Director X On What People Are Getting Wrong About Rihanna’s “Work” Video
The “Work” director on what the video can teach people about West Indian dance culture and how the internet has changed music videos.
Rihanna's two-part video for "Work" begins with a clip directed by Toronto native Director X at The Real Jerk, a Caribbean restaurant located in the city's Riverdale neighborhood. X's take is a true family affair: Rihanna's friends sit on top of the bar, and as Director X told The FADER Monday night on the phone from Los Angeles, some of the video's dancers also appeared in Rihanna's "Pon De Replay" video, which X directed 11 years ago.
The FADER spoke with Director X about "Work"'s Caribbean roots, how wider (and whiter) culture has interpreted the video, and the power of pulling off a surprise in the digital age.
I want to start off by talking about the location. Why that specific chicken joint?
Well we needed a place that was meant to be a party, that felt very West Indian. The environment had to be right. Every West Indian community has a restaurant that at nighttime is also a place you can go and dance. It's not quite a nightclub but it's more than just a restaurant. I wanted that. On top of that, it's a place that has a little more decoration; the walls have the corrugated metal. We didn't bring anything in there. We added a bit but we were really working off of the art direction and theme of the restaurant, doing what they've got in there. They put those colors in the windows. They did the bamboo. The stuff is them, their style. We were taking them and expanding it more.
A lot of people are talking about the way Drake and Rihanna dance in this video, and how sexual it is. Is that people looking at Caribbean culture from the West? Like, it’s not that deep right?
Exactly. So you see that part of Rihanna dancing with the guy? That is caribbean culture at its height. He was dancing, she saw him, she went to him, they had a dance together. At no point did anyone think, "Hey we're dancing, so maybe...later...." It doesn't work like that. In West Indian culture, a dance is a dance. You can have that dance. There could be a girl jumping on top of you and you're wining up on one another. In the wrong state, you'd get arrested and charged for lewd conduct or something. But you can end that dance and her boyfriend can be beside her, and you're like, "Hi," or you just walk away. Dancing and sex are tied together in America—if you're dancing with somebody that means you're sleeping with somebody. But that doesn't mean that in our culture it's the same. In West Indian culture, you're dancing with someone because you're dancing with someone. You're having fun. There's a beauty to the dance and there's a beauty to the battle. That's something they're not understanding. Within a dance, there is a competition going on. There is a battle of the sexes. You are wining up on someone: Can he handle yours? Can she handle you? Can she make you fall over? There's levels to this thing. It's dancing, so there's a sexual energy. But the dance is not sex. It's not simulated sex, it's wining. Believe me, that's not it. When you're really in the culture, your ability to wine is a different thing. Do you know what I mean?
Believe me, we are doing the reggae thing. We haven't even gotten to Trinidad and soca, where it really goes crazy. It's just a dance. I like the world seeing what that is and I like seeing people dance, guys and girls dancing together. It's a big missing element of our world right now. Men don't dance and women don't dance. The men don't dance at all and when they do they're grinding and pumping. A man and a woman should be able to dance together without everyone thinking they're sleeping together! You just dance. When the song is done, step away from one another. If you want to stay together—if not, move on!
“Dancing and sex are tied together in America—if you’re dancing with somebody that means you’re sleeping with somebody. But that doesn’t mean that in our culture it’s the same. In West Indian culture, you’re dancing with someone because you’re dancing with someone. You’re having fun.”
Can you tell me about those shots of Rihanna dancing in the mirror?
It's something that you see in these kind of places. There's a couple of girls who get in their own zone and do their thing in the mirror. The mirror is a real thing for women. The mirror dance is a real thing. It felt like a great way to give her a master performance, something that is about her that kept her in the situation.
It's the same culture, right? It's a dance culture. It doesn't matter where you're at, if you play the music and there's room to dance, they're going to dance. Even if there's not room to dance, they're going to find room to dance. I wanted to do something different from what you've seen so far. I feel like [in this video] I didn't make it fully clear that it's a restaurant. You did see the woman cooking, which I'm glad is there because I didn't want it to just be, "Oh that's some West Indian club." I wanted to give you that piece of the culture. That's why you feel that connection. It has a different vibe than a nightclub. There's no couches where bottles are served. There are tables where people ate.
Some of Rihanna’s friends are in the video. How did the rest of the crowd cast come together?
We had 416 kids on our casting sheet. We had maybe another 100 kids not do it—we had an open call. On the tape of the casting, as you were watching, you can hear all of the yelling and screaming because they just had a dance party in the parking lot. The other kids waiting started battling in the parking lot. So the casting process was crazy. You also have to remember—this might not be what you're going to get if you manage to find yourself a little Jamaican party. Every little person is a jump in the circle, battle for domination kind of kid. We stacked the deck a bit. Hey, you might go to a party and if the music is good enough, if everyone knows the dances—that's another beautiful thing about this culture. At the end, the shot of everyone doing the wave in one direction? It's not like I said, "OK, everybody do this in one direction." I turned on the camera and said, "Do what you normally do." And they did what they normally did.
You've worked with Rihanna before, but not in a very long time.
I did “Pon De Replay,” Rihanna's very first video. That was another West Indian-themed song that we shot [the video for] in Toronto. Some of those kids [dancing in "Work"] are the same kids. The guy that she's dancing with—his name is Riddla—was in “Pon De Replay.” I have been improving his sex life since he was a teenager! Like I said before, she came up to him. He came out and started doing the dance.
That’s crazy, that we're seeing some of the same kids from your early '00s projects.
These were the kids from the Sean Paul videos! A couple of them were alumni from that time. It was like a big reunion. Even for Drake. When he came up he was like, “Oh my god, you're here and you're here." They're actually from the same peer group, they're from the same range. They're Rihanna's age, and Drake knew all these kids because he grew up in Toronto. The guy that is standing next to Drake, that's a local DJ. It's just great. There was a really good energy with people having fun and breaking character in the best way.
“Back in the day of TV, you had to make a decision: is it this video or that video. Now we don’t make the decision. I’m giving you both videos.”
What's is like working with Rihanna now versus back then?
She’s grown into an impressive woman. I was impressed to be around her. I've seen her around occasionally. To see her on that day—her vibe and her work ethic, and everything that's going on—I'm really proud to see what she's become.
How was it decided that this would be a double video?
[Part two,] that's what they did with Tim Erem. As they were putting that together, they decided they wanted to do both. If you have a little kid who loves Rihanna and you don't want to show him my video, you now have another option. It's very interesting watching the debate between the kids and seeing what they like more. I think it's great. Another example of the internet age and what it means. Back in the day of TV, you had to make a decision: is it this video or that video. Now we don't make the decision. I'm giving you both videos.
Yes. And there's also a shock factor, of having two completely different videos.
Exactly. They managed the surprise. Give them something to debate! Especially with a fan base like Rihanna’s, they love a good debate. You're tapping into young teenage, "I don't pay bills, so music is my world." I was surprised when they did it but I was like, "Fuck it, let's' roll with it." I've learned now to roll with it. When we did "Worst Behavior" with Drake, I would try and do some edits. I would try and shorten the skit. And he'd be like, "Don't shorten it." The skit is longer than the song. It's madness, but it's great madness. It's what you have the capability of doing now.