Graz, Austria, Sept. 2014: Rashaad Newsome’s heart pulses to the beat of hip hop. But how can one replace chamber music with old school black vernacular? New York-based Newsome, who is originally from New Orleans, travels the world finding the attitude-drenched insider lingo of each city, weaving it into his compositions for an unforgettable performance piece called Shade Compositions.
Newsome came into the spotlight in 2010 in collaboration with Alexander Wang at MoMA PS1 and is known for using the language of power as an instrument in his toolbox. Just last month, he took the stage in a black crown at the Brooklyn Museum to rap alongside the kingpins of queer rappers. More recently, at the Steirischer Herbst Festival of New Art in Graz, Austria, Newsome had 23 members of the Graz community onstage to snap to German slang along with West African dialects for Shade Graz 2014. The project is pegged somewhere between avant-garde sound art and the Helsinki Complaints Choir (but perhaps more stylish, as the performers were decked out in the latest 1990s-inspired getup by DKNY).
In New Orleans this weekend, Newsome is collaborating with Prospect.3 and Saint Heron's "Amen! Amen! The 17 Wards Of Wonder," a citywide multidisciplinary art experience that includes the artist's custom designed touring "bounce bus" and a series of installations for the warehouse party "Ball Out Beaucoup." Newsome is currently part of the Brooklyn Museum’s group show, Killer Heels: Art of the High-Heeled Shoe, until February 15, and he has an upcoming solo this winter at Marlborough Gallery in New York. We sat down at Hotel Daniel in Graz to chat about the German language, global attitude, and how it all began with minimal techno.
Rashaad Newsome, Shade Compositions Graz, 2014; Photo: Thomas Raggam
Nadja Sayej: What was it like collaborating with the Graz community?
Rashaad Newsome: Interesting. The performers were great. The experience of being in Graz—there’s a lot of things people are turning their eye away from: really big problems in regards to race, immigration, big issues that are somewhat being dealt with, but some people are pretending they’re not problems. One thing I really wanted to do was access the refugee community here. That was so difficult to do, but should not be difficult at all. If people are here and they can’t work, they should be able to do something for fun. Even if they don’t get paid, they should be able to.
NS: What kind of problems did you have when getting in touch with them?
RN: It was just difficult getting in touch with them—they’re in difficult situations. People can only, apparently, stay in certain areas, or insurance became an issue if someone was on stage. But if someone wants to [participate], they should be able to. It wasn’t easy to make happen. I ended up accessing people through my castings.
NS: When you did Shade Compositions before in Russia, access wasn’t an issue?
RN: You’d think it would be a surprise in Russia, right? It wasn’t at all. There was a certain authenticity there. I always put out an open call and when I arrive, the first two weeks is the casting. It’s discovering who I want to be in it, but also ethnographic research of the gestures of each landscape. There are gestures in this piece that have been there since the beginning, like “ssmph” or *snap* and “oooh,” which are a core part of it, well-known black vernacular gestures. Then I try to find the equivalent of those in wherever I find myself: What would be the equivalent in Graz?
Shade Compositions (GRAZ) 2014 from RASHAAD NEWSOME on Vimeo.
NS: Did you find it?
RN: Yes, and I always do. The challenge of making the work depends on that interaction. It’s a real interactive piece, not just the performers interacting with the audience but me interacting with the performers. We’re all in conversation, from start to finish. That’s how these gestures are used—in conversation. So, the casting process: I ask them to perform the gestures in the piece and ask them to add their own. This is a way for me to add more material and along with the original material, it’s choreographed into the soundscape. We rehearse that and I bring in the technology and do sonic repetition and different effects, synths, pitch control, delays, and filters. This was a really interesting one because there’s a bunch of people here from West Africa.
NS: What languages are in the piece?
RN: The language of the piece is always about where I’m at. The people in the piece speak Styrian German, English, a West African dialect called Edo from the Edo state of Nigeria, and Creole from Guyana. There’s also some Farsi because there’s a girl from Iran and Syrian because of a performer from Syria. So this piece is a mixture of all those languages. Syrian and German are the languages there for the first time.
NS: What surprised you?
RN: I thought it was going to be much more minimal, the sound somewhat related to the landscape. I was listening to a lot of minimal techno for inspiration. I was getting sounds together, building my little sound kit to bring into the piece but the gestures are more baroque and create these melodies. It wasn’t as minimal as it was going to be. We had 23 performers, five which came from New York.
Rashaad Newsome, Shade Compositions Graz, The rapper, 2014; Photo: Nadja Sayej
NS: What about the performers from Graz? What are their stories?
RN: One guy in the front row—this is the first time there are straight men in the piece. I always thought It would be cool to have straight guys in it, but I thought there would be no retinal pleasure. Straight men can be very self-conscious. I want it to be fun to watch. But North African, Israeli men have all their gestures, south Italy, too. On a stage, I don’t know if it will translate. The guys here just came into a casting—they’re musicians and actors. They don’t have the cultural baggage some of the gestures have. They just have the sound. I need the sonic repetition. There is one guy, a Nigerian rapper named Young Staga. He reinterpreted the gesture. I loved it. There’s never been a straight dude in the piece and he has taken them to where he wants them to go.
NS: What’s your role?
RN: I’m more of the conductor, talking to the performers as if it’s more based on a conversation. The noise develops into music. When I am building that part, there is a call and response. I like to abstract the sounds by putting them in reverse. I have them say one of their gestures in reverse and truncated. Words like “pay it” or “piss off”—I’ve created new words out of them, building a narrative around them, giving a context to these abstract words which comes from real phases.
NS: Does Graz have a lot of attitude?
RN: It’s a subtlety but it is there. Attitude is everywhere. I think. The words in the piece all came from me interacting with the performers. Everyone contributed something. It is really site specific.
NS: Have you thought about making an album?
RN: I am working on a mix tape. It’s coming out the top of next year. I have been a part of a group of kids—fashion, music—who have all worked together at some point. We all came up together and have ushered in this new black queer hip hop. I thought: I need to pull us all together and we need to make something. We did a song featuring the music of people like Mykki Blanco and Ian Isaiah, which is on now at the Brooklyn Museum. It’s a short version of the mix tape. I basically went out and included every gay, lesbian, and trans rapper I could find and put them all on one track, like a “We are the World,” of a rap song [laughs].
Rashaad Newsome, 37th Chamber, 2011, Collage in antique custom painted frame, 51 1/2 x 41 x 5 1/2 inches; Courtesy of the artist & Marlborough Chelsea
NS: You’ve got a lot of bling in your collage work, but back in the 1990s some rappers were more interested in the aspect of storytelling. Has hip hop changed?
RN: In my work, it’s about bling but it’s about the language of power and using it as another tool in a toolbox. Heraldry has been around for centuries as a mega-status symbol made of symbols of position, rank and power. With that power and symbolism, what would that power look like today? Bling. And it really leads the hip hop world, to have a certain type of ring or watch. When a rapper makes his first million, he buys a Rolex watch or a big house. It’s like mining the field of these things that contain the meaning of power, position, and status within pop culture and using them like a palette. The design form of heraldry, but taken outside of its original context, becomes these over-the-top abstract portraits of desire, essentially. I came to heraldry by looking at architecture. The interesting thing is heraldry became a part of ornament after the industrial revolution. Ornament is used in architecture as a framing device. Architecture is used as power. A lot of the relationships between states and countries are used by architectural sites.
NS: Isn’t the language of hip hop the most powerful language in pop music today?
RN: Definitely. I remember there was a time when you turned on the TV, there weren’t that many hip hop videos. Now it’s all hip hop, or R&B with a rapper featured on it. I think black culture has always been one of the biggest exports of America, which relates to Shade Compositions because this project all began with black vernacular. But also, it was a problem—stigmatized as ghetto but a part of contemporary pop culture. It still maintains a stigma. In the process of making this music, I use a chamber music structure where you’d have strings and a conductor, but use this vernacular for a sonic composition. That’s still the DNA of the project but now it’s more about localizing it. Syrian German is frowned upon; some of it is referred to as hillbilly German. I want to take the stigmatized culture and make high art out of it. I am interested in complex rhythms; I’m thinking more about it formally.
Rashaad Newsome, Shade Compositions Graz, 2014; Photo: Thomas Raggam
RN: It isn’t just about black vernacular, though it’s a consistent line in the work, but vernacular everywhere. It’s about Graz vernacular. Before, it was about Moscow vernacular. I want it to keep growing in different places. My back is often to the audience. Once something becomes formulaic, it’s time to change it up. Its art; it’s supposed to be fun, challenging.
NS: When did you become a rapper?
RN: I always did that. This is the second mix tape; the first was 2011, as part of my show. But I made more of the beats. But this time, when I’m rapping, it’s typical rap bravado. When you come out, you have to establish yourself, but there are other things that will come about.
NS: Does the art world need more hip hop?
RN: Yes. It needs more viewpoints, opinions. The art world is a bubble, it’s an institution. As much as people would like to think they experience the world in a very open way, they don’t. The artists do and they bring it into the canonized art world, but the art world itself is not doing that. When you come in, you have to educate.
NS: You once said the art world is full of aesthetic elitism, which drives me crazy.
RN: You have artists like Steve Reich or John Cage who did a lot of abstract sound stuff. But there is an aesthetic they created in the sound art movement. I feel like I’m building on that movement in a current way. I know it’s a struggle to be a part of those conversations because of the material I’m working with. You have to fight against that, the aesthetic elitism.
ArtSlant would like to thank Rashaad Newsome for his assistance in making this interview possible.