Mon | Oct 19, 2020

Synchronized swimmers dive deep for Beyoncé’s ‘Black is King’

Published:Saturday | September 19, 2020 | 12:12 AMStephanie Lyew/Gleaner Writer

Justin Bieber did it for Beauty and a Beat in 2012. The following year, Portland, Oregon-based Latin indie band Y La Bamba did it for Ponce Pilato, and Ariana Grande, who was inspired by the concept, employed it for her collaboration with Big Sean. Then Katy Perry returned with it in Never Really Over. All used synchronised swimmers to add breathtakingly beautiful underwater choreography to their music videos.

The international superstar who literally dived deep into the art is Beyoncé, but what makes it ultra-special is that it is part of her recently released visual album Black is King, which plays homage to African ancestry. The Formation singer was outright with her demands that she wanted to cast artistic swimmers of colour for the project, but the agency that was hired only managed to find less than a handful of black swimmers, which led to Jamaica’s Island Aquatics Synchro Club being contacted. Of course, at the time, due to a non-disclosure agreement that had to be signed, the team was unaware for whom they had been called to sync and swim.

Russia-born Olga Novokshchenova, president of the club, coach and Olympic medallist, said that the request for dark-skinned artistic swimmers was strange at first.

“I received a phone call last year from an agency who said that they worked with A-class artistes, every time pushing me to give the names of the swimmers right now, but I kept on telling them that I needed to speak to the parents first to get their permission as most of them were minors between the ages of seven-12 years old,” she recalled.


“I think the next call was on a Wednesday. I said when and where do you need them, and she said Los Angeles on Friday, so one day from now. I said okay, but how do I know that this is real? Anybody can call and say they represent Michael Jackson. So she said okay, it’s for Beyoncé, but I thought it doesn’t prove anything! They wanted all of them, but only five could go. The others didn’t have visas. I didn’t even have time to give details. I just had to reassure everyone our plan was to keep the children safe.”

Her nerves settled at the airport when she saw Sync or Swim’s operator Nicole Chin Sue, who works with the Los Angeles club Aqualillies (the renowned water ballet entertainment company usually secures contracts for movies and TV shows that require synchro swimmers).

There were other artistic swimmers who were already on set learning the choreography, including California-based sisters Philicia and Tamar Saunders, who have been involved in the sport for more than two decades and were on the first all-African American team, the Synchro Swans. “It was well organised on the set at a big private house, and even though it was supercold, the girls managed between practising in and out of the water. That was day one,” Coach Novokshchenova shared.

With specific individuals on set to protect child rights, it was a strict schedule, she said, “They made sure they weren’t cold, hungry, or overworked. One of them was strict, especially for our seven-year-old. She said this girl can only work till 6 p.m. At 6:00, she had to leave even though she wanted to go on. Even Beyoncé asked, but it wasn’t allowed. Then on the second day, they tried to heat up the pool, and in the evening, Beyoncé came down to the pool with the girls to film. Everyone was so excited! It wasn’t expected that our girls would be so professional. They finished pretty quickly because she actually realised how cold the pool was. She also knew clearly what she wanted.”


That was exactly one year ago, and Novokshchenova says that the local club has since acquired new members, approximately 20 in Kingston and 13 in Portland, where she teaches at her home-pool. She has been calling for a public pool to be established in Port Antonio so that more individuals interested in the sport or just to learn how to swim can have a chance because there are so many opportunities – an ocean – available to make a profession out of it.

“The good thing is that the global space has recognised that Jamaica has synchronised swimmers not only from this film, but we have travelled to many countries over the years. For the girls, they have seen first-hand that they have the ability to make money and make careers out of synchronised swimming,” she said.

The team, which comprised Micah Wilson, Laila Bailey, Joydayne White, Ajoni Llewellyn, and Nyouka Baugh can now speak about performing alongside ‘Queen Bey’ as the 85-minutes film was finally released on July 31 on Disney+. “ Black is King is a labour of love. It is my passion project that I have been filming, researching, and editing day and night for the past year. I’ve given it my all, and now it’s yours,” Beyoncé said on Instagram on June 28. “It was originally filmed as a companion piece to The Lion King: The Gift soundtrack and meant to celebrate the breadth and beauty of black ancestry.”

Laila Bailey described it “like a dream come true” to be part of Black is King and doing what she loved.

“The filming with Beyoncé was amazing. I never expected to meet her or be in one of her films. She’s a legend! It was a great honour working with her and with other athletes from other clubs,” Bailey said in an interview with Steve Wilson, which was submitted to The Gleaner.

Her dream is to be part of a Jamaican team that makes it to the Olympics, but Novokshchenova also said that sometimes in local competitions a swimmer may not have anyone in her age group with whom to even compete.

“It is expected that if we can build up our swimmers, we can have more local competitions, and who knows, more of us to travel for future jobs like filming. We were told they’d keep us in mind for future projects, and I remind the children, too, to keep in touch. For future swimmers in Jamaica, many don’t know synchronized swimming exists here, and to see our girls swimming with Beyoncé, I am sure many girls will want to do it,” Novokshchenova added.