On April 7, Netflix tweeted a yellow graphic of the word “Homecoming,” with Greek thetas and sigmas on the O’s and the E, with no context. The streaming platform rarely announces programming without context, but there are some people in this world for whom context is unnecessary, and for whom hyperbole is impossible. One of those people is Beyoncé.
In the last six years alone, Beyoncé has released three albums, two of which came with full visual accompaniments. She has toured for each album, selling out arenas across the world. She gave birth to twins, Rumi and Sir. She earned six Grammys and a Video Vanguard Award at the VMA’s. She was announced as a cast member in Jon Favreau’s upcoming film, The Lion King. And on April 14, 2018, she became the first black woman to headline Coachella.
Here’s Beyoncé’s performance—aptly dubbed Beychella—by the numbers: Two hours. 26 songs. Around 100 dancers. Four guest appearances (five during weekend two, when J Balvin showed up for the “Mi Gente” remix). Five outfit changes. 18 samples of songs from fellow black artists. 458,000 simultaneous viewers. 232 countries. 43.1 million views. Those who tuned in remember where they were, who they were with, and the fact that every tweet on their timeline that day was about the queen herself. Beychella was undoubtedly the pop culture event of the year, and it took a whole team of collaborators to pull it all off.
In January 2017, it was announced that Beyoncé would be headlining that year’s festival. In February, she stated that she would be postponing the performance until the following year, citing doctors’ concerns about her pregnancy. After her withdrawal from the festival, ticket resale prices dropped 12 percent, according to TicketIQ.
When the time came for her to finally play Coachella 2018, anticipation couldn’t have been higher. The famously enigmatic mother of three, who has evaded press for years, would finally be taking center stage at one of the biggest festivals in the country, and fans had no details about what to expect. She could have given us anything and we would have been grateful. But this is Beyoncé we’re talking about. She doesn’t do just anything. She does everything.
“I can’t explain it. I felt proud to be Nigerian. I felt proud to be black in the USA. I will never forget those rehearsals.” – Diddi Emah
Beyoncé’s Coachella performance, which was attended in person by 125,000 people and live streamed by millions more, wasn’t planned like a normal festival appearance. It had the production value of a world tour, because it was treated like one from the beginning. Dancers who were involved in the show heard about auditions over six months before the festival began, via whispers in their local dance communities. Nigerian singer and dancer Diddi Emah, a.k.a. Beychella’s #BatonBae, confirms that her audition was one of the longest she had ever been apart of.
“The audition was long, but it was fun,” she gushes. “We felt appreciated in the process. [Choreographer] JaQuel Knight was very supportive.”
The encouraging nature of the audition started with the casting call. “A lot of auditions are typecast; they’ll tell you what they’re looking for,” Diddi explains. “‘5’1, 5’2, 5’3, we want this body type, must be fit.’ [For the Coachella audition], there was no requirement.”
Even with the openness and acceptance, though, Emah almost didn’t make the cut. “We finished the audition, and I didn’t hear my name called to stay; I had been cut,” she explains. “I was leaving the parking lot and realized that my friend who was also auditioning had my house key, so I turned around to go back. When I turned around, my friend was outside, yelling, ‘Diddi, they’ve been calling your number!’”
Emah admits that by the time she re-entered the auditions and performed the required routine, she didn’t nail it. “Every other time, it went great, but that last time, I messed up,” she recollects. “So I don’t know how I made it, but I’m just so grateful, because going into it, I was like, ‘This is Beyoncé—is my ego going to be able to handle it if I get cut?’”
Other collaborators had no idea what they were getting themselves into. Jamal Josef, the choreographer who taught Queen Bey how to step, learned of the audition the night before, and didn’t find out who he had auditioned for until afterwards.
“I think I found out who it had been for a couple days after,” he estimates. “Someone was like, ‘Oh, yeah, that was the audition for Beyoncé.’ It was a surprise to me.”
“A lot of artists have a director who runs the show—Beyonce runs the show.” – Don P. Roberts
Musicians were also in the dark. Don P. Roberts, best known for his work as CEO and director of Drumline Live, was recruited by Beyoncé’s team to assist with assembling the band. He brought on about 30 musicians he’d worked with before, but couldn’t tell them who they would be working with until they landed in California.
“I said, ‘Y’all ready to find out who you’re performing for?’” he chuckles. “In my group, there was only one woman. So it’s this big group of almost all 20-something guys, and they just totally lost it when I told them. Totally lost it.”
Roberts was assembling a group of musicians who would be joining Beyoncé’s core band. This could have been intimidating, but the director insists that he and his musicians felt welcomed. “We walked in and our guys jumped right in with their band,” he says. “They already had some incredible people, and that made it so easy for us to just blend in with them. It was a great learning environment for everybody; I’ll never forget that.”
Once the roster had been finalized, it was off to the races. Emah describes rehearsals for Beychella as “very long and very intense.” Ashley Everett, Beyoncé’s dance captain of 10 years, confirms that rehearsals lasted eight hours a day, and they got longer in the final weeks leading up to the show.
The seemingly grueling schedule is nothing compared to her earlier years with Beyoncé, though. “In the days before [Beyoncé had] kids, we used to do 12 to 20 hour rehearsals, and she’d be right there with us,” she divulges. “We’d sometimes go from 10 a.m. to 4 a.m.”
Rehearsals began with a skeleton crew of 10 or 15 dancers, who workshopped different movements and tried out potential choreography. Eventually, more dancers and musicians joined in, and the pieces started to come together. One of those pieces was Emah’s baton solo, which hadn’t been a part of Beyoncé’s initial plans, or Emah’s for that matter (she stopped practicing regularly when she was 14 years old). She took a chance and showed up to auditions with her batons, anyway. Once she showed Beyoncé’s team of choreographers what she could do, they figured out how to incorporate her skills into the performance.
Josef, on the other hand, was recruited to audition with one mission: stepping. Josef is a member of the Eta Iota chapter of the Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity Incorporated at Voorhees College, a historically black college in Denmark, South Carolina. Josef and one of his fraternity brothers choreographed the stepping portion of the show. Beyoncé’s team had the final say, but, as Josef puts it, “Our stuff was pretty legit.”
The team’s biggest challenge was to make sure that their choreography didn’t look like anything that already existed. The art of stepping traces its roots back to the inception of black fraternities and sororities in the early 1900s, and many of the routines and movements are copyrighted, so Josef had to find a way to honor these traditions without imitating them directly.
Last year, Josef told Essence that he had been concerned about making sure Bey knew what she was doing. Both Josef and Roberts emphasize that those who are familiar with the cultures of both HBCUs and black Greek life “will cut you to pieces if it’s not authentic.” But he also had another goal in mind: shedding a positive light on black Greek life.
“The amount of recognition that historically black colleges get, a lot of negativity comes with that, especially with Greek culture, because they’re always in the news for hazing and other things,” he acknowledges. “So [when I was approached], I thought, ‘This is perfect, for someone of this caliber to be showing us in a positive light, and wanting to pay homage.’”
While working with Beyoncé, Josef was able to see firsthand what has been said about her for years: she works hard. “She was open and ready to learn, very eager,” he confirms. “She was a quick learner, always ready, always prepared, and very precise in her mindset, her energy, her movement. There was never an off day; she’s consistent.”
According to Emah, the hard-working attitude was contagious. “Just to watch her move and to be a part of that experience, I learned what was acceptable and what was unacceptable,” she recounts. “I learned from watching her that it’s okay to want to be a part of everything, to want to know about everything that’s going on. That doesn’t make us crazy micromanagers; it just makes us great.” Similarly, Josef learned “what it really means to be a professional” from watching Beyoncé.
“You become a family in rehearsals. You’re celebrating people’s birthdays, everybody’s sneaking around to sign cards for them.” – Jamal Josef
As dance captain, Everett is responsible for keeping track of Beyoncé’s expansive library of choreography. As we’ve all seen, the world-renowned artist often calls back to the iconic choreography from earlier in her career, from “Crazy In Love” to “Baby Boy” to “Single Ladies.” Still, this was different from any other show they had done before.
“We had all these band members—drums, horns, violins, every instrument you could think of—up on stage with us, and there were so many dancers,” Everett remembers. “People were coming at different times, too, so we’d teach a big group all the choreography to one song today, and then tomorrow 20 more people would show up and we’d have to re-teach.” It wasn’t always go, go, go—some days were for planning things out visually—but most of the time, “there was a lot going on,” she says.
Beyoncé prefers to learn choreography in a smaller group first, with five to 12 dancers who she’s known for a while, or “whose energy she likes.” Once she knows what she’s doing, she’ll join everybody else, so she can feel the vibe of the entire production. As much as Beyoncé feeds off of the dancers’ energies, though, the dancers also feed off of hers.
“Imagine having Beyoncé’s live voice in your ear—that’s all you hear,” Emah reminisces. “When her vocals are on and everything’s going, it sounds like her voice is flowing through your body. It just gave me extra energy. I can’t explain it. I felt proud to be Nigerian. I felt proud to be black in the USA. I will never forget those rehearsals.”
Roberts describes the rehearsals as “intense but fun,” and points out that the high stakes of working with an artist like Beyoncé contributed to both. “A lot of artists have a director who runs the show—Beyoncé runs the show. So nobody came in playing around; people came to work.” He asserts, “We always moved forward. Every single day there was a steady crescendo that built excitement and anticipation, all the way up to the actual performance.”
Beyond feeling connected to a superstar, the performers also bonded with each other. “You become a family in rehearsals,” Josef says, earnestly. “You’re celebrating people’s birthdays, everybody’s sneaking around to sign cards for them. You never forget what it was like to share that time with those other dancers.”
Everett agrees. “When we would have some down time, one drummer might start playing, then a horn might start adding in, and it would turn into a jam session,” she recalls. “And then with a ton of dancers in the room, it just breaks out into a backyard barbecue feel. It would lighten the mood and keep everybody in a happy place, even when we were hot and exhausted.”
“You can feel her energy, and it’s so powerful strong, and purpose-driven. You can’t help but be great.” – diddi emah
As showtime approached, things got a little hairy. At a certain point, they were able to rehearse on a mock stage, but it wasn’t exactly like what the final product would be, and that caused problems. Everett confesses that a couple people fell during those rehearsals, though thankfully nothing too serious happened. The team only had one full run-through on the actual Coachella stage, and these Coachella Desert winds were blowing.
“It was so windy. I would do my solo and the batons would fly behind me,” Emah laughs. “I was nervous that they might take that part out of the show.”
Everett notes that Beychella wasn’t their first rodeo. In their 12 years working together, there have been plenty of times when Bey and her team have only had one rehearsal before a show. But given the size of this performance in particular, “it was crazy.” Still, it may have been a good omen: “Whenever things like that happen, usually that means it’s gonna be a great show.”
For Emah and Everett, the performance itself was a blur. “Honestly, all I could think was, ‘Catch the baton,’ and, ‘You got two minutes to get into your next outfit,’” Emah says. “I danced the whole show, and we had a lot of costume changes. It was nuts.”
Everett, who also danced in the show, remembers a distinct difference in audience reactions between weekends one and two. “The first weekend, that first full audience, they looked stuck,” she explains. “They were so into it, but also just in awe. Once things got out on social media, the audience knew what to expect [for weekend two], so they could party and be more involved. But the first weekend, they didn’t know what they were in for.”
Roberts was in the audience both weekends, and also noticed a difference between the two. “The second weekend, I was listening to people talk about what they heard from last week, and how they can’t wait for this and that, and then she changed some things up and took it to a higher level,” he proclaims. “You cannot outthink her.”
The director always likes to be in the audience for shows he’s worked on, to gauge their vibrations. “There was just an electricity, probably because she had been gone so long,” he remembers. “For her to come back at such a high level, I think that just made it that much more sensational. I was a [Beyoncé] fan before Coachella, but I’m a superfan now.”
Josef, who choreographed for the show but did not perform in it, offers a different perspective. “I think I was kind of shook,” he admits. “It was a mixture of emotions, cheering for your friends, but then being on the edge because it’s yours and you’re like, ‘Don’t mess up my part,’ or, ‘What are people thinking now?’ My nerves were actually pretty bad.”
As nerve-wracking as it may have been to work alongside our greatest living performer, doing so was also a source of motivation for those involved. “Once she gets on that stage and you’re dancing by her, it’s like there’s a light on her,” Emah raves. “It’s almost overwhelming to look at her. You can feel her energy, and it’s so powerful, strong, and purpose-driven. You can’t help but be great—you have to be.”
After the first show, emotions were flowing: particularly gratitude and happiness. Later that night, Emah woke to news that she had been dubbed #BatonBae on Twitter, and received a congratulatory call from fellow Nigerian singer Davido.
All three dancers say that they haven’t fully processed their involvement in Beychella. Josef attributes this, at least partially, to the lifestyle of professional dancers. “As an artist, you’re like, ‘I’m on to the next job. I’ve got to pay these bills.’ It was work,” he says. “You’re moving so fast that you don’t process it. It’s a year later, and people are still saying things to me, and I’m like, ‘Wow, that did happen, huh?’”
Despite not having processed the experience, all three are in agreement about the impact of the performance, both on their own lives and the world at large.
“If I could call Beyoncé’s phone and thank her a million times a day, I would,” Emah maintains. “People all over the world saw me perform with somebody I adore. With everything that I had been through up until this point—homelessness, feeling like I disappointed my family because I chose a different career path—for the first time ever I was like, ‘Okay, I made it.’”
Josef had faced similar hardships in the months leading up to his involvement, from skyrocketing rent prices to having his car repossessed to depression. He was even thinking about quitting dance. “But Beychella opened up doors for me,” he recognizes. “People I wanted to work with began to pay attention. It brought some light and made me believe in myself again.”
Being part of Beychella also changed things for Roberts and the rest of Drumline Live. “If I measure what we were doing before Coachella versus what we’ve been doing after Coachella, I would say it has definitely changed for the better,” he confesses. “The eyes are on Drumline Live more than ever before, and I give thanks to Beyoncé for the opportunity and exposure.”
To Everett, the performance marked another huge milestone in Beyoncé’s career. “It’s in a league of its own, because it was so massive and powerful,” she says. “I wasn’t necessarily surprised, because she does it all the time, but I do feel like we made history that night.”
Roberts wants the world to know that the title “Queen Bey” isn’t just a cute nickname; she is a true leader. “When you see her on television, you see the performer, but she is a leader,” he declares. “When the guys were tired and out of it, she knew how to get them up, how to get the best out of them. She’s the beginning and the end, the alpha and omega, and her leadership is received extremely well, always.”
Everett and Emah say that the 37-year-old, who has now been in the public eye for more than half her life, works hard, and she is a perfectionist—but she’s still human.
“She’s a country girl from Texas. She doesn’t like to wear shoes and she walks around the studio barefoot,” Everett reveals. “I think those are the things that people forget about her, because they get so caught up with the image and the performer in her. But she’s still a regular woman like the rest of us.”
Emah agrees, emphasizing the way Beyoncé treated her and the rest of the performers. “She is an incredible human, but she’s still human,” she stresses. “As wealthy and successful as she is, she is still courteous. Not once did I ever feel underappreciated, or like I was less than her. I’m forever grateful for her.”