Riffing on Medieval tradition, the self-proclaimed and redefined Herald of Arms, Rashaad Newsome, assembled a peculiar court of subjects at Marlborough Chelsea on November 2. Art world fixtures, gallery goers, aspiring musicians and hip-hop fans came together for The Tournament, a rap joust now broadcasting on Paddle8 as part of Performa 11. The high-energy performance fostered a mixed dynamic of celebration and tension as the world of underground hip-hop culture mingled and collided with the Chelsea gallery scene. Rashaad discusses the community at the event, technology, the trope of heraldic tradition in his recent work and his ascension to the throne of the King of Arms.
Paddle8: What did you think of The Tournament? Is it what you expected?
Rashaad Newsome: You never know what to expect because it’s a performance and because it’s a battle. I thought it was good and it’s always nice to see that many people come together from different worlds to experience the same thing.
P8: You had ten emerging rappers compete in The Tournament. How did you find them?
RN: I used Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, Craiglist, YouTube – I looked at a lot of unsigned rappers on YouTube. Some were submissions. The winner of The Tournament, Cream, he was found on YouTube. He’s part of a group called the Coney Island CIpha.
P8: It was unusual to experience a rap battle in the context of a gallery. Has this been done before, and where do rap battles usually happen?
RN: This is unprecedented in a gallery space, so it is a historic happening because it has never been done this way before. Usually it can happen almost anywhere and often it’s outside – it has no designated spot, and although it is sometimes planned, it can also just happen organically. The thing about doing it in a gallery that I also discussed in the New York Times article is that it is bringing in new audiences – to the rap battle and to the gallery itself.
P8: The rap joust was part of your ritual transformation from Pursuivant to Herald of Arms – next comes the King of Arms. Who is he and what does he do?
RN: The King of Arms is the highest ranking in the heraldic tradition of Officers of Arms, who are a group of guys who grant and do research on coats of arms. Essentially a coat of arms is a meta-status-symbol for social and economic standing – people build their identity through this ornament and it acts as a social currency. I am really attracted to the idea of having a non-verbal language to communicate – this idea is really important in all my work. In this case I am using the same silhouette of 16th- and 17th-century coat of arms and changing it to create my own language with contemporary imagery – like a car or bling. I began this idea with my show “Pursuivant” and took it further now with “Herald,” taking the symbols from the coats of arms and using them to make actual frames for the collages. The frames are all based on extremely crazy Baroque elements, and look as if they are battling themselves. The idea of the frame is important to me because by redefining the Officers of Arms I am re-framing history, and I wanted a way to inject that idea into the work. The next and final stage will be about the King of Arms, and that is still in development. I am using the past and present to create a new future.
P8: So the theme of the battle runs through all of the work you are doing around heraldry.
RN: Yes, there’s the battling element and also the community element. Through the [rap] battle I can help someone else start their career. Cream won the battle and got $1000 from the gallery, 10 hours of recording time from the studio Harvestworks, and my limited edition Crown. You haven’t seen the last of Cream. You haven’t seen the last of any of [the competitors] – they are all so talented.
P8: Does the rap battle have any relationship to the voguing in your work for the Whitney Museum?
Voguing is battling! With the rap battle you rap so you can win, and voguing is also a competition, but you do a series of gestures so you can win. Both play into the idea of pageantry and the royal court. There are so many elements of a ball so you see all these parallels.
Watch The Tournament broadcasted on Paddle8 here
Check out Rashaad’s Dossier on Paddle8