‘What do you want to hear?’
Normani must have asked this 10 times a day when she started vision boarding the video for Motivation. The ‘you’ in question was ... you, me and the other 100 million (and counting) people who would soon stream her bop on repeat.
Out of nowhere, former Fifth Harmony singer and casual A-list collaborator Normani Kordei Hamilton dropped her first solo single in August last year, and everyone with a screen – from Apple Watches and incognito YouTube windows hidden on work desktops to iPads and even those giant contraptions (‘TVs’) some people insist on keeping at home – watched. The dance sequences were the perfect explosions of eye candy none of us knew we needed: full splits on concrete, synchronised twerking on a chainlink fence, elegant ballet pirouettes worthy of Misty Copeland. Not since Jennifer Lopez took jazz, house and Latin dance breaks in the middle of 1999’s If You Had My Love – or since Britney Spears unleashed a sideways body roll, without moving her rib cage one centimetre, in I’m A Slave 4 U – had we felt such a collective burst of sheer exhilaration from pop music choreography by an artist not named Beyoncé.
Just like Normani planned, the final product was bursting with colour. Pink, graffitied on her cropped tee, to highlight what she says is the main message of Motivation: that women should own their sexuality. Dusky lilac, in the sky behind her during that pas de deux, suggesting some night-time debauchery might be minutes away. Gold via rows of trumpets: the colour of hit records. And another colour, one Normani wanted to emphasise more than any other.
‘I told the director, “I want this to be as black as possible,”’ she says, sitting at a café after spending hours browsing the soul section of Amoeba Music in Los Angeles, her fingers gently plucking through cassette tapes and vinyl records. ‘I was like, let’s show black culture. Why does pop music have to be so white? Why don’t we make it a little bit more me?’
Speaking up for herself like this has been a pretty recent development for Normani, who says she’s spent the majority of her life hiding. Born in Atlanta, Georgia, then raised in New Orleans, Louisiana, and eventually home-schooled in Houston, Texas, she was an introvert. She spent her afternoons watching MTV, where Britney, Shakira, Christina, Mandy and Jessica engaged in bubbly banter on Total Request Live. She lived for their music (...Baby One More Time was Normani’s first-ever CD purchase), but it also made her feel invisible. That’s why every Saturday, she’d turn to reruns of 106 & Park on BET (a US TV channel), where she saw Lil’ Kim own the stage and Ciara one-two step for the first time. (It’s also why her now-famous video begins with a black tween rushing into her family’s living room to watch that very show.)
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