Sean Bankhead says music videos still matter

Photos by Joseph Bishop

In this era of music streaming, platforms like Spotify and TikTok largely predict the landscape. While listeners are more likely to discover their new favorite songs through a curated algorithm or a short audio clip in a viral reel, as opposed to a music video on MTV, choreographer Sean Bankhead is still putting his whole foot into his visuals – literally. 

This year alone, Bankhead has choreographed several music videos that have sparked viral moments and conversations online – including Victoria Monét’s “On My Mama,” Cardi B & Megan Thee Stallion’s “Bongos,” and Tate McRae’s “Greedy.” Through elaborate choreography and nuanced, next-level movements, Bankhead takes each song and tells a story through dance.

At the time of our Zoom conversation, Bankhead had just returned home from Atlanta after shooting a video in Mexico with an unnamed pop star. He remains tight-lipped about the video and whom it’s for, but teases “people will be talking.”

He’s right: conversation and cultural impact are pretty much guaranteed on a Sean Bankhead project. Monét’s video for “On My Mama,” which features Monét delivering dirty-south influenced dance moves atop a lowrider, while rocking tall tees and flashing jewelry, helped propel the prolific songwriter into a pop star in her own right.

“Sean has been a godsend,” says Monét. “He has a special ability to elevate the talent in the room. Working with him for ‘On My Mama’ felt like a time I’ll reflect on forever in my career. He has a very special style and pocket and a deep understanding of Black culture through movement. Him being from Atlanta gave a special take on what the video would require.”

Having grown up in Atlanta, hip-hop and rhythmic music were the key players in Bankhead’s love of dance. He studied the moves of fellow ATL legend Usher, as well as Michael and Janet Jackson, and Aaliyah as he honed his craft on his own. Additionally, playing instruments like piano, drums, and saxophone helped him learn how to keep the beat from a young age.

Bankhead began sharing videos on YouTube in 2006 – months after YouTube was officially launched. As Bankhead has always been ahead of his time, he says keeping his finger on the pulse of evolving social platforms – like YouTube, TikTok, and Instagram – has helped him stay abreast of “what’s new, what’s hot, and what’s coming up.”

Before becoming a go-to for A-List recording artists who wish to step up their moves, Bankhead spent years taking and teaching dance classes, booking gigs as a dancer, and working as a protégé of director and choreographer, Fatima Robinson. His big break came in 2014, when Robinson approached him with an opportunity to choreograph Fifth Harmony’s “Bo$$” video.

“When I started working with Fifth Harmony, it was the first time I had a real introduction, as far as me being a choreographer to put my work into major music videos that would get up to like, a billion views,” Bankhead says. 

While no two of Bankhead’s videos look the same, the creative process for each routine starts with him listening to the corresponding track – which he is often sent weeks in advance of the video shoot. From there, he begins crafting the story and creating the visual element in his head for each respective artist.

“Do they want to be sexy? Do they want to come out looking like a tomboy? Do they want to be controversial? I take all of that into consideration,” says Bankhead. “Usually the beat is the first thing that makes me want to dance and makes me want to create.”

A Bankhead dance routine is nothing simple, but Bankhead says working with artists also comes with its own challenges. He notes that when collaborating with artists like Cardi B – for whom, he choreographed the “Bongos” video, as well as the “Up” video – he’ll sometimes get a month to map out the moves. But in the case of McRae’s “Greedy,” the choreography came together in a matter of days.

“She hit my team and my management, and, you know, I get a lot of artists – whether they’re newer artists or have a following,” says Bankhead. “And I just remember looking her up and being like,’I feel like I can really do something with her.’ And, it just worked out. I do get a lot of new artists that want to work with me or want me to put that Bankhead stamp on them, but it was something about her and her artistry in her previous music videos and her music, and I was like, ‘Yeah, I want to work with her and see what I can do with her.’”

Thankfully, McRae nailed the choreography after only one extensive rehearsal and one shoot day.

But Bankhead hammers home that there’s a lot of foundational work that takes place behind the scenes before the artist even gets in front of the camera. While he was able to get “Greedy” to come to fruition quickly, he reminds us that music videos don’t happen overnight.

As is the case with any work of art containing a visual element, attention to detail in music videos is essential.

“There are so many important conversations with the director, the choreographer, the set designer, the wardrobe department,” says Bankhead, “and all of these conversations have to be had, so that when we get on set and there’s a scene where we’re dragging Normani on the floor [in the ‘Wild Side’ video], and you have dancers jumping and flipping over her, all of those conversations are so important. What’s the texture of the floor? How are we rehearsing? How is the camera moving? How are we lighting it? Every little detail every little scene is extremely thought out.” 

In addition to helping launch McRae into her main pop girly era, as well as setting the stage for greatness in Normani’s solo career, Bankhead was also a key player in the performances and music videos leading up to Lil Nas X’s 2021 debut album, Montero

Bankhead was the brains behind the controversial “Industry Baby” video, which features a nude Lil Nas X and a group of men dancing in a jail shower. He also choreographed the male orgy dance sequence which took place on Saturday Night Live, as well as the polarizing BET Awards performance, where he made out with a male dancer. 

While the performances garnered both good and bad buzz, Bankhead is proud to have been a part of these cultural moments. Lil Nas X also cites Bankhead as an essential factor in his craft.

“Working with Sean at first was daunting, it was so new for me,” said Lil Nas X in an email to INTO. “Over these last few years, I’ve realized Sean has helped me find my confidence in so many ways. He’s helped me create a new version of myself that I could not accredit to anyone else on this planet more than him. He’s helped me step into my femininity and also helped me erase my need for dimming my own light. Most of all he is NOT BORING AND makes hard work feel like fun.”

As TikTok and streams continue to set the scene for pop and hip-hop music, Bankhead emphasizes that music videos still matter. Although seeing music videos on platforms like MTV and BET feels like a novelty in this particular era, Bankhead is a student of those times. His choreography and dance routines feel nostalgic for those of us who grew up in the heyday of TRL and 106 & Park, but they also catapult each artist ahead of their time.

“Every video I’ve been able to be a part of in the last three, four, or five years, people make it go viral, and they’re excited, and they’re inspired, because you can visibly see the effort that we’re putting into it,” says Bankhead. “And so, because music is kind of in a downward spiral, when it comes to artists development and music videos, when you do get those videos that really have energy and effort put into them, like in the early 2000s, they really stand out and people talk about them.”♦

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