Rashaad Newsome Explores The History Of Hip Hop Gestures

A Very High Brow Take On The History Of Hip Hop

In his investigative performance "The Conductor," artist Rashaad Newsome explores the visual language of hip hop, from hand signals to scowls to counting cash. Newsome, who's often explored the glittery intersection of pop and art, transforms a mixed bag of movements into a visual history of contemporary hip hop, a multi-sensory expedition as much visual as aural. The piece will premiere this week as part of the SELECT Fair in Miami Beach.

In 2005 Newsome crafted a survey for New York radio stations Hot 97 and Power 105.1, hoping to determine who were widely considered the biggest MC’s and producers in hip hop. The survey continued until 2012. Taking the findings from his inquiry, Newsome researched over 100 music videos featuring the work of the public's appointed main players of hip hop. Specifically, he studied the hand motions and gestures of the performers, digitally enhancing and re-editing each video to track the gestural language of each performer.


The artist then crafted a musical score to accompany his epic video mashup, a chopped and skewed version of the equally epic choral piece “Carmina Burana” by Carl Orff. The resulting composition, is, like Orff's creation, divided into six parts. The first five movements take the viewer on a sensual tour through hip hop history through the eyes and ears of the public. For the sixth movement, Mykki Blanco performs live, free-styling over the imagery.

We reached out to Newsome to learn more about the piece.

What sparked your interest in the gestural language of hip hop culture?

I've been working with non-verbal forms of communication and referencing hip hop culture for quite some time. When I came to this work it was at the same time that I was exploring the performative language of black vernacular associated with females. The gestural language of hip hop was more associated with black males and I think on some level I was hoping to find some common ground in the performative languages between the two.


You've been working on this project since 2005. When did you first get the idea for the piece and has it changed over time?

The idea came to me when I started to learn more about Carmina Burana and how the lyrical content in a lot of ways mirrored the lyrical content of popular hip hop music. I was emerging as a conductor and composer in "Shade Compositions" and I saw this as a way to further explore that role. At first it was a comment on "hi and lo" that highlighted the performative nature of MC-ing.

Then through the laborious process of creating the piece it became a portrait of hip hop culture and how it had become this enterprise. The piece also started out as a single channel video and now it is an immersive video installation that hosts a series of performances.

Have you noticed that the MC's gestures change over time?

Yes, and as the video goes on I move between manipulating the hands and body to conduct the music as well as bringing to life some of the narratives in the lyrics and manipulating the mouth to make it appear to be singing the music.

the conductor

How did you choose Mykki Blanco to incorporate into the piece?

Each movement was based on data from a survey with Hot 97 and 105.1 between 2005-2012. When the piece was approaching completion I knew I wanted to further engage the research aspects of it by inviting artists who came out of the survey to perform over the 6th movement of the installation, which is the movement that is completely immersive and sort of references live shows. The rule of exhibiting the piece is that when shown, there must be a performance within the installation of an artist that came out of the survey or one of my choosing. As the piece focuses on the gestural performance of MC-ing I thought it would be really great to see the performance in realtime with the video content.

In a way these performances are new movements of the piece that give it a longer life, one that could outlive me. When thinking about these performances and who I would ask first, I immediately thought of Mykki. I am very moved by the way he like most "black males" is connected to the culture, but by way of his sexuality and gender politics exists outside of this culture. I love how he has taken a space within the culture for himself and has become a way for so many like him to participate in it fully. I think he truly represents the future of hip hop.

What is the significance of holding this performance art Art Basel Miami Beach? What do you hope to communicate to the audience?

To be honest the guys at Select Fair were the first people to give me the opportunity to show it since it's completion, and I thought it was a great place to experiment with the performance aspect of the piece which is very new. I also thought it was a great opportunity for lots of people to see it at once, and who wouldn't want to be in Miami at this time of year.

"The Conductor" takes place Friday, December 5 from 7pm to 8pm at Booth C14 inside of SELECT A dialogue between Jasmine Wahi, Rashaad Newsome, and Mykki Blanco, entitled "Interventions in Sound & Light: A Conversation About Music, Art, & Culture" will take place from 3pm to 5pm.

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Rashaad Newsome

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