As the Festival of Ideas for the New City continues in New York with its program of symposia, performances, exhibitions and a street festival, Rashaad Newsome’s performance Herald during Nuit Blanche New York’s Flash:Light stands out as the event of the weekend. Not only is it within the Midnight Organ Program at St. Patrick’s Basilica, part of an all-night string of events in SoHo, but it also features Newsome conducting the second ceremony in a series of rituals he is undertaking to attain the status of King of Arms. Newsome takes to the altar to conduct a haunting musical performance, with hoodie monks, juxtaposing hip-hop culture with religious space and featuring the church’s choir and organ, while a video collage is projected overhead. Here, we caught up with Newsome and take a look at some of his work that explores the connection between the system of heraldry, hip hop culture, and his work at large, to give you a primer for Herald.
Newsome became interested in heraldry while visiting the castles and monuments of Europe. “I was really drawn to Armorial achievements,” he says, referring to the name for a coat of arms. “And how they’re integrated into the architecture of Europe… I was fascinated in the visual hierarchy that they impose on the viewer. Like when you see a coat of arms you know it’s associated with pedigree.” While in the 12th century heralds used to be the messengers of monarchs, the primary role of a herald in today’s culture is to be an expert in coats of arms. In the UK, heralds are still called on to read public proclamations publicly.
Newsome recreates European coats of arms from the 16th and 18th centuries using contemporary material. “I figured out that heraldry is how the coats of arms are created. It’s a system of symbols that represents social status, economic status, status as a warrior, pedigree, a way of assembling these images that represent all these different things to create a meta status symbol.”
In discussing the links between heraldry and pop culture, Newsome says, “I felt like there was a lot of links between that and modern times. The way people do that with their bodies. I feel like people ornament their bodies in the same way. So there’s a lot of connections between popular culture specifically black youth culture, i.e. hip hop, which is a major reference point for me… You have to have the right kind of shoes, the right kind of jeans, the shirt, the jacket, the bling, the certain car. The certain girl, and then she comes with a whole set of accouterments that she has to have to be that status symbol. There was somewhat of a dialogue happening there.”
Because he was referencing the history of heraldry in his work, but imbuing it with his own experience and personal history, he decided to go to the school. “I contacted the Royal College of Arms in London and they invited me to come down.” Newsome shot a film of himself going through the first step of becoming a herald, that of Pursuivant — the most junior rank. The middle rank is Herald, and the senior rank is King of Arms. Newsome will be filming his performance and assumption of the status of Herald at St. Patrick’s Basilica.
While Newsome will ultimately become a King of Arms, he will only be so honorarily. “Because I had done so much research and I was doing something so completely outside of what [the Royal College of Arms] was doing, they made me like an honorary person. So I don’t have a certificate of anything. They just said ‘we think you should be a Pursuivant (the junior rank).’ So it’s like playing with authority. And sort of the way ‘bugger arms’ came into play.”
Though heraldry was originally associated with nobility, it was eventually co-opted by the middle and lower classes. “It became more of a bourgeois thing, particularly after the industrial revolution,” says Newsome. “For people who had money, coats of arms became a status symbol. It was already associated with nobility and knighthood. That led to the development of something called ‘bugger arms’ wherein common people would find some kind of long lost tie to nobility or knighthood and they would create their own coats of arms.”
“Today, specifically in American society,” says Newsome, “any fashion label that comes out can just throw a crest on their shirt or whatever, it’s something that’s existed for a long time, and been constantly recreated and reappropriated. That’s something I found interesting and wanted to play with.”
Newsome is currently collaborating on a mixtape with recording artists and visual artists including Laurie Anderson, Big Freedia, NAST, and Maluca Mala, among many others. He refers to the mixtape, which will be released virally, as a “sound collage.” “We don’t necessarily have time to have hard core studio sessions,” Newsome says. “So I’ll make the music send it to them, they’ll work on it, send it back to me. The mixtape is a commentary on how culture is constantly reappropriated, and what happens when that happens.” Newsome has a long list of musicians and artists on his “dream team” that he is gradually making a reality.
Newsome’s mashups of hip hop and heraldry are only one part of a legacy of work in which he breaks down elements of hip hop culture and reconfigures them into new work. The Conductor is a six-part video installation that deconstructs and re-configures the language of hip-hop music videos, both visual and aural.
For his project New Way, Newsome invited dancers to demonstrate various styles of the dance form known as vogue. After recording the footage, he edited it to choreograph a new dance, which he then returned to the performers to study and perform anew for the camera. By virtue of remixing and reframing the dance, Newsome divorced voguing from its background, culturally and historically, and broke the dance into a string of abstract movements.
For his performance of Five at the 2010 Whitney Biennial, Newsome worked with many dancers who come from the voguing scene to produce a piece that combined his new way of voguing with music that conflated a variety of musical styles including hip hop, jazz, and opera again working with the themes of appropriation and reappropriation.
The role of an officer of arms is to create and grant armorial achievements, to organize tournaments and keep the score. That was the role of the herald throughout history. To keep the score.
“We’re in a time when everything is exchanging hands and being reappropriated. I guess I’m commenting on that.” For Shade Compositions, a performance piece series (2005-2009), Newsome had a line-up of women speaking and moving with rote sounds and gestures “being used by people of the lower class.” For this work, Newsome developed a syntax of body language “often viewed as so-called ‘ghetto'” and recontextualized it to celebrate it and expel any stigma attached to it.
“You establish your right to arms by recording your pedigree,” says Newsome.