He Choreographed 'Single Ladies' And 'WAP.' Now He's Got A Bigger Mission

Nov 16, 2020
Originally published on November 24, 2020 11:15 am

There are certain hit songs that are almost inseparable from the dance moves that go with them. Hum a few bars of "Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It)," and your hand might start flipping back and forth on its own.

Choreographer JaQuel Knight created that dance for Beyoncé when he was just 19 years old — and this summer, he did it again with the routine for the monster hit by Megan Thee Stallion and Cardi B, "WAP."

"For me, it was all about tapping into my upbringing," Knight says. "I'm from a small town in North Carolina where we frequent family reunions, family cookouts, on the weekends. There's always music and dance. And also, I grew up in Atlanta — [so there are influences from] the streets of Atlanta, being in a marching band and having that mix of culture there."

Knight is defining the way some of today's biggest stars move, and he's getting recognition in a way that many choreographers never do — by copyrighting his work. He spoke with NPR's Ari Shapiro about the potential of dance as a form of activism and the challenges and benefits of protecting it as intellectual property. Hear the radio version at the audio link, and read on for an edited transcript.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


Ari Shapiro: For non-dancers, will you break down some of the movements in the "Single Ladies" video? Just to give us a sense of what you think about as a choreographer?

JaQuel Knight: There's a part where... you clap your hands and your arms go around your head, and you kind of stick your butt out like your grandmother would do when her favorite part of her favorite song would come on — she'd make that good ol' stank face. You tap on your cheek just a little bit, you look at it, and then you go back into your choreography. That feeling is my grandmother all day.

Now that I'm picturing Beyoncé as your grandmother, I'm never going to look at this video the same way again.

It's definitely the joy, though. When you look at the video, as much as it's about the moves, it's also about the feeling and the intent.

Let's talk about your move to copyright some of your work, which is uncommon for choreographers — and incredibly involved.

[Laughs] Yes. The notation for "Single Ladies" is 40 pages long, and that's the choreography from top to bottom.

So why was it important to you to get copyright protection? Why did you think this is something a choreographer should have?

I felt like it validates our positioning and ownership. What copyrighting does is allow you to still have your hand on it, even after the work is done — so as people go and want to use your IP, use your choreography in feature films, commercials, even on video games, you still have ownership and you should still collect some sort of residual payment for such usage.

So much of what makes choreography universal and ubiquitous now is social media. I've heard fears that when dances are copyrighted, people on TikTok or YouTube are going to get sued for, like, doing a popular dance at a bachelorette party. Do you fear that that's what's going to happen here?

No, the point of copyrighting isn't to protect us from [people] doing the dances at home. It's to protect the creator from these huge corporations that come in and take advantage.

Like Fortnite, you're saying — a video game that's going to make a ton of money by selling a dance that somebody else created.

Exactly.

You have this close artistic partnership with Megan Thee Stallion, and you were intimately involved in creating the performance that she gave on Saturday Night Live just a month ago, which combined music with a message to "Protect Black Women." Tell me about how you incorporate video, music, movement, stillness and speech to create something that is more than just entertainment.

For me it's about being present in the moment: feeling all the things, feeling the ups, feeling the downs, and then allowing that to translate into my work. Being not only a choreographer but a creative director, I'm the one who envisioned the the performance from start to end — I sit down and walk Megan through the show. And all things don't require movement: Choreography isn't only about "move, move, move, move," and "5, 6, 7, 8." It's about the stillness and the power that one holds being still, standing strong, being present. Letting every piece of your body have energy that can pierce the camera lens, so people at home can feel you.

And what about the specific message of protecting Black women?

I mean, the role of Black women is beyond important. They have a heavy hand on my life — my mother, I have a sister. What I do, whether it's personal or business, it all relates back to the Black female. We've seen how the media portrays Black women — they just continue to question and continue to put them down. After all the work, all the pain, all the troubles they deal with, they steadily continue to rise up and show out.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

There are certain hit songs that are almost inseparable from the dance moves that go with them, like "Single Ladies" from 2008.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SINGLE LADIES")

BEYONCE: (Singing) Now you're going to learn what it really feels like to miss me.

JAQUEL KNIGHT: Here we go. We say a back, back, hand, hand, a hand, hand, a back, back, hand, hand.

SHAPIRO: That is choreographer JaQuel Knight marking the steps he created for Beyonce when he was just 19 years old. This summer he did it again with the monster hit by Megan Thee Stallion and Cardi B, "WAP."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WAP")

CARDI B: (Rapping) That's some wet. That's some wet.

KNIGHT: Roll to the floor. Go WAP, WAP, WAP and then step, step. Go right here, here and a roll, roll.

SHAPIRO: JaQuel Knight is defining the way some of today's biggest stars move, and he's getting recognition in a way that many choreographers never do by copyrighting his work. So before we get to what those copyrights mean, I asked JaQuel Knight to take us back to "Single Ladies" and his inspiration for those movements.

KNIGHT: For me, it was all about tapping into my upbringing. I'm from a small town in North Carolina where we frequent family reunions, family cookouts on the weekends. There's always music and dance. You know, my youth - I grew up in Atlanta - born in North Carolina, grew up in Atlanta - also many moments from, you know, running the streets of Atlanta, being in the marching band and having that kind of mix of culture there.

SHAPIRO: For non-dancers, will you break down some of the movements in this video just to give us a sense of, like, what you think about as a choreographer?

KNIGHT: Oh, my God. It's a part where we kind of, like, all of a sudden, clap your hands, and your arms go around your head. And you kind of stick your butt out like your grandmother would do where she - where her favorite part of her favorite song would come on.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SINGLE LADIES")

BEYONCE: (Singing) Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh. If you like it, then you should have put a ring on it.

KNIGHT: And she make that good old stink face, and you kind of tap - you tap on your cheek just a little bit. And you look at it, you know? And then you go back into your choreography. You know, that feeling is my grandmother all day (laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SINGLE LADIES")

BEYONCE: (Singing) Need no permission. Did I mention? Don't pay him any attention.

SHAPIRO: Now that I'm picturing Beyonce as your grandmother, I'm never going to look at this video the same way again.

KNIGHT: (Laughter) You know, it's definitely the joy, though. You'll see when you look at the video, it's - as much as it's about the moves, it's also about the feeling and the intent.

SHAPIRO: OK. So you have this close artistic partnership with Megan Thee Stallion, and you were intimately involved in creating the performance that she gave on "Saturday Night Live" just a month ago, which combined music with a message to protect Black women.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")

MEGAN THEE STALLION: We need to protect our Black women and love our Black women because at the end of the day, we need our Black women.

SHAPIRO: Tell me about how you incorporate video, music, movement, stillness, speech to create something that is more than just entertainment.

KNIGHT: It's all relative. And it's all - for me, it's about being present in the moment, feeling all the things, feeling the ups, feeling the downs and then allowing that to translate into my work, you know? Being a - not only a choreographer but, you know, a creative director, you know, I'm the one who envisioned the show, the performance from start to end. I sit down and walked Megan through the show. And all things don't require movement. Choreography isn't only about move, move, move, move, move and five, six, seven, eight. But it's also about the stillness and the power that one holds being still, standing strong, being present, letting every piece of your body have energy, you know, that can pierce the camera lens, you know, so people at home can feel you.

SHAPIRO: And what about the specific message of protecting Black women?

KNIGHT: Personally, I mean, the role of Black women is beyond important. They have a heavy hand on my life, you know, from my mother - I have a sister. What I do, whether it's personal business, you know, it all has and relates back to the Black female. And we've seen how the media portrays Black women. They just continue to question and continue to put down. After all the work, all the pain, all the troubles that they deal with, they steady continue to rise up and show out.

SHAPIRO: Let's talk about your move to copyright some of your work, which is uncommon for choreographers and incredibly involved.

KNIGHT: Yes (laughter). The notation for "Single Ladies" is 40 pages long, and that's the choreography from top to bottom.

SHAPIRO: So why was it important to you to get copyright protection? Why did you think this is something a choreographer should have?

KNIGHT: I feel like it just validates our positioning and ownership. You know, what copyrighting it does is allow you to still have your hand on it even after the work is done. So as people go and want to use your IP, use your choreography in feature films and commercials, even on video games, you know, you still have ownership of and you should still collect some sort of residual payment for such usage.

SHAPIRO: So much of what makes choreography universal and ubiquitous now is social media. And there are fears that when dances are copyrighted, people on TikTok or YouTube are going to get sued for, like, doing a popular dance at a bachelorette party. Do you fear that that's what's going to happen here?

KNIGHT: No. The point of copywriting isn't to protect us from doing the dances at home, you know? It's to protect the creator from these huge corporations that come in and take advantage of.

SHAPIRO: Like Fortnite, you're saying - like a video game that's going to make a ton of money by selling a dance that somebody else created.

KNIGHT: Exactly.

SHAPIRO: You know, as I was getting ready for this interview, I kept thinking of this famous line that says writing about music is like dancing about architecture. And I wondered if making radio about choreography is the same disconnect. But (laughter) with that said, will you indulge us and just, like, give us an eight count to go out on?

KNIGHT: Yes. This eight count is for everyone, even if you're driving, even if you're at home sitting down listening.

(SOUNDBITE OF MEGAN THEE STALLION SONG, "SAVAGE")

KNIGHT: I'm going to roll both shoulders to the back four times. We're going to go one, two and - full movement - three. Feel the up and down - four. To the front, we roll - one. Feel the ups and down - three, four. Your head is going to go to the right and to the left, full movement. We're going to go right and left and right and left. We'll look left and right and left. Now, if you're driving, you may not want to look left and right so fully.

(LAUGHTER)

SHAPIRO: JaQuel Knight, you made choreography work on the radio. It's amazing.

(LAUGHTER)

KNIGHT: There we go.

SHAPIRO: Thank you so much.

KNIGHT: Thanks, Ari.

SHAPIRO: This was really a joy.

KNIGHT: No, I've had a good time.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SAVAGE")

MEGAN THEE STALLION: (Rapping) What's happening? What's happening? I'm a savage, yeah - classy, bougie, ratchet, yeah, sassy, moody, nasty. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.