Can AI be used for the greater good? Rashaad Newsome shows us how with his community-healing robot

With a multidisciplinary practice spanning every medium imaginable, the artist tells us why he’s steered towards AI and how it can be used to uplift communities.


26 July 2023


Before now, any mention of using AI for good would have inspired nothing more than a side eye. In Rashaad Newsome's multidisciplinary practice, he shows us how it can be done. Despite using a plethora of mediums over the years – including collage, sculpture, film, video, software engineering, and more recently AI with his cloud-based non-binary humanoid robot Being – he carries on his endeavour of placing Black and queer people at the centre.

Much of Rashaad’s oeuvre can be traced to a move from his hometown of New Orleans to New York in the early aughts. Where in Black queer fate, he was soon immersing himself in ballroom – a Black and Latinx trans and queer subculture, emerging from Harlem, New York in the 1960’s, which is known for voguing, its chosen family house system and drag pageantry. Living with the Black queer art collective Dumbo (Down Under Manhattan Bridge Overpass) at the time, he soon began to help with the running of mini balls. “I had to take a backseat after a while, because it was almost like a full-time job, and I wanted to focus on my art,” he tells us. Since then, he has found unique ways to incorporate the community’s essence in his work, most recently seen in the movement and cadence behind Being.


Rashaad Newsome: Kings of Arms Art Ball (Copyright © Rashaad Newsome, 2019)


Rashaad Newsome: Kings of Arms Art Ball (Copyright © Rashaad Newsome, 2019)

Rashaad Newsome: Being (Copyright © Rashaad Newsome, 2019)

Just one glimpse at a film or video featuring Being and you’ll be immediately spellbound. Developed in 2019 with the help of faculty and students at Stanford University in California, Being’s build combines tech including animation game engines, scripted responses and unique machine-learning models. Rashaad refers to his robot as a digital griot – named after a travelling storyteller, poet or musician in the West African tradition – that was initially constructed as a tour guide for his Too Be Real exhibition, exploring gender and Blackness. The robot is also trained with the texts of theorists such as bell hooks and Paulo Freire, loved by Rashaad for their “palatable theory”, as he seeks for it to be accessible and speak directly to the community.

In his latest film Hands Performance – commissioned by Somerset House – Rashaad presents to us Being 2.0, set in outer space and inside a spaceship decorated in a Baroque style. Its mission is unapologetically clear. “This is for the deaf and hard of hearing girls” is uttered from the ether as we are made to feel the beat, and told to listen with our eyes. The film, taking its name from an element of vogue fem and a ballroom category in its own right, is a sum of the movement of two vogue fem performers and one Black queer ASL interpreter, bringing to light the expansive nature of Black and queer non-verbal communication.

“I realised how small and galvanised the deaf and hard of hearing community were, and how often these opportunities aren’t taken up by them,” he tells us. “I sent the poem in the film through the Being voice generation model and originally had the voice over the track and I loved it. But, I had to take it out. The most radical thing I could do was privilege the deaf and hard of hearing community.”

“The most radical thing I could do was privilege the deaf and hard of hearing community.”

Rashaad Newsome

Any move that Rashaad makes seems to change his practice tenfold. After moving to Oakland in 2019, he realised that the prevalence of homelessness and mental health issues in California is unlike any he’d ever seen. “I’ve lived in London, Paris, Zurich and New York and I’ve never seen that,” he tells us. “And the mental health issues within the Black community – that is a critical conversation.” In the video for his forthcoming app, Being becomes a therapist speaking directly to the Black community, with not one minced word and proclamations of therapeutic healing. Rashaad is still in the process of developing the app with Black therapists, “because it involves EMDR and I don’t want to further trigger people”. He adds: “Black people are living in a space of trauma, but aren’t given the space to have an emotional response to it without being further traumatised. This app is me figuring out how to be a balm for that.”

Rashaad Newsome: Being App (Copyright © Rashaad Newsome, 2021)

Rashaad acknowledges that the Being App is in part a selfish feat – “I want to heal too”, he says – but it also has great promise for his collaborative work in the future. In one of his travelling pieces Shade Compositions, he works with Black women as they each perform a singular gestural movement, exploring the depths of the Black vernacular, stereotypes and the way in which they are perceived. This work isn't all in Rashaad’s control, taking patience and surrendering to the process into account. “We had to stop the filming during one of the performances, because the composition brought up feelings of trauma. That’s why I want the app to go into schools, community centres and universities, because it can heal so many and maybe even allow my process with work like Shade Compositions to run smoother,” he tells us.

In Rashaad’s work, it’s hard to deny that it transcends time and space, while also being particularly grounding because of his consistent questioning of power and agency. The more you admire Being, the more it becomes apparent that it is an amalgamation of his beautifully enigmatic practice and a crucial development for the communities he holds dear.

Hands Performance is available to watch here.

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Rashaad Newsome: Hands Performance (Copyright © Rashaad Newsome, 2023)

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About the Author

Yaya Azariah Clarke

Yaya (they/them) was previously a staff writer at It’s Nice That. With a particular interest in Black visual culture, they have previously written for publications such as WePresent, alongside work as a researcher and facilitator for Barbican and Dulwich Picture Gallery.

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