By controlling his breath, Dominic Shodekeh Talifero is able to reproduce the sound of an entire band with just his mouth. The Baltimore-based beatboxer and composer known as Shodekeh uses his body as his instrument.
Shodekeh (pronounced SHOW-deh-kay) has toured with Siberian Tuvan throat singers, as documented in the 2016 film “Shu-De!” He curated a 2014 installation at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture in Baltimore about the U.S. national anthem. And he’s been an innovator-in-residence at Towson University’s College of Fine Arts and Communications.
On Dec. 11, he will make his debut at Carnegie Hall in New York with the quartet Sō Percussion performing “Vodalities: Paradigms of Consciousness for the Human Voice,” his composition in three movements based on beatboxing, vocal percussion and what he calls breath art. The result is expected to be an atmospheric and percussively imaginative work.
Even as a child, Shodekeh made music with his mouth. He brought his toys to life by mimicking the sounds they made. At his childhood home near a wooded area of Prince George’s County, he soaked in the sounds of trees, rustling leaves and other aspects of nature that went on to inspire his art.
Shodekeh was introduced to beatboxing through movies like the 1984 film “Beat Street,” which told the story of an aspiring DJ from the Bronx.
Shodekeh suffered abuse as a child, leading him to contemplate suicide. A 2018 study by the National Institute of Mental Health found suicide to be the second-leading cause of death for Black kids ages 10 to 14 and No. 3 cause for those 15 to 19. Similar to how hip-hop took root in struggle, beatboxing became Shodekeh’s escape from that crisis.
“The use of my body as a musical instrument is a living testament,” Shodekeh said. “There are so many layers and connections between the systematic destruction of the Black body in this country to hip-hop being a force of cultural and musical intervention.”
In early 2020, while Shodekeh was on tour with the Tuvan throat singing group, Alash Ensemble, a student at an elementary school in Minnesota asked the performers why they first pursued music professionally.
Shodekeh talked about positive aspects of his childhood, but then said: “I also had some people in my life that weren’t so nice to me. So, beatboxing became my way to reclaim my body, to empower my own sense of creativity and to claim my own form of intelligence despite the people who weren’t nice to me.”
While Shodekeh said he still struggles with thoughts of suicide, he is more creative and inspired than before.
In 2006, Vincent Thomas, a dance professor at Towson University, saw Shodekeh perform at a slam poetry event.
“It was a musical journey, like riding the roller coaster of Space Mountain,” Thomas said earlier this year. “I had to know more about him and to hear more of his musical abilities. My mind immediately raced to my modern dance classes I was teaching.”
After an exchange of information, Shodekeh joined the college, where he works as a composer and accompanist to ballet and modern dance. His work there led him to an alternative form of beatboxing: breath art. It’s atmospheric and reminiscent of nature, but connected to the boom baps of traditional hip-hop.
“[Shodekeh] immediately struck me as an accomplished performer and artist — more than a beatboxer,” said Greg Faller, associate dean of the College of Fine Arts and Communication (COFAC). “He offered new, interdisciplinary perspectives to COFAC students, showing them a greater diversity of artistic ideas, unexpected collaborative models and the importance of social justice.”
In November, he became the first Maryland hip-hop artist with a special collections archive at Towson, “Ideations of Potential: Shodekeh’s Innovation Lab of Embodied Scholarship & Hip Hop Imagination.” It preserves his works and collaborations.
As Shodekeh prepared “Vodalities” for performance, Biz Markie, one of the most well-known beatboxers, died July 16.
“This man was essentially my cultural grandfather in terms of Hip Hop, vocal percussion, lineage, and influence, and one of my very first inspirations,” said Shodekeh in a written statement. “Too numb to feel sad or crushed right now, and yet also too humbled to feel anything but complete gratitude.”
“Vodalities” was performed July 25 at Caramoor Center for Music and the Arts in Westchester County, New York, before it heads this winter to Carnegie Hall.
“This new commission by Shodekeh is so exciting,” Jason Treuting, musician and founding member of Sō Percussion, said. “The back and forth of this piece has taken us into many new wonderful spaces.”
“His generosity of spirit is what spills forth from him first in almost every encounter I have with him,” said Josh Quillen, Sō Percussion musician. “I’m sure it’s different in different collabs for Shodekeh, but that sort of human investment from him is what makes me want to dig into his music and play it at a high level.”
At 43, with his Carnegie Hall debut as a composer in front of him, Shodekeh wants his audience to feel as creative he does while listening to the atmospheric and percussively imaginative performance. To that end, he says, “Wow. Glad I didn’t kill myself when I was 9 years old.”