LONDON – When London rapper Dave took to the stage at the 2020 BRIT Awards last week and performed his politically-charged song “Black” — as a camera projected 3D images of prison bars and newspaper headlines onto his piano’s surface — he delivered one of the night’s most memorable and talked-about moments.
The performance at The O2 came to a climax when the 21-year-old artist, real name David Omoregie, stepped up from his piano stool and launched into in a newly written freestyle verse that saw him call prime minister Boris Johnson “a real racist,” pay tribute to London Bridge terror attack victim Jack Merritt and strike out at the British establishment for its treatment of Meghan Markle.
The O2 audience gave Dave — who is a classically-trained pianist — a standing ovation. His BRITs performance has since been viewed more than two million times on YouTube, drawing widespread praise for both the artist and his ground-breaking production design.
“For Dave to be able to celebrate and express his voice, and not be told he can’t do something was a really proud moment,” says Amber Rimell, co-founder of London-based creative studio Tawbox, which worked with the rapper on devising his BRITs debut.
Rimell and Tawbox co-founder Bronski previously worked with the rapper on his 2019 Psychodrama tour. Discussions around the Brits began as soon as he was booked to perform late last year.
“Early on, Dave was really into the idea of doing “Black” on piano and bringing his producer, Fraser T Smith, into the performance to play on the ‘two-races-as-one’ theme,” says Bronski. “They really wanted to strip “Black” down. They wanted to keep it simple and wanted the heart to come through.”
From there, Bronski and Rimell explored various ideas before deciding to build the performance around a double-ended white piano onto which they would project real-time 2D and 3D visual representations of Dave’s lyrics.
To assist in delivering the video animations, Tawbox teamed up with Pod Bluman of Bluman Associates. Camera technology specialists Mo-Sys provided the systems that enabled the camera to seamlessly track around the piano as the visuals were projected onto it.
Two separate teams worked on graphics: one looking after the 2D visuals of newspaper headlines, flags and words that accompany the first verse of “Black.” Another team looked after the 3D real-time projections — which included prison bars, a serpent wrapped around a BRIT Award and photos of Jack Merritt — that play over the song’s third verse about black history and oppression. Lewis Kyle White developed the 3D GFX using Notch software within Disguise media servers.
“This kind of whole 3D world has never been done before,” explains Bronski. “The technology was made to work with LED screens, but we didn’t want to manipulate GFX to work with LED screens. We wanted it to work with projection because we felt that would look a lot more organic.”
“To make all that work there was an unbelievable amount of 3D tracking markers on the floor, which fortunately you can’t see at all because they are black gloss, just like the stage. Billie Eilish, Lizzo, they were walking all over our tracking markers the entire time they were onstage,” he adds.
Proof of concepts and rehearsals took place over several months in a North London studio. At its peak, Tawbox — which also created Mabel and Stormzy’s BRIT 2020 live performances, the latter of which featured an elaborate scaffold staging set and hundreds of backing performers dancing under rainfall — had 16 people working on the “Black” production.
Dave’s performance was also minutely choreographed to maximize surprise reveals such as the double-ended piano and Fraser T Smith’s introduction, while stage design and lighting was kept deliberately minimal to ensure the focus remained on the artist throughout.
“We were very particular with the visual content so that it connected with the wider audience that perhaps wasn’t aware of Dave as an artist,” says Rimell.
As the performance developed and evolved, Dave would send the Tawbox creative director pictures of his “brother in arms” Merritt and other imagery that he wanted to be shown during the extended final verse.
On the day of the Brits there were two full camera rehearsals inside The O2 before Dave performed the extended version of “Black” for the first time in front of an audience during the live telecast.
“There was a couple of points along the way where someone from the Brits said, ‘Are you sure?’ And we were like, ‘We’re very sure’,” reflects Bronski. “The fact that we had four minutes 20 seconds on primetime television and what happened was what we wanted to happen, and Dave got to say what he wanted to say, is amazing. It’s not always like that at awards show,” he says. “At all, ever.”