In an era where trends come and go, JaQuel Knight has managed to stay relevant and in tune with the culture. Most notably, we’ve witnessed the creative director choreograph at least four major projects with Megan Thee Stallion, in the last three months—Cardi B’s “WAP” music video, a moving Tidal performance, a new Alice in Wonderland-inspired music video for the song “Don’t Stop,” and a powerful Saturday Night Live performance.
Knight’s choreography is tantalizing and catchy, but we’d expect nothing less from the creative mind who led and assisted with some of Beyoncé’s greatest work (e.g. the “Single Ladies” music video and Homecoming experience). Still, in the midst of almost a year-long global halt due to COVID-19 and an equally long bout of civil unrest due to police brutality, nobody would blame Knight if he slowed down and took some time for himself. But he hasn’t. Instead, Knight has remained solid and, with Megan Thee Stallion as his muse, delivered exactly what the world needs at this moment—unapologetic Blackness.
Whether or not the U.S. is ready, Americans have decided to bring the brutality and systemic racism that affects Black people to the forefront. Tragically, even as protesters march against this violence, Black women remain among the most unprotected and disrespected people in America. Nothing solidified this belief more than the Breonna Taylor ruling, which failed to appropriately charge any of the officers who murdered her while she slept. With the weight of that ruling heavy on both Knight and Megan Thee Stallion’s hearts (and the community at large, really), the pair made SNL a stage to demand that society “protect Black women.” The message might even have hit closer to home for Megan Thee Stallion, who recently accused rapper Tory Lanez of assault.
After the performance aired, the internet went wild, with most viewers praising the bold statement—especially the soundbite from activist Tamika Mallory calling out the Kentucky attorney general who managed Taylor’s case. Complex spoke with Knight about his role in creating the bold SNL act, how he uses his platform to challenge sexism and violence against Black women, and initiatives he’s taken to support the most vulnerable creatives during the pandemic. The following interview has been edited for brevity.
How are you truly feeling today, with everything that's going on and with everything that you've been working on lately?
I guess today specifically, after our weekend at SNL, I'm actually feeling really good. I feel like our job served its purpose, and people are continuing to talk. We're moving the conversation forward, and people are speaking out and taking sides, which I truly believe is the purpose of art. And it's moving us forward.
What’s happening today, there should be no gray areas. [If] your friends, your family, and people are confused on which side they’re picking, which side of history they’re falling on, we have to let them go, and we have to find out, because right now it's more important than ever to stand on the right side. And I feel like after the SNL performance, the conversation is moving forward and people are continuing the debate—which should not be a debate, but somehow there is a debate—on the issue at hand, with being Black here in America. So I'm feeling good, because I feel like we're doing our part.
What encouraged you to focus your recent performances and creative skill on choreography that challenges sexism and violence against Black women, specifically?
I guess having built my entire career on the backs of females and lending my back to carry them, now is no different than any other time. It’s like, now is the time to speak out, considering everything that’s going on.
And here I am with [Megan Thee Stallion], a superstar on the rise who has her pulse on the culture and is literally the forefront of our female rappers, and just females period, in the music game right now, and she’s coming into her own voice. I guess it’s important for me to make sure I’m doing my part as one of her leaders, one of her people that she consults [with] and [she] can put her head on my shoulder. It’s important that I have a voice, and I’m standing strong in my beliefs, and that our beliefs line up. Her being a Black woman, right now, coming through everything that she's coming through and being able to still get up and put on and show out and speak out means a lot, and that’s strength beyond.
Don’t let this moment stop you. Don’t let this moment discourage you. But allow it to add fuel to your fire. Allow it to push you even harder.
So having the platform that I have, being able to speak directly to our young Black, brown minorities in the world, I find it’s important that we speak out. It is our responsibility. Period. We have to let people know exactly how we’re feeling and somehow communicate that through our outpouring. I feel like that’s important, as an artist.
How were you able to pull the SNL performance together, during COVID-19, and what inspired you both to use Tamika Mallory’s powerful call-out?
Speaking to how we’re creating right now during COVID, I mean, it’s hard. That was the first live production that we’ve done. I think I’ve been doing stuff with Megan now for the past three months. For the entire three months, we’ve pretty much been doing a bit here and there. And that was our first live television moment. What people don’t know, SNL is live-live. It's not pre-taped earlier in the day and then it goes live. Literally, what’s happening on your TV screen is what’s happening in the studio at that moment. So that’s added pressure and added stress on top of things, whereas we would usually be able to, like, cut around and make sure to get things nice and tight and ready for the people to see. Then we were only able to have six people on the stage at a time. So it's all these added things now, creating during COVID.
Now, that piece specifically, what inspired it all on my behalf was being savage. “Savage” has been the song of the summer. Given the platform that we had, SNL’s a huge platform, and I must say that we all would consider [it] a predominantly white platform. I thought, “Why not now?” Literally, “Why not now?” The Breonna Taylor verdict had just came out the week prior, and that was all heavy on us—on everyone, myself, Megan. So you just have to let all of those things sit.
But then I wanted to use the moment to continue to speak on what we’ve been doing. In Tidal and the past live shows, we’ve made sure we created a Black Lives Matter moment, in creating a moment of silence during our set that spoke to a few of the many lives that we’ve lost to police brutality, and I wanted to just continue that storyline here.
The Tamika Mallory soundbite came out. She has been such a key element during this entire time, speaking on behalf of Black lives Her voice has been important and needed during a time like today, like now, to be woke and aware and clear on what’s happening to our people. She’s been a voice that has been leading the charge and being on the forefront of all things Black Lives Matter, so big up and big love to Tamika.
I don’t know her personally, but I have been following her closely during this entire thing. Me just watching things on social, to see her speak on the verdict of Breonna Taylor—prayers and strength to [Taylor’s] family, Tamika Palmer, her mom—just to see how clear [Mallory] was on the verdict at hand, that was exactly how I felt. And then the clever note of how she used “savage” in her call-out. For me, it was a no-brainer. I sent it to the team. I sent it to Megan. And they was like, “Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. Get it down. Put it on paper now, Quel.”
You wrote a question after the Breonna Taylor verdict: “Why create in a world that keeps killing us?” How do you motivate yourself and your dancers to keep creating during these devastating times?
We’re in the middle of a pandemic. All of the dance studios in L.A. are closed. Imagine the young you. I always think about the young me, the next JaQuel Knight that’s sitting at home, who had the courage to move to Los Angeles to pursue this dream of dance and choreography, and now all of that has been shut down. For me, that says a lot. And I don’t want this world that we’re living in and everything that’s happening now to depress and dilute and clear out the next generation of great talent.
I wake up every day, just knowing that it’s another me out there that's depending on me, that’s depending on the dancers that I hire, that depends on all of my colleagues of other choreographers and dancers out there in the field. Because they’re inspired by our work, inspired by our talent, inspired by a gift, it’s on us to continue to give and show—don’t stop. Don’t let this moment stop you. Don’t let this moment discourage you. But allow it to add fuel to your fire. Allow it to push you even harder. Allow it to let you dig into something even deeper than you ever have before. Let it be bigger than you have ever dreamed. Now is the time.
As far as the dance and entertainment industry is concerned, what is the state of Black female dancers right now? And what are your hopes and dreams for the future of Black women in these creative spaces?
As far as dance, I’m happy people are waking up. For the past two years, I’ve made it an important and very clear focus and path for myself that the majority of my jobs are Black talent and mostly Black women. And those jobs have been very life-changing for the dancers that I hire. Because generally, in the past—as we know it for dancers, Black dancers especially—it’s only one or two spots on the gig. It’s always just one or two spots for the minorities on these big pop, or your big world tours, or your television shows, and your feature films.
I’m not just hiring them just because they’re Black. I’m not hiring them just because we need some Black talent. I’m hiring them because they’re the best in the room. Period. Regardless of race.
So I’ve made it a known factor to, again, change the narrative. We should all [have] been tired of only [being] able to pick one of the best when they’re all lit. All my friends are lit. All my girls I hire are lit, each and every one of them. You can put them in the audition room. They’re going to let everyone have it. I’m not hiring them just because they’re Black. I’m not hiring them just because we need some Black talent. I’m hiring them because they’re the best in the room. Period. Regardless of race. I don't need to speak on their behalf. Because their talent speaks for itself. I ask that we all play a part in putting on. Don’t just talk about it. Be about it.
Lastly, what are some initiatives that you're currently working on, and how can the community get involved?
We currently are running—which is like the heart, my heart—all things through the JaQuel Knight Foundation. Especially during a time like now, during the pandemic, we have been shifting our focus to providing for dancers across the country, from New York to Atlanta to Miami and back to L.A. Just being able to easily provide them grants and funding. We’ve been doing meal drives all through L.A., and we’re looking to spread that out across the country. [For] ways to get involved, just visit JaQuelKnightFoundation.org. We’re going to also start our give back to communities in my hometown of Atlanta and North Carolina.
I’m also working on Passion Project, a grant, which is basically all [for] the next generation, anyone in the entertainment field, more importantly, the jobs that get looked over but are truly important to the entertainment space. I’m working on a project that will provide grants to fund their passion projects [up to $6,000]. We’re figuring out the details, but we’re looking to release that. We all have visions and dreams of creating, and creating for our culture. So I’m hoping that this project will allow people to create something special that’s been sitting on their hearts.