JaQuel Knight has become one of the most innovative and sought-after choreographers and image architects in the industry and is known for being one of the masterminds behind Beyonce’s creative endeavors. You may recognize Knight’s creative direction and choreography from culture-shifting projects such as Beyonce’s Homecoming & Black Is King, the JLo & Shakira’s Super Bowl Halftime Show, and Cardi B & Megan Thee Stallion’s “WAP” video. Knight first became a phenomenon when he choreographed Beyonce’s “Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It)” music video, which has since become one of the most recognized and iconic dances in history.
Growing up outside of Atlanta, dance and movement have always been a major pillar in Knight’s life. “Ever since I was a young kid when my family would get together we would always dance and come up moves together at reunions, holidays, picnics, etc.,” Knight shared. The influence of dance carried on with him throughout his teen years as he led a local dance troupe. Even though he pursued graphic design at the beginning of his college career, life had other plans for him. Shortly after moving to Los Angeles at 19, he got his first big break choreographing for Beyonce. Now, at age 30, Knight is in the midst of a career renaissance as he continues to reinvent the entertainment industry and create unique and unprecedented dance routines for the world’s biggest artists while captivating cultures around the globe. Artists ranging from pop legends like Cher and Britney Spears, to up and coming superstars like Victoria Monet and Zara Larsson, to hip-hop powerhouses like Pharrell (N.E.R.D.) and Jay-Z enlist the help of Knight to utilize his impeccable vision and ability to innovate creative ideas that the world has never seen before.
The Viral Process
Knight’s formula for making dance moves turn into a global phenomenon is part strategy, part soul, and heart. “In order to make the hit dances that I have today, I had to create my own formula, pave a new lane, and turn my choreography process into a business. I hired my own team, a staff of 8 people, to create an administrative space and studio in order to lay a solid foundation for my work to live and breathe. By creating this structure and team, I have allowed myself to soar. I have been able to focus heavily on the creative process. Then, I of course work closely with the artist. I treat the songs that I’m working on like I would treat any relationship. I learn every in and out, every nuance of the record, every vocal, background, drumbeat, becoming so in sync with the record. My background is in music first, I grew up playing alto saxophone in high school, so I hear music differently than many others. It’s about taking my own experiences when I sit with the artist to bring their alter egos to life through my movement and craft,” explained Knight regarding his process.
As far as reaching the masses goes, Knight believes that his work is a direct reflection of his life from dancing in the backyard with his grandparents and cousins to traveling around the world being exposed to so many different cultures. “Whether those experiences be the countries I visit, the food I eat, the people I work with, the time spent with loved ones, I am always digesting these new encounters. By learning about and from the masses, I’ve come to learn the power of creating choreography that is inclusive to everyone. Rather than making a million steps that seem daunting to viewers and fans, I take the approach of building out choreography that is approachable to both dancers and non-dancers,” Knight added. “It is important to me that the more I can incorporate my life experiences into my moves, the more inviting and far-reaching my impact can be.”
Creating Industry Change
Knight is taking the lead into uncharted territory with the push to make all dance and choreography copyrightable. “When you are at a concert or watch your favorite music video, the excitement in the room is unavoidable and powerful but unfortunately, the creator is often left behind. It’s time for the choreographers to be recognized and receive appropriate credit and protection. We as choreographers are often forgotten, but by creating a way for my fellow dance community to no longer be overlooked, I know that I have made a change for the better. What we do today affects those tomorrow, and if not me, then who else?” said Knight.
With the growth of social media in the past decade, Knight has seen several instances in which credit was not given where credit was due. “With influencers and digital talent earning top dollar to do dances or create content that has already been created, it’s important that the history of that dance is considered as a factor. For me, social media has taken advantage of choreographers in the sense that we have to fight for our rights, our own creativity, and our own work while it is being recreated and imitated at a rate that we often can’t keep up with. Dancers and choreographers are working. We are workers and this is our form of work, and sadly, I often feel that that notion is overlooked in our field. On social media, people think they can take our work, travel with it, copy it, attach and earn a larger dollar from it, and that’s not fair or right. Artists need to own their work. Just as music has to be cleared and paid before use, it should be the same for choreography, right?” Rather than using social media to take from others, we need to look at it as a form of giving forward and inspiring others – by moving the needle of creativity further and not just copying the same trends and dances over and over again, because each time that is done, the original artist behind that dance move is losing sight of their ownership.
As of July 2020, Knight’s Single Ladies score became one of the first non-ballet choreography to be approved for copyright. In a recent Billboard cover story, Robert Kasunic, the U.S. Copyright Office’s associate register of copyright and director of registration policy and practice. explained the current copyright laws for creators. “Copyright provides a creator a level of presumptive validity, and also paternity: ‘This is mine,” explains Kasunic. “Under federal law, that ownership exists from the moment a creative work is “fixed” — for choreography, preserved in a form of writing like Labanotation or on video — and under the Copyright Act of 1909, choreographers have had the option to do just that. But their reality has been far more complicated. For most of the 20th century, choreographic works could only be registered if they demonstrated a clear narrative and could thus be categorized as “dramatic works” — which left out most anything outside traditional ballet.”
Kasunic went on to say that of the more than 500,000 applications the office receives for millions of works registered each year the number for choreographic works is typically less than 20. “The office’s electronic system doesn’t even have a separate label for them, still lumping them in with dramatic works. Choreography still feels a bit like the Wild West of copyright.” Knight is taking on that Wild West in hopes of paving the way for those that follow him. He hopes to be the first of many to have their modern-day dances copyrighted and protected for creative use.
Making An Impact
Knight has conquered the world of dance himself and now he is helping pave the way for the next generation of dancers. As social media apps like TikTok have given a platform for dancers novice and experienced alike to go viral, Knight knows firsthand that industry is cutthroat especially since jobs have been severely limited due to the pandemic. “It’s time for a change. After working in the field for over a decade, and seeing the greats that have come before me, I feel that we all deserve recognition for our hard work. When someone goes and gives their all, why should they only get half back? The dance community has so much to offer. We can even see this through the recent rise of TikTok for example – in such a dark time this year, millions have created joy by simply sharing dance videos from their very own homes. Dance is such a universal language. I’m inspired by the dance community and the powerful tool that we have at our fingertips by being able to create art through movement,” said Knight.
To help support his community during these hard times Knight started The JaQuel Knight Foundation focusing on initiatives to impact, inspire, and encourage the next generation of artists, creatives, and entrepreneurs, “As you know, in 2020 we partnered with various dancer relief organizations across the nation in order the launch The JaQuel Knight Dancers’ Relief Fund, providing grants and meals to dancers and creatives whose lives and work were impacted by the pandemic. I was in the middle of preparing for Coachella when I learned that the event was postponed and I had more than 75 dancers hired at that time. All I could think about was my colleagues and peers in the dance community that would be greatly impacted by the lack of work in the entertainment industry and I knew I needed to create a meaningful initiative surrounding this to continue to build on”
As for 2021, the foundation just launched its application for the Passion Project Grant, which will provide multiple $6,000 grants to aspiring creatives of color, allowing them to jumpstart one of their passion projects. “It’s especially important to me that artists support one another during tough times. In the new year, I’m hoping to continue to raise money and give back to those with little to no access to the industry. By giving back to schools in both small towns and big cities like Atlanta, and relaying the knowledge that I have, I hope that the next generation of creatives will be able to flourish. As a kid, I wanted something different than my peers; I did not want to be a doctor, a lawyer, or a firefighter even. I wanted to be in this space. My hope is that through The JaQuel Knight Foundation, I can continue to empower the kid who also wants to be something different,” emphasized Knight. To learn more about The JaQuel Knight Foundation, please visit: www.jaquelknightfoundation.org.