I never thought I’d see the day when I’d witness a full-on rap battle take place at a blue-chip Chelsea art gallery, let alone be asked to judge one, but there I was, seated on a gilded throne before a massive crowd, watching young rap star hopefuls perform lyrical jumping jacks around one another. It was a strange collision of worlds when Creator Rashaad Newsome staged his Rap Joust performance Tribute at Marlborough Chelsea two weeks ago, part of the performing arts festival Performa 11. The typical art world glitterati could be seen mingling amidst the crowd, but so could a slew of hip-hop kids in oversized hoodies and t-shirts, all huddled around the stage area where eight emerging emcees battled for the crown and the cash prize in this freestyle rap tournament. Not surprisingly, both sets of attendees could be heard ooohing and aaaahing in equal measure when a particularly sting-worthy line was uttered—and trust me, there were plenty.
Some of the contestants performing
This fusion of high and low/pop culture is where Newsome excels and is also the driving force behind his range of multimedia art work—from intricate collages of age-old heraldry iconography assembled with images culled from contemporary rap culture to his recent mix tape project and series of accompanying music videos. Newsome perpetually finds ways to draw parallels between these seemingly disparate cultures, underscoring our ongoing obsession with status and celebrity (whatever form it comes in—rap videos or royal courtiers), but it’s his performances, which confront these issues in a much more tangible, charged way, that really drive his message home in a visceral way.
But even when you put all those considerations aside, the Rap Joust was quite simply a genuinely good time. The eight MCs faced off in pairs over the course of four rounds. A panel of judges that included Alana Heiss, founder of PS1, Karin Nelson, editor of W magazine, fashionista party promoter and model, Andre J, “Wild Style” director, Charlie Ahearn and myself eliminated one rapper per round. Then followed a round robin-style battle between the four semi-finalists and finally a head-to-head face-off between the two remaining contestants. With each round, the performances got better and better as the emcees hit their stride (and technical difficulties with the mics were worked out). The winner, a tatted-up emcee from Brooklyn named Cream who came with a crew outfitted in customized T-shirts sporting the name “Cream Team” ended up taking the title (and the money) home. He’ll also be featured on Newsome’s second mixtage, Swag Vol. 2.
You can watch the full set of performances—and judge for yourself—over on Paddle8.
The winner, Cream, being “knighted” by Newsome and accepting his prize.