Creative director Jemel McWilliams on his Emmy nod: ‘It’s an absolute honor’

Choreographer McWilliams was recognized by his peers for his work on the Oscars

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The 2020 Emmy Awards are going down this weekend and even though the annual event will be virtual this year, there’s still a lot to look forward to. One of the most exciting aspects of this year’s big night is the number of Black creatives nominated across so many categories. 

Read More: WATCH: Janelle Monae calls out #OscarsSoWhite during opening number: ‘Happy Black History Month’

One of those nominees is choreographer, artistic director, and creative director, Jemel McWilliams. The Washington, D.C. native earned himself a nomination for Outstanding Choreography for Variety or Reality Programming for The Oscars Opening Sequence Routine: Come Alive.

He’s the man behind the show-stopping opener featuring Janelle Monae calling out the awards show’s own cultural blindspots.

“We definitely understood what we were doing and were very intentional on everything that we did,” he says of the groundbreaking performance. “We understood the implications of everything we were doing and everything we did was completely from our hearts and from our souls and what we felt was most inspiring and moving to us.”

theGrio caught up with the first-time nominee about his road to the Emmys and how he stays inspired to help some of the biggest stars in the game elevate their art. 

“It’s an absolute honor,” he says of the nomination. “To see my face among these pioneers, among these Black leaders, among these Black creators and these Black artists that have found a way to cut through, it meant more to me than anything because it helped me realize the impact of my art. It also helped solidify the responsibility that I gladly accept.”

McWilliams’ road to success didn’t go exactly the way he planned. He started out as a backup dancer for folks like Alicia Keys and Nicki Minaj. When he was sidelined by an injury, the time off helped him hone his skills and focus on the next phase of his career.

As a creative director for some of music’s biggest names, McWilliams has a knack for telling stories with movement. His long list of clients includes Lizzo, Tracee Ellis Ross, Kelly Rowland, John Legend, and Janelle Monae, among others. 

Even though COVID-19 has created another potential hurdle, McWilliams has made the most out of the situation by being “quarantine creative.” He served as a producer and choreographer for John Legend and Family: A Bigger Love Father’s Day and helped the superstar pull off his video performance for the Global Citizen’s Concert, One World: #TogetherAtHome that raised over $120M in support of frontline health care workers, and UN’s World Health Organization.

According to McWilliams, the quarantine has helped him cultivate a more strident self-care routine.

Jemel McWilliams (Photo: james Anthony)

“I’ve had a little bit of downtime to think about TV and film ideas that my production company will start to develop. I’m super ambitious and very inspired right now. I’ve been on the grind,” he explains. “I’ve taken so much time to really understand the boundaries, even as a creative that I need to set for my own mental wellness.

I’m an empath. I feel everything. So many of our brothers and sisters are hurting. We’re still being killed disproportionately and we’re just exhausted. We’re trying to explain it to the world and to people who don’t seem to want to see it. As a result, I have started implementing better practices to stay centered.”

Read More: Shangela speaks on Emmy-nominated HBO series ‘We’re Here’

McWilliams says the social unrest and volatile state of the country has inspired him artistically as well. 

“I am Black and I’m proud to be. I’ve always been Black and proud, but I’m like…super, extra proud and I’m not afraid to be proud. I’m not hesitant to bring that pride to any role that I take on or any table that I’m at. Without what has gone on this year, I may not have gone as hard as I’m going to make sure that representation is at the root of everything that I do.” 

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