On November 2nd, 2011, Rashaad Newsome’s exhibition Herald at Marlborough Chelsea, conjoining hip-hop and heraldic aesthetics, became backdrop to a rap joust between emerging emcees. The evening’s performance titled Tournament, was one phase of Newsome’s ascension to becoming the self-coronated “King of Arms.”
The title Tournament turned out to be particularly apt because the evening was composed of several oppositions: Newsome’s medieval and contemporary iconography fought for primacy on the walls; contestants battled one another in lyrical form; the panel of judges (including MoMA PS1 founder Alanna Heiss, Wild Style filmmaker Charlie Ahearn, style icon Andre J, Creators Project editor Julia Kaganskiy and W Magazine editor Karin Nelson) defended their hip-hop credibility; the implicit etiquette of the Chelsea gallery wrestled with the autonomy of rap battles staged on the street.
As the performance ascended towards a ranking order reducing 10 contestants to five, the environment fell into chaos punctuated by technical difficulties and protests from an increasingly vociferous audience. Several of the emcees came with their own supporters (bringing another valence to the art historical term “to represent”) who were reclaiming terminology as aggressively as staking their territory. During the judges’ evaluations, someone exclaimed, “You can’t say ‘swag!’ You don’t know what swagger is!”
Despite the disruptions, the pageant did ultimately fulfill its purpose; a rapper named Cream from the Coney Island Cipha rap crew was crowned and knighted by Newsome. Cream’s knighthood included a cash prize, an artwork and a track on Newsome’s forthcoming album -- a setup reminiscent of reality TV shows. His victory was based on the number of points awarded by the judges over various rounds to which a disgruntled spectator heckled, “What happened to a trial by a jury of peers?” The concept of an art world juried prize or competition is familiar, but its authority does not easily crossover into verdicts on hip-hop, which comes with its own hierarchies and etiquette.
Newsome told Performa Magazine that a rap battle was unprecedented in this context and part of his goal in “bringing in new audiences to the rap battle and to the gallery. It’s always nice to see that many people come together from different worlds to experience the same thing.” Yet in language and gesture, he defers the performance back to the metaphor of battle.