Sherrie Silver has had a big week – really big.
On Sunday at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, This Is America, the dark, violent but equally high-spirited hit song and video performed by Childish Gambino – real name Donald Glover – won four Grammy Awards. Ms. Silver, a 24-year-old Rwandan dance phenomenon, was the video’s choreographer. She was thanked onstage by Childish Gambino’s collaborators – he did not attend – and made a splash at the post-Grammy parties.
On Thursday, she was in Rome, where she met Pope Francis and spoke at the annual meeting of a United Nations agency.
She and her mother, Florence Silver, could not have imagined such fame only a few years ago. They are lucky to be alive. In 1994, Florence’s husband was killed in the Rwandan genocide – he died a month before Ms. Silver was born. Five years later, mother and daughter fled to England, where they knew no one, and built a life in London.
Today Ms. Silver, the self-styled “African Queen,” is a budding international dance, acting and modelling celebrity, Mr. Glover’s favoured choreographer, winner in the best choreography category at the 2018 MTV awards, and a Facebook, Instagram and YouTube sensation, with nearly 375,000 YouTube subscribers and dance videos that have been viewed millions of times.
Her next project, as a new youth advocate for the UN’s International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), focuses on rural youth in sub-Saharan Africa and other poor areas of the planet, encouraging investment in children so they can build careers in agriculture and not have to move to cities, where they might flounder in the slums. She wants farming to be “cool.”
Her message is not just “to get your hands dirty,” as she puts it, but to learn about production, marketing and social media, as she did, to gain independence, earn some money and build a business. “I am here today because I want young people around the world to know that they can achieve anything they put their minds to,” she told the audience in Rome, shortly after the Pope’s speech. “We don’t want pity. We don’t want handouts. We want you to believe in us.”
While she was thrilled to meet the pontiff, there is no doubt the Grammys are the highlight of her short career. This Is America won the award for best video – it has also been viewed almost half a billion times since last year – and the song won for both record and song of the year and best rap song.
Ms. Silver is a self-made woman, which gives her be-who-you-wanna-be message to young people more punch. From an early age, she was aware of the power of marketing and social media and learned how to exploit them to build her image.
A year or two after arriving in London, Florence Silver noticed that her daughter was unusually flexible, physical and daring. “When she was seven, she started walking on her hands, with her legs in the air, and doing flips,” she said. “I thought: She really has a talent.”
She enrolled her daughter in the Stagecoach Performing Arts School for Children, where “she started to go crazy with dancing.” As a kid, Ms. Silver put together her own singing and dancing group, the Children of Destiny, and at 11 performed a dance routine for Rwandan President Paul Kagame at a conference he hosted at a London hotel. She was on her way.
While she was in her late teens, she began posting videos online featuring energetic African dance moves from several countries, such as the Gwara Gwara from South Africa and the Shaku Shaku from Nigeria. They proved to be hits, and Ms. Silver, who was still studying business and marketing at university, was recruited to teach dance to kids and perform at festivals and concert halls – sometimes alone, sometimes with a dance troupe – in the Middle East and Africa.
Last spring, the niece of one of Mr. Glover’s management team members spotted some of Ms. Silver’s videos. She showed them to Mr. Glover, who insisted on meeting her. “Donald Glover e-mailed me,” she said. “He was interested in African dance. He held an audition and, suddenly, we were collaborating.”
Soon, she was choreographing This Is America – right down to the way the choir members fall as Childish Gambino mows them down with mock machine-gun fire. Ms. Silver is also one of the zestful dancers in the video. She and Mr. Glover have since worked on other projects, including two commercials for Google, and will appear on stage together in April for a performance at the Coachella music festival in California.
Since This Is America burned up YouTube, her career has taken off in all directions. Fashion magazine covers are coming, and she is being bombarded with choreography offers. Recently, she choreographed singer Rita Ora’s appearance on the runway of the Victoria’s Secret fashion show.
But her dream is not choreography – it’s acting. “I’m definitely going into acting,” she said. “It’s my love. I have so many personalities. I am very bubbly and can do a lot of accents.”
Even as her celebrity soars, Ms. Silver promises not to forget her African roots. She and her mother have launched an African charity that provides dental care, funds health insurance for children, rebuilds schools and helps young people set up businesses in Rwanda, Nigeria and Uganda. One project teaches former prostitutes how to use sewing machines. “Mostly, I want to inspire young people to pursue their dreams,” she said.