The Blues Algorithm: Computational Black Creativity

Nettrice Gaskins
4 min readFeb 19, 2024
Me + Bessie Smith + Midjourney

Composers, artists and craftspeople throughout history have relied on patterns and rules as they create. I have been obsessed with the recorded performance of a Blues musician named Bukka White (Booker T. Washington White) who is playing a slide guitar. At intervals, during the break, Bukka stops strumming and hits the guitar like a drum. If you listen closely you can hear repetitive patterns that look something like this:

A-B-A-B-A (on repeat with the guitar slaps as markers of transition)

Bukka White’s performance

This pattern reminds me of Macromedia Director keyframing and the software development ‘design loop’ that, in my book, takes inspiration from the cypher, which has deep, long-standing cultural roots in black culture. A cypher — a circle where people take turns performing — is a form of call-and-response participation (Gaskins 2021; Smitherman 1996).

Call-and-response participation in generative AI (slide)

A “phrase” of creative expression such as a prompt will serve as the “call” or input data that will be “answered” by different phrases (text, images) generated by the app. In generative AI, this phrase refers to the content and style of an image. The response is the tool’s output. For example, text and the style reference option in Midjourney creates consistency in output.

Text prompt + style reference = phrase and Midjourney’s output
Applying style reference to create new output

There is enough variation between images (output) to create something new each time. The same could be said of the blues and the musical genres that came after it, as well as the polyrhythmic visual equivalents in African American quilt making.

Tenuously balancing order and dis-order, these works are held together with an improvisational, visual sampling and mixing that link the quilts to the whole range of African-American aesthetic expression from hip-hop to jazz — an improvisational aesthetic impulse that art historian Robert Farris Thompson calls “The Flash of the Spirit.” — Sheryl Tucker de Vasquez

The ability to recreate and change old patterns was especially important to many African tribes. A break in a pattern symbolized a rebirth in the ancestral power of the creator or wearer. And a break in a pattern also helped keep evil spirits away. Evil is believed to travel in straight lines and a break in a pattern or line confuses the spirits and slows them down. This tradition is highly recognizable in African American improvisation of European American patterns. — Maude Southwell Walhman

D’Angelo, arguably my generation’s James Brown/Marvin Gaye/Prince (but not nearly as prolific) talked with interviewer Nelson Goerge about the creation of “Devil’s Pie,” a song co-written by D’Angelo and hip hop producer DJ Premier. George asks, “It’s a Blues song isn’t it?”

Yeah, it’s kind of like a Blues song. Well, I mean the spirit of the vocals was more like a chain gang or like a field of slaves, in the field picking whatever the f*** master had us picking. And that’s what we’d be singing while we’re picking in the hot f******* sun. — D’Angelo via Red Bull Music Academy (2015)

Maude Southwell Walhman links these threads (the Blues, hip hop/rap and African American quilts) in her book Signs & Symbols. Because of research from Ron Eglash and Audrey Bennett we can liken looping patterns in Blues music and its successive forms to app development. We know that artists such as Prince and DJ Premiere used a Linn LM-1 Drum Computer and beat sampler, respectively, to replicate the polyrhythmic patterns we hear in Blues music or see in quilt patterns.

A variation on the previous style referenced images using Midjourney

Because of the nature of the subject, Midjourney responded with visually polyrhythmic patterns and textures in the head wraps and clothing of the women I prompted with words like Soul or Blues music. I believe the patterns are being generated (perhaps?) from the use of specific words, showing the ability of GenAI to understand the connections. The image variations show the improvisational nature of GenAI art. While the style is consistent from image to image, the content varies. I think this process, as noted by Tucker de Vasquez, lays a foundation for future ideas.



Nettrice Gaskins

Nettrice is a digital artist, academic, cultural critic and advocate of STEAM education.