The week before we officially went into lockdown, I had one last hurrah at a Saint Motel concert. Looking back on it, I can’t believe I was in an enclosed space with so many people as a pandemic loomed on the horizon. Nine months in, loud throbs of music, air-sharing with strangers, and general feelings of exuberance are nowhere to be found, at least not in person. Enter NEWCOMER: A Seattle Hip-Hop Mixtape: a virtual look at Seattle’s vibrant hip-hop scene.
In a tour around Seattle’s small venues, NEWCOMER guides the viewer through black-and-white footage of various hip-hop concerts. Artists rap, sing, DJ, and in the case of Chong the Nomad, play the harmonica while beatboxing. Each clip is both fully immersive and beautifully shot; if it weren’t for the lack of sweaty crowds in my room, I’d believe I was actually there. The footage feels like a concert clip on your phone, but better, and the black-and-white cinematography serves to both clearly contrast the artist and audience as well as evoke a feeling of nostalgia. The past nine months have felt like a lifetime, and indeed, the cinematography emphasizes the fact that these events happened in the past. The presence of crowds is a shocking reminder of our pre-pandemic memories, when seeing live music wasn’t dangerous. Seeing people be able to be together and share an artistic experience is sad, yes, but a thought-provoking time capsule into the lives we once lived. In this sense, NEWCOMER is a perfect film for our time in that it allows us to immerse ourselves in the one thing there is no good online alternative for: the live concert experience.
The diversity of the artists featured is especially striking. Different races, genders, and styles of performance all emphasize the range in the hip-hop scene. The way the clips are ordered is also worth noting: there is never too much of the same quality in one part, and the film artfully balances the brash and the understated. Mellow beats follow fast rapping, which segue into incredible displays of instrumental talent. The diversity in style allows the viewer to experience the different facets of hip-hop, including styles that might have been less well-known. Sprinkled throughout the film are moments that show the incredible humanity of the artists: a plea to buy merch, a story about business cards, and spoken word performance regarding such topics as femininity and education. The common thread in all the clips is the sheer happiness exhibited in the film: the audience and performers are genuinely joyful, and the pride they take in their work and culture is apparent. The repeated chant of “Good vibes only!” exemplifies the energy of the film, and while there is joy and exuberance, there is also anger and protest. The use of art as a means of expression is highlighted, with a fine balance struck between the exhibition of the art created and the stories told by the artists.
Live entertainment in all forms has been all but halted by the pandemic. It’s been months since most people have been to a movie theater, concert venue, or stage performance. Concertgoers and hip-hop enthusiasts alike will find solace in NEWCOMER, an all-encompassing, thorough guide to hip-hop in Seattle. Though the live-concert experience is like no other, NEWCOMER does something a live show can’t: it allows the viewer to be in many different spaces simultaneously, gleaning highlights of each show in one 90-minute viewing. In this aspect, NEWCOMER is not just the next best thing; it is the best thing.