead into a particular direction and lead the sound, and with that since there’s such a low percentage of female music producers, it means that there is only one leading voice that decides what music gets made and what music we all hear, so all the music you are informed by is only created by one dominant voice which should be a huge concern for anyone who believes in dignity of thought."
In coming from a punk/DIY-musical background, Ebony Bones has further pushed the boundaries of a woman’s place in music, particularly when it comes to genres such as classical music or rock ’n’ roll, where women have been previously under-represented. It's a way of breaking down barriers in music, she tells me, and the the idea of working with the Bejing Philharmonic Orchestra is very much about "entering spaces that I know as a woman of colour that I might not be welcome in....[classical music] is an art form that is for and about white males. I don’t think certain genres allow themselves that inclusion, so I deliberately put myself in those spaces and pick collective individuals who might not fit the stereotype. Music is one of the only things that can galvanise people into action."
In a similar vein to her heroes X-Ray Spex and The Slits, Bones refuses to stick to the musical worlds or genres she feels she knows best and aims to make the best music possible by always pushing herself into unknown, slightly unnerving territory: "I’m always learning as I go along but you must not be afraid to take-up spaces that you otherwise would not be welcome in."
She is is an artist that refuses to play by any rules too, refusing efforts to take "No Black In The Union Jack" off Nephilim for fear of it hurting sales. "I wasn’t in a place where I was willing to compromise myself in that way," she says. "Maybe ten years ago I would have, but now that I’m in my third decade of life, I’m a bit like ‘fuck you.’"
She adds with a laugh, "I mean, I’m only going to have this audacity for so long, so I might as well use it."