JaQuel Knight knows how to get the world dancing. The North Carolina-born, Atlanta-bred choreographer is responsible for Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies,” a video so iconic it forever altered the careers of two artists who had nothing to do with it: Kanye West and Taylor Swift. He's also collaborated with Big Sean, Cher, Britney Spears, and with Tinashe on “All Hands On Deck.” Knight is currently working on his biggest-ever work with Beyoncé: Coachella 2018.
This year, it’s Knight’s choreography in the music video for “Lemon,” the new single by N.E.R.D and Rihanna, that’s blowing up timelines everywhere. Directed by Scott Cudmore and Knight’s old friend Todd Tourso, who brought him on board, the clip explodes from an opening scene of Rihanna shaving dancer Mette Towley’s head, and into a sizzling solo performance in an empty neon-soaked mall. Knight says it was “a dream come true” to work with his teenage idol Pharrell, and went in with the intention of creating something both accessible and unifying. “I always try to think of the people,” Knight told me over the phone on Friday, on his way to practice for N.E.R.D.’s marquee performance at Complex Con. “It's kind of like a healing source — how can we use dance to change the world?”
Knight proceeded to break down his process and research for choreographing “Lemon” for us, his hopes for its reception, and just what a “tutorial” really is.
What kind of research did you do for this video?
I spend a lot of time going back and looking at how "Single Ladies" took off. What it was about "Single Ladies" that made the entire world want to do it. Then I went back and started studying the '70s. What was so cool about the 70s that people just went out and they danced? From the Hollywood Gogos to Soul Train, most people are dancing their hearts out. So I spent a lot of time looking at that. Thank God for YouTube! I spent a lot of time looking at those videos. What is it about what they're doing that's so captivating and so magical, and what's that for us now in 2017?
What was the answer?
It's freedom. It's not holding back. It's not being placed in the box. It's doing what feels good to yourself. It's not worrying about others. It's wanting to have a voice. All of those pieces, it's making sure we have that now.
How were you spending time with "Lemon" at the very beginning to develop the choreography?
My creative process is always blasting the record wherever I can. I love blasting it in my car, if I'm on a plane, I'm blasting it on my headphones, just allowing the record to soak into my bones, get deep in my soul. Then when it's time to get in the studio, I let whatever's been manifesting within just come out and let it speak for itself. I turn my recorder on my computer and get the rest of my team and just start jamming. What sticks, sticks, and what doesn't, doesn't. It's as simple as that.
You previously mentioned that when when you're designing dances, you intentionally put something simple in, so any person at home can you can imitate it, like the hand movement in "Single Ladies." Does "Lemon" have these little flourishes?
Absolutely. Every piece of "Lemon" is a named dance that I went through. This [video] is super special to me because it's a marriage of multiple dances that all have names, all have an identity, all have different meaning, all have different energy. Usually, you just choreograph a routine and you may put a few popular dances in there throughout. But the goal with this was to make it a group of popular dances, so it was really cool.
Would you say this project was made moreso with that intention than other pieces you've choreographed?
Absolutely. This project, the goal is to make people dance, and remind people that dancing is good. It's good for the body, it's good for the mind and it's good for the soul. That's the purpose of the project let dance heal the world.
What's the trick for creating something that's so impressive but that keeps in mind a big tent of people actually performing it?
You know I often asked myself the same thing. But I think it's just me being super-comfortable with who I am as person. It's deeper than the choreography. It's me being free to express myself, and not being forced or blinded by what else is going on, what other people are doing in their videos, what the new trend is. This is how I interpret the music.
Mette said that her favorite dance was the "I C Dead People." Did you have any any particular favorites?
That's one of my favorite moves too. We have a dance called “The Obama” that I really enjoy. There is a "Lemon" dance that is repeated throughout the video, so I'm just waiting to see who can find it, it's nice and fun.
Can you talk more about the process of editing together a single fluid piece from individual dances you've designed?
It's allowing the music to speak. I don't really force things to the music. You can have something great but if it doesn't match the music, you change it. You go to somewhere else or you let your body find what should happen next. You let your body speak to the music. That's my process, literally day in day out I'll record a piece, then I'll come back in that day and I'm like "OK this didn't sleep well with me, let's change this, we tried to force this, let's pull it back." That's my process until it's time to shoot, literally.
For me, the source of the video's energy comes from the opening scene of Rihanna shaving Mette's head. Were you aware of that scene when designed the choreography, and did it affect your finished product?
Absolutely. What happens is that scene triggers the dance. I can't wait for the rest of the project to unleash itself, because that scene is what triggers it. That scene is letting go of all your worry, all the security, everything the world has placed on you, it's just letting it all go. Whether you're male or female, black or white, that scene is for everyone. And the dance is the liberating moment, that freedom, that "Wow, here you are, you're reborn."
The third section of the video where Mette is performing in a relatively stationary position is another big contrast. What was that like to choreograph?
I mean, that's the heart of the project. That's why you would never find us calling it a music video. These are tutorials, new age tutorials. That's us teaching you at home the dance. That's the project: "Tutorial No. 1: Lemon." The blue theme is that.
What does the idea of a tutorial mean to you in 2017?
It’s teaching the rest of the world the way, the new-new. How to be a part of the way and get on the good stuff, sharing the secret. Here it is, here's the tutorial right here. Learn it and you'll be a new person. Allow yourself to get lost in it.