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Incredible Women

A piece of my mind: choreographer and viral dance visionary Sherrie Silver

In this series, PORTER delves into the mind of an Incredible Woman making waves in her industry to discover what drives her passions, the biggest challenges she’s faced, and what she wishes she could tell her younger self. Next up is Rwandan-British choreographer to the stars, actor and United Nations advocate SHERRIE SILVER, who got her breakthrough as the movement mastermind behind Childish Gambino’s This is America

Award-winning choreographer Sherrie Silver

Sherrie Silver, like most of us, has had more time than usual to take stock over the past year. Before the pandemic, the 27-year-old VMA-winning choreographer would have been traveling weekly for work, but this period of enforced stillness has been a lesson in “becoming content” for her. “So, finding joy when you’re really, really busy and then, when you’re not busy, being content and still able to find joy,” she explains from her London home. And when Silver is busy, she is really, really busy. Having kick-started her career by uploading dance videos to YouTube, she has worked with the likes of Rihanna, Years and Years, Amanda Gorman and, of course, Childish Gambino (her VMA win was for the viral music video she choreographed for This is America in 2018).

But her passion runs much deeper than dance. Silver uses her platform to raise up her philanthropic work. She is a United Nations IFAD Advocate for Rural Youth, and has recently been working on a campaign to eradicate malaria, while her longer-term plan involves opening a group of performing-arts schools across Africa.

Here, she gives us a piece of her mind…

“My mum claims she taught me how to dance…

…because she used to dance me around – and I let her think that! We used to go to church on Sundays and, in African churches, you have to dance – so that’s where I found that passion. I started performing in my local community and I realized that I wanted to entertain. I finally put some videos on YouTube and saw that people were taking an interest and I started to get bookings. Then I realized I was only putting videos out to entertain people, but now I can actually make money from this.

Success seems like it’s overnight but, obviously, it’s really years of work.

A day or two after This is America came out, I remember seeing Donald [Glover]’s manager tweet something like, ‘Sherrie Silver is the mastermind behind This is America and you should be interviewing her’, and saying I was the new Fatima [Robinson]. That was a moment when I was like, ‘Huh, does this mean I’ve made it?!’

My mom would always reassure me that I’m beautiful, so I decided, growing up, that I was going to stand firm in who I truly am

I remember being bullied as a child.

I was bullied for having ‘extra dark’ skin and people would tell me to lighten it. But something in me, even at that young age, knew that, if someone’s bullying me for this, that means there’s going to be another child who’s bullied for the same thing. My mom would always reassure me that I’m beautiful, so I decided, growing up, that I was going to stand firm in who I truly am. Now, young girls are sending me messages like, ‘I wanted to change my skin, but because of you, I now realize I am beautiful’, and that makes it all worth it.

Silver accepting the award for Best Video With a Message, on behalf of Childish Gambino, during the 2018 MTV Video Music Awards in New York City

I lost my stepdad last year, which was the saddest part of the pandemic for me.

It was terrible, but I got to spend so much time with him before, and I’ve been feeling so privileged to have shared such great moments with him, because nothing’s owed to us.

I want to be remembered for the things I care about, which is making positive social change.

Because of the attention my work has received, I’m now able to use that platform to put out social beliefs that I really care about, such as fighting malaria, eradicating poverty and getting kids into school.

The United Nations saw that a lot of my work tries to inspire change…

…from Childish Gambino’s This is America to [the more recent] Starstruck with Years and Years – and it wanted to find ways, through entertainment, that it could promote awareness of issues that youths in rural areas around the world were suffering from. We did a dance challenge together and it got around 100 million interactions on TikTok, and we’ve now used that to say to world leaders, ‘Look at all these people who care about rural youth… so what are you going to do about it?’ All that from just dancing around!

I’d love to get into TV.

Maybe I could explore that using my teaching skills, or cooking – or both! But there’s no rush. People always have this fear of missing opportunities, like, ‘Oh, I’m not famous anymore!’ But why are you worried? There’s this pressure to stay relevant, but I’m working, I’m doing my best, I’m not losing myself, so I’m cool. [It’s about] accepting that you’re not going to be popular every single day, but you can still have work coming in. You can’t always be holding on to fame. If I focus on trending, then all I’m going to be doing every day is looking for new ways to trend.

There’s this pressure to stay relevant, but I’m working, I’m doing my best, I’m not losing myself, so I’m cool

I wish there had been better representation when I was younger.

Every time we saw someone ‘beautiful’, it was always a light-skinned person or a mixed-race person with ‘nice’ hair. Now, we have all these amazing role models wearing their [natural] hair and being proud of their skin color. I think representation played a huge part of that – and now I’m going to make sure I’m that representation.

I really want to start a performing-arts school in Africa in the next five years…

…and then eventually more. I believe in education and I want to give people the opportunities to develop their talents.”