Toronto Hidden Gem: Nick Cannon Gets His Auteur Groove On for 'King of the Dancehall'

King of the Dancehall Still 1 - Publicity - H 2016
Courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival

King of the Dancehall Still 1 - Publicity - H 2016

Inspired by the vibrant culture of Jamaica, the multihyphenate adds to his resume by writing, directing and starring in the gritty musical drama.

Even the overused term “multihyphenate” seems inadequate to describe the phenomenon that is Nick Cannon. The America’s Got Talent host also acts (Drumline, Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq), raps, does stand-up and manages recording artists, with Soulja Boy and Canadian-Jamaican Kreesha Turner on the roster. Oh, and he just enrolled as a freshman at Howard University.

So it should surprise no one that for lastest feature as a director, on King of the Dancehall, Cannon also chose to write, direct, star and fully finance the musical, set in the world of Jamaican dancehall. The film makes its world premiere Sept. 11 in Toronto.

Cannon says he fell in love “with the people and the culture” of Jamaica a few years back while visiting the island with Turner. But it was the athletic, energetic style of dance on display that inspired him to make a movie about the scene. “I said to myself: ‘Why has there never been a mainstream film to capture this world — the romance and the sexiness?’”

In the film, Cannon plays Tarzan, a Brooklyn-born player who cooks up a scheme to import ganja from Jamaica to cover the costs of medical care for his sick mother, played by Whoopi Goldberg. Once on the island, however, he gets caught up in the dancehall scene and, with some help from local dancer Maya (Kimberly Patterson), learns the moves.

Cannon says Saturday Night Fever and Dirty Dancing were inspirations for him in making Dancehall, but he also studied gritty French drama La Haine and Brazil’s unflinching City of God for their “raw authenticity.”

To capture the bump and grind of true dancehall, he enlisted famed choreographer Jae Blaze, who has worked with the likes of Rihanna and the Black Eyed Peas. “I let the dancers of Jamaica dictate all of the moves, [and Jae] was able to orchestrate all of the rawness,” says Cannon, who trained up to 12 hours a day to master the athletic moves for the film’s big dance scenes.

The 35-year-old certainly doesn’t lack for ambition. At Howard, he says he plans to take his education “as far as I can, [to a] Ph.D. and beyond. It’s not just about a degree for me; I just have this peculiar thirst for knowledge. But other things that are on my bucket list are mainly in the world of philanthropy. I want my own children’s hospital one day. I wish to build community centers in all the low-income and disenfranchised communities around America. Feeding the homeless and helping to end world hunger also are at the top of my priorities. So I have a long way to go.”