Sherrie Silver rushes into a coffee shop in the West Norwood neighborhood of London, hair flying wildly around her face, offering an apology and a breathless hug for being late. One can’t help but forgive the charming 24-year-old choreographer, who hasn’t spent three nights in the same place since bursting onto the global scene last summer as the dance mastermind behind the explosive, racially charged music video “This Is America” for Childish Gambino (actor Donald Glover’s musical alter ego). She showed up for her InStyle shoot straight off a plane from New Zealand, where she had performed with Glover at his experimental Pharos festival, and is leaving the next day to join him for meetings in Los Angeles. So what’s their connection? “Working with Donald allows me to be weird,” says Silver. “As you can probably tell, I’m weird, but I like being different because that’s how you innovate.”
That carefree vibe is evident in Silver’s spirited dance videos that she’s filmed in over 34 countries and that continue to attract millions of views to her YouTube channel. Now other stars, like Rita Ora, with whom she worked on the Victoria’s Secret show, and brands such as Whole Foods, Nike, Target, and Chobani are also calling. And though she can’t confirm it, we’re pretty sure we recognized some of her moves in “Guava Island,” a new video co-starring Rihanna that Glover teased at Pharos. “It’s just all catching up,” Silver says sighing, settling into her chair as her iPhone repeatedly buzzes with alerts and texts. “I can actually feel it.”
Silver, clad in some of the free Nike swag that comes with those sorts of big-brand partnerships, initially found her groove while attending university in London, although she never imagined her hobby would become a career. She started off acting in the 2010 film Africa United before developing her signature dance style, which pairs African moves with her own frenetic creations. After posting her routines on YouTube, including one she filmed in front of the Egyptian pyramids (where she was nearly arrested), she quickly garnered attention online. The clips were discovered by the niece of Glover’s manager, who immediately hired Silver to work on “This Is America,” a video that has accumulated 442-plus million views, been nominated for four Grammys, and won three MTV VMAs last August. Silver attended the VMAs “on behalf of the team” and even accepted Glover’s awards for him onstage. “It just shows that as a dark-skinned girl from Africa, you can achieve all these things,” she says before reminiscing about her glamorous look, a glittering green gown by Galvan London, that night. “I don’t know if it was the camera, but I just looked like some black shiny Barbie doll, and my hair was like, ‘Hey, how are you?’ ”
“This Is America” didn’t just bring Silver into the spotlight. It also helped popularize the South African dance move gwara gwara, as well as Silver’s own move, the neza — a rounded-shoulder-and-chest-focused shuffle she created while on set. That type of ingenuity, blending African styles with American hip-hop, is part of the choreographer’s inventive appeal.
Much of Silver’s determination can be directly traced to her mom, Florence, who moved Silver when she was 5 from a small village in war-torn Rwanda to London. Silver’s father had died just a month before she was born, and she attributes her education and opportunities to her mom’s fearlessness. “It was just me and her, and obviously she didn’t have the financial support that she needed,” Silver recounts. “It was very difficult. Going to the well to get water, things like that. So she just wanted to secure a better future and education for me.”
Now Silver’s mom has a thriving career in the U.K. as a maternity nurse, with a schedule just as packed as her daughter’s. And while the younger Silver has had her own share of hardship, including being bullied in school for her darker skin tone, her mom’s ability to be patient and forgive taught Silver that anything is possible. “Her struggles have been crazy — they don’t even compare to mine,” says Silver. “But I had to keep going. I have no choice but to persevere.”
That maternal instinct has rubbed off on Silver, who doesn’t have any kids of her own but returns to Rwanda several times a year to check on the children she’s essentially fostering from afar. She rents a house and supports five kids in Kigali who would otherwise be living on the street, an act she calls the most badass thing she’s ever done. This came about after she met a small homeless boy named Kevin who was suffering from a foot infection. “I paid for him to go to the hospital, [and] he got his foot treated,” she recalls. “And after that I was like, ‘Oh my god, what else can I do?’ ” Silver now refers to herself as their mom and has hundreds of photos of them on her phone, which she’ll happily show. She also runs a project that helps rehabilitate ex-prostitutes by teaching them to sew.
“It’s very therapeutic for me as well, and it keeps me grounded, in case I ever dare say, ‘Oh, my life is so hard. I can’t afford these Prada shoes,’ ” says Silver. “I have these women who … their struggle is always more than mine.
“I’ve always been attracted to outcasts,” she adds. “And I don’t know if it’s because I study sociology or whatever, but I’ve always been obsessed with just fixing things and making them better.” She laughs. “I don’t do that with men, though. Let them make themselves better.”
When she’s not in Rwanda, Silver divides her time between London and New York City and is continually in transit (she’s recently learned the importance of collecting all those air miles). Some of her choreography is done on airplanes, where she writes out dance ideas in Word on her laptop, and once she even tested some moves in the plane’s bathroom. “I have to do that so I won’t forget!” she says.
Now that she’s just getting started, Silver is shimmying her way toward a bright future. “Don’t feel like you have to stay in the box,” she offers by way of advice. “I think you should always try to do multiple things. I was doing videography, editing, acting, choreographing, charity work.” She grins. “Who knows what I’ll do next?”
Photographed by Charlotte Hadden. Styling: Sam Ranger. Hair: Rio Sreedharan. Makeup: Bea Sweet. Manicure: Robbie Tomkins. Production: Rosco Production.
For more stories like this, pick up the February issue of InStyle, available on newsstands, on Amazon, and for digital download Jan 18.