Rashaad Newsome by Richard J. Goldstein

Through his hip hop baroque style, Rashaad Newsome exposes how language is shared between cultures and across time. At the core of this, he articulates the relationship between gesture and language as an issue of abstracted identity in conversation with Richard Goldstein.

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Work table in Rashaad Newsome’s studio. All photos by Richard J. Goldstein.

A cross between a taser and a Burroughs-esque bug, there isn’t a better icebreaker than our digital recorders. So many interviews usually start huddled around the recorder where people joke about the contraption and which button to push. Rashaad Newsome cracked up as I placed the recorder on his desk. “Did you ever see Nightmare on Elm Street 4?” he asked. I hadn’t, neither had I seen 1, 2, or 3. “It looks exactly like the device the nerd girl made.” He went on to tell me that as the movie progresses and Freddy’s teenage victims disappear, each one leaves something behind. When the “nerd girl” vanishes, she leaves behind her recorder which is eventually used to kill Freddie with sound waves emitted from the device.

It isn’t just because of the recorder that I have to see the film, but because of the great Sinead O’Connor song on Elm Street 4‘s soundtrack. According to Newsome the music video, with it’s blue screen spiraling flowers and floating limbs, is even better than the song. He swears that it’s just like a Pipilotti Rist video. Put Your Hands On Me is a masterpiece mash-up of Sinead, MC Lyte, with a whisper of Pipilotti. In that sense, Elm Street 4, however vicariously, was a lot closer to Newsome’s studio than I ever would have imagined.

Richard Goldstein I brought something for you.

Rashaad Newsome “Bling” letters! “Letters And Numbers In Gold.”

RG It was in my studio and I always wanted to make a necklace out of it, a kind of grill thing, but never got around to it.

RN Maybe I can use it somehow. Oh and they’re stickers, too. That would be really neat to put on a piece…you might have changed something in here today.

RG It brings issues of language and style together, just like your work. Whether it’s vogue or with the collages, it’s a language of identity the speaking self.

To me, your language is quite baroque, but at the same time kind of minimal like in the Shade Compositions performances you bring it down to a sound byte—you reduce it.

RN But then, visually it’s very baroque in terms of the movement that’s happening.

RG So, where do you locate it for yourself?

RN I think somehow it rests between both. I also think abstraction is a part of that conversation; too, you know what I mean? Take The Conductor for instance, it’s a work of abstraction that reduces the statistics from public radio to retain only information which is relevant for the purpose of conducting and creating something wholly contemporary and new. There’s a long history of artists using collage to achieve abstraction, and I think that would be a continuous thread running through my work. Collage in a broad sense, whether that is using cut paper, mass marketed materials, sound bytes, video, or gestures.

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Rashaad Newsome, detail of frame for Status Symbols #33, 2010, collage on paper, custom-made frame, 33 × 66”.

RG Thinking more about abstraction, it puts a lot of stock in the language of gesture. Can you talk a bit about the relationship between gesture and language in your work?

RN Body language is a very universal language. When you go somewhere and you don’t know the language you resort to body language or gesture. So, being universal, it’s a very abstract language. I’m very much interested in the particular body language that I’m using in the piece because it is something so stigmatized as something from the ghetto or lower class; however, it’s something that is totally a part of contemporary pop culture through the internet, films, music videos, etcetera. And in my own ethnographic research, through my travels doing the Shade Compostions screen tests, it’s evident that body language is used by people globally. And what’s also interesting…is that what’s considered this stereotypical body language of African-American and Latina women is also the stereotypical body language of gay males globally. This weekend at P.S.1, it’s my first time putting guys in the piece on stage. No matter where you are, the language of what one would consider a queen or a very effeminate male is often times the same as the African-American Woman or Latina. We use that type of body language, and I think that is interesting in terms of ownership. You know what I mean? But actually what people don’t know is the videos that I mix during the live performance—the women that you see saying Oh and Gag and Don’t try it—the voice is actually a male voice.

RG Dubbed over.

RN Yeah, the women, from various countries, are lipsynching to it, the voice of a gay male. So that was the first step in Shade. In the intro video to the performance at the Kitchen, I was paying homage to that part of my research. It starts out with a camera panning over what appears to be a very beautiful woman and when it zooms out you see that it’s a transgender person performing these gestures. Then she looks down from the screen above the stage to the women performers and the performance starts.

RG What you were saying about ownership of language is really interesting. Who shares it?

RN Yeah this is all part of the conversation. And I don’t necessarily have the answers, which I think is what’s interesting. I’m just posing the questions and starting that conversation in a contemporary way.

RG Something that happened in Shade is that time stretches. Time stretched for me—you loose sense of time because it’s really focused. Is there a breaking point or moment of ecstasy you reach through the endurance?

RN Maybe we should ask my assistant Rebecca. She’s been practicing for the Shade performance this weekend. There is a lot of endurance involved, right? Do you think that when you get to a certain point, you are just in a trance?

Rebecca O’Keefe Yeah, because you forget how long you’ve been doing it for. We could rehearse for five minutes, but it could seem like an hour. Once we get started, I don’t want it to end; I want it to go longer, and I think that’s why you added more to it.

RN There’s also a certain synergy that happens when we’re rehearsing because you have all these different people on the stage that didn’t really know each other before, and they’re all given these gestures to perform. They start doing it and then so many other things happen on the stage. You see the performers, creating their own narratives around their gesture. Sometimes competition comes into it, and people start battling suddenly. Your natural reaction is to be uncomfortable and laugh but the performers don’t break. Once I start taking samples, the performance starts to become more of a piece of music. Then people start to feel this rhythm and this beat and it really starts to go somewhere else, especially when everybody is in synch. I always experience the piece from a conductor’s standpoint, and there’s this moment when it really transcends its particular gestural language…it just becomes something abstract. The repetition of the sound, the beats coming in and out, the people creating their narratives on the stage, the movements that happen. It can be very hypnotizing.

p(q). RG The similar transformation happens in your Elyssian Fields video but in the context of a black church. You were just talking about each performer being a part of this larger group, much as the coats of arms represent one person. In the syntax of heraldic language there are ties to the family and community—expressing the individual but in a broader sense, so I think your work is…

RN …representing a broader community? Definitely. In many ways my works function as cultural amalgams expressing my issues having to do with race, class, gender, and sexuality that are somehow bound to identities that are more restrained than myself. In a sense I’m trying to make work that is unrestrained by the suffocating and outmoded standards prototypically associated with class, race, wealth, gender, sexuality, and art.

My attraction to Heraldry is the beauty of the details but also to the visual hierarchy they imposed on the viewer. This led me to research heraldry, which is a system of identification tailored to individual families, and a new formal direction of blending historical materials with highly contemporary ones. Each of the collages marries the elaborate architectures of historical authority with today’s cultural emblems of power. In true 21st century fashion, and in the hip-hop tradition of self-invention, I sample elements of history that best serve my purpose in creating personal narratives. In a way, each piece is a self-portrait, probing the fluid nature of identity today. It is a position that recognizes and celebrates the successes of the past while borrowing unapologetically and enthusiastically to create new futures.

They are, to me, moving away from collage and becoming more painterly. In the first show, I was really interested in heraldry and recreating these 17th and 18th century coats of arms from Europe using contemporary material. Then, I stopped working from images that existed already and started to develop my own language of heraldry. I started to extend what was happening in those pieces to the page and started to create these elaborate backgrounds. Then I decided to continue that extension to the frame, taking off the moldings of these 17th century frames, and replacing them with casts of “Bling” jewelry. They first read as antique frames, but when you get close you see the dollar sign, the New York Yankees insignia, and the microphone. I’m pushing the frame even further for the current show at Ramis. I collaborated with an automotive shop and using paint associated with luxury cars, often seen in music videos.

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Rahsaad Newsome, detail of frame for Venus de Video, 2010.

RG To get that iridescence.

RN Yes that blue is actually Ferrari Powder Blue and Ferrari White with a pearlescent finish to it.

RG All the companies have their special signature colors.

RN Yes, this could be a modern day version International Klein Blue. This one, is going to be painted with candy paint. Candy paint is amazing! It’s an additive for paint with these light flakes of metal in it that really make the paint sparkle.

RG Wow, it has a real depth to it.

RN Hip Hop culture and the Baroque era are both reference points for me. When you go to Versailles and you go into the Hall of Mirrors, that is really “bling,” you know! (laughs) I’m trying to show how these things mirror each other.

RG Where are you collaging the pieces from? What are your sources, what magazines?

RN Some are from magazines, some are from auction house catalogues, hip hop magazines, the Internet, and ads that I find in various places.

RG What was it like growing up in New Orleans.

RN It was interesting, especially the time that I spent in the French Quarter and its surviving 18th century architecture. I am sure this has inspired my work in some ways. It’s also a very musical city and music is a huge part of my work. New Orleans is a great city. I loved growing up there, but I always wanted to be here in New York.

RG The music is so important there. Recently, I came across a few articles on Sissy Rap, and Bounce. But that has been going on for a while. It hasn’t just kind of happened.

RN I recently discovered that music, but Bounce music is something that I grew up on. Bounce is characterized by call-and-response style, party, and Mardi Gras Indian chants and dance call-outs that are frequently hypersexual. The sound is a composite of samples from the songs “Drag Rap” by the Showboys, “Brown Beat” by Cameron Paul, and also Derek B’s “Rock The Beat.”

RG Does that play into your work at all?

RN Sound is a big part of my work especially in The Conductor. There’s a lot of research that goes into the creation of the music of the piece. Right now, I only have the first two movements of the piece done titled The Conductor (Fortuna Imperatrix Mundi) and The Conductor (Primo Vere, Omnia Sol Temperat). Currently I’m working on the other four movements. The process of how the sound for The Conductor is made starts with surveys I conduct with New York radio stations Hot 97 and 105.1. The survey I conduct is on who is considered to be the top hip-hop artists and producers based on airplay, DJ’s opinion, and listeners requests. Using that information, I collect the music from those artists and use samples from the music to remix the original Carl Orff Carmina Buranna.

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Rashaad Newsome, Venus de Video in progress, 2010, collage on paper, custom-made frame, 59 × 72”.

RG In Paris is Burning, there is the message that you can be whomever you want to. If you don’t have the opportunities to be the CEO, you can on the dance floor. That’s what’s really nice about these pieces; they make fantasy attainable.

RN There’s a certain element of that in the video Pursuivant, that will be in the show. Pursuivant documents my exploration of heraldry at the Royal College of Arms in London and ends in a ceremonial process in which I am knighted by a group of young men in a Harlem church. The video acts as an account of my research or rather a record of my investment in a new subject, as well as a music video. It is a celebration of my ascension to a new stage in my life and work.

RG One of the strangest things for me about the Vogue pieces is that I always thought it was something really slow. But seeing your work, it seems so rigorous. Is that something that developed out of your transformations or is that just where it’s at now?

RN In terms of pace I think that is just where it’s at now. The transformation comes from my remixing and reframing of the original performance. I wanted to divorce voguing from its cultural and historical background, transforming the dance into a series of abstract movements. I wanted the piece to be drawings.

RG Tell me about the performance aspect to this new show.

RN I was thinking about the role of the herald and how heralds would organize tournaments and keep the scores and organize these big events for dukes, kings, and queens. I wanted the show on November 5th to be a complete experience—you walk into the gallery space, you see my armorial achievements, you see me becoming a herald in the video, and at the end there’s a tournament down the street. Usually when one would attend a tournament they would see all the chariots of the royalty involved with that event. I had some of the guys from the auto body shop bring out all these really crazy supped up cars under The Highline where Maluca and I will be performing. So, you walk down the street and you go to this performance, a modern day version of the tournament. I somehow unapologetically take from different cultures to make something. I feel like that is the future of art for my generation. The shoulders that we’re standing on are a starting point for us to let go and make something new. Or try to, at least. I guess that’s what we’re all trying to do.