JaQuel Knight on protecting Black IP through dance

Portrait of stylish man posed looking at camera with sunny blue-sky background

The choreographer’s next move sees him behind the camera, helping to ensure Black creatives receive due credit for their work

By Leonie Annor-Owiredu   Photography by Juan Veloz

More and more, Black social media users are finding that major platforms like TikTok and Instagram are allegedly censoring their posts. The hashtag #BlackTikTokStrike, for example, has recently taken hold with two million views on the short video app and users refusing to push out any new dance trends until proper credit is given to creators of colour. And on Instagram, many BIPOC users are alleging their accounts are being ‘shadowbanned’ – the platform’s murky move to censor marginalised communities and Black-run accounts.

One choreographer, however, is seeking to change that: Soho House Warehouse member JaQuel Knight, who has choreographed for Beyoncé, Cardi B and more, is taking matters into his own hands. Knight is launching his own company for BIPOC artists to copyright their work: Knight Choreography and Music Publishing Inc. And the goal is to keep Black dance alive.

We recently caught up with Knight at Soho Warehouse to talk about the personal and professional experiences that led him to create his own copyright company, the inextricable connection between Black culture and pop culture, and what excites him about the future.

Portrait of Stylish man at sunny hotel location
Portrait of Stylish man at sunny location

When did you recognise that Black creators weren’t being credited for their work?

‘For me, it really started to hit home after the success of “Single Ladies”. It was everywhere: CNN, Glee, Sex And The City… and I didn’t see a dime of it. That was the start of me thinking, “OK, is this right? How does this work?” In many ways, that question of how we protect ourselves has always been at the top of my mind.’

What were some experiences you had that led to building Knight Choreography and Music Publishing Inc.? 

‘Being in the field of choreography and creative direction, we are givers – we want to give our skills and make people the biggest stars in the world. We work non-stop. [We’re] first to get there and last to leave. When I think about all the work we’ve done, [for] all these years, and there’s no one to help you after all you’ve given, it’s not a great feeling.’

What’s lost when Black artists aren’t given credit for their work and how have you dealt with this?

‘It’s the history for me. It’s the foundation and the reason why. There are so many books on white creators. We don’t have that as a culture. I think [of] the work of Hype Williams, Alvin Ailey, Dapper Dan, and more... they’ve been so taken advantage of. And the lack of amplification, we don’t hear about it – and that’s where the problem lies.’

How interchangeable do you feel Black culture is with pop culture? 

‘Pop is what’s popular and being Black right now is popular. For all Black people, beyond it being popular, it’s our day-to-day – how we talk, walk – it’s our life. Ultimately, we want our work to blow up. There’s no reason why we shouldn’t be hot. Everything we build is the talk of the town, but the people who build it are not.’

What’s the importance of referencing when thinking of preserving culture? 

‘We have to keep Black dance alive. The heart, soul and spirit that comes from it moves you in a way nothing else in the world can. We’ve got to continue to move the culture forward, otherwise it gets lost and becomes someone else’s.’
Portrait of Stylish man at sunny hotel location

If the TikTok strike came to Knight Choreography and Music Publishing Inc., how would you go about it?

‘Beyond the strike being hilarious, it’s important. And the whole goal of the company is to figure out the back end of it. I see it happen every day with “WAP”, the “Renegade”, and now with “Thot Shit”. It’s a clear representation of what’s been happening in the space. Thankfully, people are speaking up and it’s on us to protect our art [and] to create a world [where we] look after one another.’

How will Knight Choreography and Music Publishing Inc. place value on intangible cultural data for it to be preserved yet shared for future practices?

‘The issue is the protection of intellectual property (IP). The whole copyright system is f***ed in the sense of the lack of protection and understanding. It boils down to how driven you are to go through it all. The copyright system is extremely dated. My entire goal with the company is to create a system for people to know that you have to protect yourself and give them the tools to do so. For me, it's about fixing the paperwork so that creators get ownership, and so those creators can get a cut of that check. Beyond credit, we need to get paid. We want everything that we’re owed.’

What goes unseen in the dance community that your foundation, The JaQuel Knight Foundation, is bringing light to? 

‘For many moons, we’ve been so used to a system that has created a work-for-hire programme, which is whatever you agree upon for your day of work; you give away your image, voice, any additional compensation that may come in from two weeks to five years ago. You have granted the use for all of that for only a day’s rate. That becomes protected when you start to do films where you can get paid for the next 35 years. There are no royalties for YouTube, which has become the new theatre. Your work goes and makes money every night without you.’

You’ve got a lot of initiatives under your foundation’s umbrella. How do they all tie in together? 

‘The core of all that I do is to impact, encourage and inspire the next generations of artists. Besides the big work that everyone sees – the artists, the tours and the shows – I’m most inspired by the little boy who looks just like me, who likes to dance or plays an instrument. And, through this, I created the foundation to give them a little bit of hope to say, “You can be great and you can inspire everyone”. That’s what the foundation’s goal is: to help build a community that truly supports each other.’

What excites you about the future of your foundation and initiatives?

‘Knowing that the work I’m doing will inspire someone else. If I know that I’ve touched one person, I truly feel like my work has been done.’
Interested in becoming a member?