this choreographer brought the african diaspora to childish gambino's 'this is america'
Dancer Sherrie Silver talks teaching Donald to do the Gwara dance and Alex Jones calling her moves "voodoo dancing."
Screenshot via YouTube
As we’ve moved away from countdown shows like TRL and 106 & Park and towards on-demand streaming, it’s increasingly rare for a music video to become the centrepoint of a larger cultural conversation. Which explains why pop juggernauts have turned to the visual album in an attempt to capture our attention: Beyonce’s Lemonade, Kendrick Lamar’s interconnected DAMN. videos, and Janelle Monae’s Dirty Computer. These large-scale projects are artists’ attempts to avoid having their work become as ephemeral as a funny cat video, while also positioning them as fully fledged, in-control auteurs. Today, the hard part isn’t realising your artistic vision, but compacting the complex realities of our “Hands up, don’t shoot!” age into a succinct four minutes, and then getting people to not only watch it, but remember watching it.
Childish Gambino, the rap persona of renaissance man Donald Glover, managed to do just that last Saturday with his violent, gasp-inducing video for This Is America. The clip has only been out for five days, but has already racked up 70 million views. This Is America sees Donald simultaneously juke and jive while killing a black gospel choir with an assault rifle, dancing with kids, and smoking a blunt. It feels as chaotic and anxiety-inducing as watching an hour of Fox News. It’s also predictably incited reactions from alt-right figures like conspiracy theorist Alex Jones (who called Gambino’s moves “voodoo dancing”). In fact, Donald seems to be inviting precisely that type of white outrage via his minstrel-like dancing and “thuggish” behaviour. He is playing into what white society expects from a black man in the most subversive and prideful of ways, while also holding up a critical mirror to it.
Sherrie Silver is the Rwandan-born, UK-raised dancer who choreographed the moves that have made white viewers like Alex Jones so mad, and black viewers like yours truly so proud. “I don’t think there is anyone else who would have danced to the song like this,” Sherrie tells me over Skype, her voice filled with an audible empowerment, understandable considering the host of rave reviews the video has received. “But this is how I and the people in Rwanda would have danced to it.”
Sherrie worked closely with Donald and the posse of child dancers in the video to create dance sequences that pulled from the entire spectrum of the black diaspora. One second, Donald is performing the South African Gawra dance and, the next, seamlessly transitioning into some Brooklyn flexing moves. “Donald and Hiro shared the concept with me and then when I met Donald he clarified it for me even more,” Sherrie says of the collaboration process. Sherrie credits her YouTube dance videos for garnering the attention of Donald’s team and getting her involved with the project. “Donald let me know that there was one move he really liked that he wanted to incorporate. We met in the middle and collaborated on the dance. I just brought my flavour to make something that hasn’t been seen in a hip hop video like this before.”
Here, Sherrie talks to i-D about choreographing the most decisive, conversation-sparking dance video of 2018.
What’s interesting to me about the video is the mix of different black and African dance styles performed. How did you create this intriguing cross-pollination of ideas?
I think it’s from me being African. I’m originally from Rwanda and I travel around Africa teaching, so I brought myself and my whole heart. I wanted to have references to American dances as well and I think Donald wanted something really different and not expected to be seen.
How did you learn to dance?
Growing up and being born in Africa, we just have music playing on the street. Everything is so colourful, through poverty or good times. Dance is something that we always do, it’s part of the environment. So we grow up doing freestyles and just learning how to dance, having that groove. I taught myself a lot of things and some things just come up naturally. Other things I’ve learned from dancing with other dancers and watching videos.
For the casual viewer, it might be hard to dissect the barrage of references and concepts in the video. Could you clarify a little what you were trying to explore with the choreography?
I think my role with the kids was to bring light to the video because, as you can see, there’s so much darkness around. So they almost look misplaced, because they’re having a good time. They are kind of Donald’s shadows, in a way.
The song’s lyrics and the video’s themes largely deal with the state of black politics in America. Do you think, as a black diaspora, dance has the power to get us through tough times?
Oh yes, 100%. I think you can protest through dancing. There are positive ways of expressing how you feel, and I think dance is a great, non-violent way to do it.
Even when I’m going through tough stuff, I find that if I go to the dance studio and play very loud music it’s very therapeutic. Honestly, one time I went to the studio when I had a headache and started dancing. I forgot I had a headache, and then it came back when I stopped dancing.
There were some passionate negative responses to the video. Alex Jones had the audacity to call Donald’s moves “voodoo dancing” and used other racially loaded language. How does this kind of white ignorance make you feel, especially as an African dancer?
To be honest when it comes to the criticism, I don’t read reviews or watch when people are like “THE REAL MEANING BEHIND… ” I’ve been in the media, I know how people can interpret things in their own way. There’s nothing wrong with that, but if that’s what someone thinks voodoo dancing is… um… okay. For me, this is not voodoo dancing, this is cultural. It’s happy dancing! This is what people do at parties back home. Voodoo dancing... It’s hilarious!
I’m very proud of where I’m from. My whole motto is taking Africa and afro-dance to the world and taking the world to Africa. So to be able to be yourself on a project this big is amazing and I wear it with pride.
What’s next for you?
Once the video hits 100 million views, I’m going to drop a tutorial so people can learn the dance moves. Because I know everyone is trying to learn it — I can see you all on social media! It’s been really nice to watch. You can be at a party and add your own flavour. Like if you’re in India, how would you dance to it?
What advice do you have for someone who may not be rhythmically gifted and wants to dance to the song?
I’d tell them to book a private class with Sherrie Silver! Be patient. I love teaching — I teach classes around the world and I love seeing people better themselves. If you want to get into dancing, watch videos. YouTube allows you to slow down videos now. Enjoy yourself, that is the most important thing. I think when you watch the video, you can see all the dancers are smiling and having a good time. I think dance comes from expression, so just express your happiness!
What artists do you want to work with next?
There are so many amazing artists out there! I don’t want to be cliché and say Beyoncé and Rihanna…
But it’s a cliché for a good reason!
Yeah, cause they’re some of the best out there. I would love to do a video or choreograph for Beyoncé, because she was one of the first to go into Africa. We can’t forget what she did with “Run the World.” It was a different style of African dance. She’s always had that interest in Africa. And I love Rihanna’s Caribbean vibes. Basically, I’d want to work with any artist who is working hard and setting new boundaries in the industry.
This article originally appeared on i-D US.