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Backed by a Live Band, The Bleus Goes Live with New Project

'Forgive Me, I Need That!' marks a transformation from solo hip-hop to three-piece neo-soul jazz

The Bleus
Local hip-hop and neo-soul artist, The Bleus (Photo by Angel Butler)

On the inside of Makayla Henderson’s right arm is a tattoo made up of 12 straight lines — four crossing the bicep, four crossing the forearm, then four more moving vertically across the ditch, connecting the first eight like a bridge.

While the symbolism of a bridge is somewhat fitting for how Henderson sees the tattoo, she likes to think of it more as a grid.

“It’s like the intersections of life, right?” she explained, showing me the tattoo while we sat in Waterbean Coffee at the Metropolitan on a February afternoon. “We’re on a grid, if you will, and we’re just all pinging on and bouncing into each other, and it’s really interesting and really fun.”

For Henderson, a local hip-hop and neo-soul artist who performs as The Bleus, those pings are what keep her moving through cities and scenes, adding new members to her tribe and creating new sounds through connection and collaboration.

From the time when she left the rural towns where she grew up in Bear Creek and Siler City to attend Winston-Salem State University, where she first found a creative circle she fit into, to when she arrived in Charlotte and subsequently formed the Indigo Music Collective, The Bleus has always fed off of the vibes of human connection.

“I feel like for each point in your life, you gain tribe members, because you might grow apart from people, but there are certain connections within those times where you really make people like your family,” she said. “So through all the different stages of my life, there are people who are truly family to me.”

Now for the first time, that family has taken the form of a band, with The Bleus transitioning from solo hip-hop act to a three-piece jazz-R&B outfit. Their new project, Forgive Me, I Need That!, is set to drop on Feb. 22.

With Henderson on vocals over King Noli’s keys and Drum Smoke’s drums, the three-track EP blends the sounds of funk, alternative R&B and pop built on a foundation of improvisational jazz.

The Bleus will headline a show at Petra’s on March 13 with Charlotte multidisciplinary artist and soul singer Wild Recluse and local lyricist Tecoby Hines rounding out the bill.   

Henderson said performing with a live band has reinvigorated her love for making music.

“The connection that we have … when we get together in this mode, it’s like an atmosphere that we create, and unbeknownst to us, it changes every time because of the way that we’re feeling in the moment; sometimes we’re feeling creepier, sometimes we feel sexier,” she said. “It literally just goes wherever it wants to go.”

The Bleus’ journey through music

The daughter of a touring drummer, Henderson grew up in a musical household, regularly finding new inspiration through her family.

Her mother bought her a piano while her father put her on to a mix of artists ranging from James Brown to Jimi Hendrix to Tracy Chapman. She learned to harmonize by downloading songs from LimeWire and singing them at the kitchen desk with her older sister, who eventually introduced her to hip-hop.

She moved from Winston-Salem to Charlotte in 2014, launching The Indigo Music Collective, with which she performed as Bleu. When some members of the collective began branching out into other fields, Henderson focused more on her solo career, rebranding as The Bleus.

The Bleus onstage in 2018.

Her music as a solo performer could be described as a mix of hip-hop and R&B with heavy Latin and reggae inspirations — dance music with a dose of conscious lyricism and spirituality.

She released her debut EP, Backseat Kissing God, in 2019, with single “Honey” becoming a standout from that four-track project.

She followed that up in 2021 with the release of “Sumn Like This,” a dance track featuring vocals from Jamaican-American Charlotte artist Likkle Slave. With the backing of Canadian DJ and producer BAMBii, the single exceeded 60,000 streams, delivering The Bleus’ sound to an international audience.

Then things began to shift sonically for The Bleus, who happened upon some opportunities to perform with live musicians while out performing in Charlotte.

She remembers the first show with King Noli (whom she calls K Noli, pronounced Canoli) and Drum Smoke being an impromptu collaborative gig at The Frame, a photo studio and creative space on Monroe Road in southeast Charlotte.

Makayla Henderson
Makayla Henderson, better known as The Bleus (Photo by Angel Butler)

The trio adapted “Honey” to be played on live instruments rather than a backing track and were happy with the results, so they continued performing it.

“Every time we played [‘Honey’], it got more and more elegant, more elevated, and so we were like, ‘Alright, we need to record this,’” she recalled.

During that time, the group played a show at The Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture, for which they brought on a guitarist and improvised a new song out of thin air.

“K Noli was playing something on the piano, and my friend Jalen was playing the guitar, and it was so creepy, and I just started singing this song,” Henderson recalled. “Eventually we just kept doing it over and over again because it felt so good to sing. It felt good for them to play. It was like this big release of energy.”

That song became “Patience,” which wraps Forgive Me and now The Bleus’ live shows as well.

“Now people know it because if you come to my shows, that’s the song at the end,” Henderson said. “That’s the one that kicks everybody in the ass because it’s just very powerful.”

Freedom in improvisation

Despite that experience with “Patience,” Henderson insists the group has never actually taken part in a jam session, per se, only improvised rehearsals and performances.

The second track on Forgive Me, I Need That!, titled “Three Damn Days,” has gone through multiple transitions since the EP was recorded, said Henderson.

The dreamlike song is about … well, dreams. Written by Henderson seven years ago, the song discusses the struggle of wanting the person of your dreams to exist in real life, then having to come to terms with the fact that they don’t exist in that perfect embodiment — or perhaps at all.

local hip-hop and neo-soul artist, The Bleus
The Bleus (Photo by Angel Butler)

The group’s experience with performing the song is indicative of the elusive nature of its content.

“The past two times that we’ve played it, we’ve changed the sound of it completely,” Henderson explained. “It doesn’t even sound at all like the original, which is actually pretty slow. It’s super jazzy. And then one time we started bouncing back and forth from doing super upbeat jazz to very wine-and-dine — strolling-with-your-wife type of jazz — and it just keeps bouncing back and forth, oscillating. So I really love that.”

The improvisational nature of the group has transformed the way Henderson looks at making music. There’s a certain freshness to the music in knowing that every performance — and even the recording of Forgive Me, I Need That! — is one take from one moment in time and the next time will be different.

The experience has freed up her lyrical process. Rather than spend time listening to tracks by producers and trying to see how she can fit her own feelings onto an existing beat, she is able to have a deeper collaboration with the musicians she works with.

“I feel like, before, I tried to plan everything as far as, if I said this word on this beat, I needed to say it on that beat every time or whatever, and now it’s just like we’re free-flowing,” she said.

“I think that’s one of the things that not only makes me different from my past self but different from other artists; a lot of them kind of restrict themselves to only playing it the same way because that’s what the fans want, which is annoying. At this point I’m trying to break that habit forcefully, because you don’t have a choice. I love [my fans] still, and I appreciate their support, but this is our music and this is what we want to do and you’re either going to love it or you’re going to hate it, but it’s going to make you feel something.”

The Bleus performs with Wild Recluse and Tecoby Hines at Petra’s on March 13.

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