Rashaad Newsome’s Sixth Conductor

In 2005, visual artist Rashaad Newsome teamed up with radio stations Hot 97 and 105.1 posing the question to listeners, “Who are the most epic emcees that have defined hip-hop?” The results included some of the greatest rappers from recent memory, like Biggie, Tupac, and Lil Kim. While Newsome was studying the results of the survey, he came across Carl Orff’s “Carmina Burana”—a project in which Orff set 24 Latin poems to music—that soon inspired him to create his ambitious hip-hop video installation “The Conductor.” Over the course of the past 10 years, Newsome has continued giving the same survey to radio listeners and mining the data. He has now compiled six movements within “The Conductor,” the most recent of which will debut tonight at Select Art Fair in Miami.

After watching the first five installments, the project might be interpreted as an anthropological study of trends and musicians who push hip-hop culture forward, and in doing so, redefine ideas about masculinity, gender performance, and the communication of wealth. However, unlike anthropologists’ books and published papers, Newsome’s series animates the language surrounding power and status within hip-hop music and culture.

By using a technique referred to as motion tracking, the first five videos capture the rise and fall of the video vixen, the era of bling, and rapper-founded fashion labels of the early 2000s. But in the sixth addition, Newsome injects his own personal opinion by transitioning from video installation to a live performance. Newsome invited Mykki Blanco to give an hour-long performance, aiming to reveal the presence of gay rappers within the hip-hop industry—something not mentioned in the radio survey results.

Throughout his career, the New Orleans native has become recognized for his explorations and expressions of power. Newsome’s video work, Knot, which depicts vogue dancers wearing Louboutin heels to examine the shoe as an object of wealth, is currently on view at the Brooklyn Museum, and next week, Newsome’s solo show, “L. engends, S. tatements, S. tars,” opens at Marlborough Gallery New York.

Before Newsome and Blanco disrupt popular notions surrounding hip-hop, the artist sat down with us in his studio where we spoke about everything from motion tracking in “The Conductor” to feminism.

ANTWAUN SARGENT: Talk me through your process from 2005 until now.

RASHAAD NEWSOME: When I started the piece, I was really interested in Carmina Burana and how [the poem] “O Fortuna” had become synonymous with anything epic in nature. The first time I remember hearing it was in the trailer for Glory, and the piece engaged my thoughts around high and low art because it’s based on pagan poems about sex, drinking, partying, and the rise and fall from grace. That mirrors some of the themes behind the lyrics in popular hip-hop music. “The Conductor” was a great way of bringing these two things together.

SARGENT: What did the survey with the hip-hop stations Hot 97 and 105.1 tell you?

NEWSOME: Names like Biggie, Jay-Z, and at the time, Foxy and Lil Kim, Tupac, Mobb Deep, and Wu Tang–kind of the typical people you would think. I wasn’t really surprised because it was radio. I wanted to get the mass opinion of the institution of hip-hop.

SARGENT: So then you took those and turned them into “The Conductor”?

NEWSOME: I would get the data and then I would find those artists’ videos and motion track their hand movements–I started to create a library of gestures. Once I had enough material, I used those gestures to conduct Carmina Burana. In 2005, the movement started with hands edited to conducting the music. I was really thinking about the performative nature of emceeing.

SARGENT: But over the years the movements in “The Conductor” have gone from hand gestures to narratives about hip-hop culture.

NEWSOME: Right, because at the same time I’m working on my collage works, which engage the conversation of ornament within contemporary culture and how that plays into hip-hop culture. I would focus on hands that had bling on them–the bling communicates wealth, so when you’re rapping you have to have your hands up. Then I started thinking about the role that women play in that community in terms of video production. You have the “video vixen” and that’s a whole career. Is that a post-feminist idea? I don’t know. I think it is interesting that you can be a beautiful woman and sell your body, but be in control of the selling of your body.

SARGENT: The feminist critique would point to the power of patriarchy. Can women really be in control of the commercialization and selling of their bodies?

NEWSOME: I don’t think there is anything wrong with that–if you look nice and like to show off your body, then more power to you. So if you are being hired to do that, and you go on set, do it, and get a check, and you are out, you are in control of that. Nobody is making you do that.

SARGENT: I think the critique will be that these societal factors have pushed those women to take this on as a career, making it less about a logical choice to become a video vixen and more about a society that reduces women to their bodies. Or do you think we’re taking their agency away?

NEWSOME: It’s like being a queer person and black person and seeing yourself through other people’s eyes. I don’t know if that’s the truth. People are very sexual beings and they have complete agency over whether or not they want to be sexualized. I think that could be a very freeing and powerful experience. I think you can be that person and also be a feminist. What is a feminist today anyway?

SARGENT: That’s a conversation we’ve been trying to have recently with Beyoncé. Is Beyoncé really a feminist? And if not, how do we define feminist? That’s something to think about. How did the idea of video vixens start to influence this particular body of work?

NEWSOME: I started to do research and I came across Buffy The Body, and at one point you couldn’t have a great video if Buffy wasn’t in it.

SARGENT: There was a hierarchy to video vixens?

NEWSOME: Yeah, one video vixen had a non-profit working with young girls. They can easily be looked at as these ratchet girls in videos, but there is always two sides to a story. So then I started to think about the women in the videos and motion track them.

SARGENT: So what started out as a focus on the performative nature of hip-hop became a history of how hip-hop has changed from the ’90s to today?

NEWSOME: And the performative nature of the trends within the culture, like how the women perform in the videos. They are always ornamented around a central figure; they become a stage for a male rapper. 

SARGENT: So they are ornamented around this central figure who was almost always male, but in that period you also have Foxy Brown, Missy, Lil Kim, and later Remy Ma, who ornamented themselves. What do you think that meant?

NEWSOME: I was so in the process at the time. I didn’t come to a point of clarity. It was just very curious. [laughs] That’s the thing about the work–it doesn’t answer all the questions, but it starts a conversation that is almost never had within the art world.

SARGENT: How did you move from video vixens to Mykki Blanco?

NEWSOME: I realized I wanted the sixth movement of  “The Conductor” to be a physical environment. I decided to step away from using found footage and actually create an immerse experience where Mykki will be surrounded by all these hands that are moving to the beat.

SARGENT: Are they still solely hip-hop hands or do you add voguing in this movement?

NEWSOME: No–you want a hand performance or something?

SARGENT: You know, I always love a slight hand performance. [both laugh]

NEWSOME: It’s funny because someone once asked me if I feel like there’s a connection between voguing, hand performance, and hip-hop rapper gestures, and I think absolutely. When voguing started, the first style was old wave, which began in the Bronx and Harlem at the same time that break-dancing was happening in the ’70s. If you put a b-boy and a voguer next to each other during that time period you wouldn’t have been able to tell the difference. These cultures came up at the same time. I feel like breaking was accepted a lot more because of the community it was associated with, but they both suffered because they were from urban communities.

SARGENT: You don’t think they are from the same communities?

NEWSOME: Once you throw homosexuality in there it creates some distance. With all this stuff happening with black men being killed, the queer voice is always left out of that conversation, which is so odd, because that voice could be a real ally to the larger community.

SARGENT: Do you think the sixth movement is a larger comment on the Black community and hip-hop?

NEWSOME: When I finished the sixth movement, I thought the environment was screaming for a live performance. This video is documenting the performative nature of emceeing informed by the radio survey, but I thought if I injected my opinion into the survey it would be a great way to engage the research. My personal opinion is Mykki Blanco. To me he represents the future.

SARGENT: Mykki Blanco bridges a gap in the sense that he is an emcee that can hold his own, but also has this gender performance thing that he does. How would you say he represents your opinion?

NEWSOME: I’ve known Mykki since he was 16 and I’ve watched him grow into an artist. There are things about him that resonate with me personally. He used to be a formal poet and he would stand and recite. There was one time I saw him downtown with Terry Richardson and he was super punk rock, and then the next time I saw him he was with the fashion girls. Now, the way he engages performance within his practice is very artful. I think he represents different stages I’ve gone through. And, a gay rapper was never going to come out of the survey.

There are things I want to see and I feel like if I don’t make them happen, I will never see them. It might seem like a political gesture, but it seems natural to me because my work has always been a voice for black gay culture. The piece, for me, functions as a true and clear portrait of the culture, but Mykki in Miami is going to dismantle all of that.

SARGENT: As a portrait of hip-hop, what does “The Conductor” say now?

NEWSOME: The portrait says a lot of things. It says hip-hop culture is a big business.

SARGENT: When we look at hip-hop culture driven by business what are we seeing?

NEWSOME: We are seeing issues of the black community because popular hip-hop music isn’t necessarily about affirming consciousness. It is about stories about strife that work that are predicated on narrow narratives about the black experience. Narrow in terms of where it says black people exist on the socio-economic totem pole and narrow in the sense of how we define masculinity and femininity. Mykki will disrupt that history of hip-hop, because in a lot of ways he is an outsider to it and he is taking that space. Will it plant some seeds for change within the culture? We will see. What do you think about that?

SARGENT: I think you are right to say that the collectively painted hip-hop image is very narrow. It’s a space in which gay people can’t see themselves easily, a space where gay people have to do a lot more work intellectually and emotionally and ignore a lot of things when listening to the music. Sometimes the language is abusive and in that space it feels like you have to give up part of yourself to fully be a part of it as a listener. With Mykki you have someone speaking directly to the black gay experience. So this wasn’t suppose to be seen as Rashaad’s straight departure?

NEWSOME: No, not at all. It’s funny that some people view the work like that, but I’m curious as to what brought you to that conclusion.

SARGENT: I always felt like hip-hop had taken such a masculine stance because you don’t get positive representations of gayness within the music. The diamond and gold chains and the women dancing around the central male figure resonated with me as a heterosexual display of sexuality. That now makes me curious about how Mykki occupies the space.

NEWSOME: I have rules for the opening night of the sixth movement. There has to be a performance space with an artist from the survey or of my choosing. If I’m dead, then it could be based on my opinion and the curator can take certain liberties based on their research. The artist will always perform over the sixth movement, which is the immersive movement on a loop of about three minutes. And if the artist wants to, they can write something for it or they can freestyle.

SARGENT: Will Mykki freestyle or has he written something for the performance?

NEWSOME: He is going to go off. He’s going to be very performative. He’s definitely going to freestyle, but he’s going to draw from text he has written and his delivery will be different-during the hour his performance will change from freestyle to recited text. He said he wanted to wear a gown for the performance.

SARGENT: Beyond Miami and Mykki will there be a seventh movement?

NEWSOME: This is a performance series that is tied to the installation and which may become a film or inspire a seventh movement. I don’t know what the outcome will be because I’m in that process now, but there will definitely be an output.