JaQuel Knight also opens up about having to create "during a time when Black lives are being taken for granted" and giving back to his dance community

By Tomás Mier
Updated September 03, 2020 05:55 PM
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From the top, make it drop, that's some bomb ass choreo!

You can credit JaQuel Knight for the iconic "WAP" dance moves, served by Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion, that broke the internet last month.

The music video's choreographer — who also works his magic as a director and creative director — talks to PEOPLE about leading Cardi and Megan in what he calls the "hardest and craziest" project.

"I don't think I've done anything harder than pulling off a production like this video: casting and rehearsing talent, rehearsing one-on-one with the artists in the middle of a pandemic," he says. "It was literally the hardest and craziest thing ever."

But Knight knew from the start that it was going to be the smash hit that it's become.

JaQuel Knight
Andres Norwood/Courtesy JaQuel Knight

"Once I heard Megan's part come in, I was like 'Cardi, you know this is about to break the internet?'" the 30-year-old recalls telling Cardi B. "'You know this is going to be the biggest record of all time, right?'"

And he was right.

The music video — and its in-your-face visuals and sexually empowering dance moves — has garnered more than 160 million views easily situating it as one of the best music videos of the year. The song alone skyrocketed to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.

"There's power within the lyrics,” Knight says. "For me, it was really important that we displayed a sense of power and strength. It was really important that we took the power back and placed it in the hands of women."

"It's really important to see female rappers especially come together during a time like now," he says. "It's important to see that visual. It's important to watch Black women work together lifting each other up during a time when Black lives are being taken for granted."

And he had the perfect muses for his message.

"Cardi worked her ass off and I can't say that enough," Knight says. "It was really important for her to have choreography. She isn't the biggest dance artist, but she was in there every day working hard."

"By the end of it, it became something super comfortable for her," he added. As for Megan, "She's a fast learner." (Knight and Megan worked together on her 2020 BET Awards performance.)

And while the work was nonstop for about a month, Knight admits the whole set was in tears every single day — especially as soon as the two rappers linked up for the first time.

"The jokes were just nonstop,” says Knight, laughing. "Cardi is a handful, as you can imagine. We were literally in tears day in, day out."

RELATED VIDEO: Cardi B Gifts Megan Thee Stallion a Custom Hermès Birkin to Celebrate 'WAP' Hitting No. 1

Even before "WAP," Knight has been a force to be reckoned with for years.

Whether it's working with Shakira on her Super Bowl performance or Beyoncé on Homecoming or creative directing Pharrell Williams' "Something in the Water" festival, Knight has done it all. He's even brought home two VMAs for best choreography for two of the most era-defining music videos: Beyoncé's "Formation" and "Single Ladies."

During the COVID-19 pandemic now, the dancing star is paying it forward.

He created the JaQuel Knight Foundation in an effort to encourage, impact and inspire the next generation of artists. It started with handing out food to dancers left without work. In just two days, they gave 2,400 meals to dancers. Then it became something bigger.

The Foundation began the Dancers Relief Fund, where dancers — from Los Angeles, Atlanta, Miami and New York — can apply and receive grants to pursue their creative dreams cut short by the pandemic.

"They're some of the least paid in the industry," he says. "We want to shed a light on that and even coming out of that, how do we repair and fix it?"

"We've been kicking off really cool initiatives that raise money but also bring some awareness to the community, to show the love and show the community aspect that we naturally have," he adds, talking about his Battlez initiative, which celebrates top choreographers on Instagram Live to raise awareness for the foundation.

And while the pandemic has made it hard for all creatives, Knight admits that the racial climate in the U.S. — especially following the police killings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd — has added another obstacle to his own creative process. Earlier this week, he shared on Instagram that he almost dropped out of making a trip to help with Megan Thee Stallion's virtual concert because "why create in a world that's literally KILLING us?!"

"It's extremely difficult to create in a climate that doesn't want you to be great, where you’re set up to fail," he says with passion. "Not even fail, you're set up to die."

In his recent posts, he clamors for justice in the police brutality cases of Jacob Blake and Taylor that have shocked the nation.

"AMERICA SAY THEIR NAMES AND DO THE RIGHT THING NOW!!!" he wrote. "NO ONE HAS TIME TO WAIT TO VOTE!!! THIS NEEDS YOUR ACTION NOW!!!"

Undeniably, his experience as a Black man in the U.S. has morphed his style and career path, he says.

His choreography and style stem from his upbringing in Atlanta and he's created his own JaQuel-ness influenced by his upbringing — going to cookouts being surrounded by strong, Black women — but also being around the streets.

"There's beauty in all of it: the pain, the good, the bad," he says.