How I found myself spending two days with Jay Z and Justin Timberlake
by Jasmeet Sidhu ’10
Jasmeet (right) working on location in Los Angeles “T “T he flames are going to come in T-minus three minutes. If for any reason you feel unsafe or get hurt, notify me immediately and we will SHUT. IT. DOWN.”
It was past midnight in the parking lot at the abandoned Plaza Hotel in downtown Los Angeles, and the fire safety officer stared each of us down after his bellowing speech—as if we would dare to disobey his safety protocol or interfere with what was about to happen.
I had already worked 14 hours that day, and 16 hours the day before. I had reached that precarious state of exhaustion mixed with caffeine, Red Bull and natural adrenaline, and the sweltering heat of that August night only made my desire and excitement for what was to happen in the next few moments more intense.
“All right, take your cues,” yelled the first assistant director as the group I stood in formed a half-crescent moon.
“PICTURES UP. CUE JUSTIN. ROLL PLAYBACK.”
The cameramen got into position. From the speakers, I heard the opening lines to the song we had listened to at least 200 times that day.
“You take the clothes off my back, and I let you…”
The driverless car parked next to the brick wall of the hotel erupted into flames.
And there stood Justin Timberlake—my childhood musical crush and subject of my very first concert—in front of the burning car, resolute, staring into the camera while the flames licked recklessly behind him.
I turned to my left and watched Jay Z (yes, that Jay Z—rapper, business mogul, and Mr. Beyoncé) stare intently into the camera monitor, nodding silently as he watched Justin perform the song to camera.
“CUT! That’s a wrap!” yelled the assistant director.
A rush of people ran forward and crowded around Justin to make sure he was OK.The director and Jay Z hugged. Everyone applauded.We got the shot.
A few weeks later, the “Holy Grail” music video by Jay Z and Justin Timberlake made history as the first music video from a major artist to debut exclusively on Facebook. Its release was talked about widely in The New York Times, Vanity Fair, The Hollywood Reporter and social media.
Through it all, the same thought kept running through my head—there I was, a girl from Mississauga, Ontario—how did I end up here in Hollywood, making a music video with two of the biggest artists in the world?
The answer to that question begins roughly 10 months earlier, when as a newly minted Masters graduate in Journalism I landed at LAX on a one- way ticket from Toronto to Los Angeles. I had no contacts, nowhere to live, one suitcase, an address for a hostel written on a piece of paper, and ambitions that seemed wholly incongruous with what was written on the degrees that I had collected thus far, now in expensive frames back in my Mississauga family home.
A few weeks prior to that flight I had mailed a letter to a music video director whose work I was utterly captivated by and had watched on rotation during my long nights completing my Masters degree at Columbia University. I didn’t know how to contact him, let alone a single person in the entertainment industry. But in the dying days of my time in New York, seized by one of those magical moments of whatdo- I-have-to-lose fearlessness, I opened up a Word document and wrote him a letter that I later mailed to an address listed for him at IMDB.com.
In it, I told him that I was about to graduate with a degree in journalism, that I was a huge fan of his work, and that I wanted to make music videos, too.Would he ever have coffee with me if I came out to Los Angeles?
That fateful letter somehow made it to him in Los Angeles, and he replied to me via an email I still have today.
“Jasmeet, thank you for your lovely letter. I am always humbled and moved by people’s words in respect to my little ideas that blossom into bigger things … please email me the dates you will be in Los Angeles and we will see if we can sit down.”
Three days later, I bought a one-way ticket to Los Angeles.
I landed at the airport and paid $20 a night to sleep in a room with eight other girls in a hostel in central Los Angeles. I later met with the director in person for the first time when he invited me to the set of Taylor Swift’s “I Knew You Were Trouble” music video.
In dazed amazement that I was actually witnessing the creation of a music video for the first time (with one of my favourite artists, no less), I asked the producer on set if she needed interns (turns out, she did). I moved out of the hostel, bought a used car from Craigslist, found an apartment, and began interning.
That internship later turned into a full-time job as operations manager with the director at his production company, and began what I can only describe as a whirlwind two-year journey into the heart of Hollywood, complete with numerous celebrity encounters, incredible highs, incredible lows, and yes, a lot of weird, surreal moments (it is Hollywood, after all).
From the outside, my desire to create music videos might appear to have come completely out of left field, and I can see why.
In my teen years I created an award- winning environmental organization, the Peel Environmental Youth Alliance, which celebrates its 10th anniversary in 2015. I received the University of Toronto National Scholarship to complete a Peace and Conflict Studies degree and spent my undergrad years initiating and leading projects like the green roof on top of St. Hilda’s College, travelling to United Nations conferences in Europe, and working for the Toronto Star as a journalist. In short, nothing in my life at that point would have predicted this venture to Los Angeles to pursue music videos.
But those who know me would have said that Los Angeles was a long time coming. I’ve never been afraid to disrupt the best-laid plans to pursue new ideas, ambitions, opportunities or discoveries about myself, even if they defied apparent linear trajectories for where my life was “supposed” to go.
We may believe ourselves to be multifaceted, but how often do we give
legitimate attention to those little nuances that make up who we are? That was ultimately the question and the choice I faced as I began considering turning what was initially just a wild thought—moving across the continent to make music videos—into reality.
Although music videos are often seen at best as promotional tools for the songs and artists they portray, and at worst the epitome of the most debased aspects of popular culture, I was fascinated by them and saw them as something more: culture-defining visual narratives for the songs that became embedded in our lives. I saw them as creative, exciting musical experiences that were experiencing a resurgence in the post-MTV digital age of YouTube, and I’ve been thankful that I had the experience of working with artists, directors and producers who pushed the boundaries of this particular art form.
My time in Hollywood was exciting and often thrilling, more so because I had allowed myself to take a risk to explore a different side of who I was. However, like many LA transplants before me who entered this often-fantastical world, there came a time for self-reflection and the question of my ultimate ambitions. My reflection coincided with the sad passing of my father last August. He was a man who, although he didn’t quite get the music video thing, supported my wild ambitions whole-heartedly.
So just like I did after graduating and a few times before, I’m switching things up again. I’ve left Los Angeles for the moment, moved back to New York City, and begun the next adventure of my life, with these music video experiences stored vividly in my mind—enough to last for a lifetime.
Jasmeet Sidhu ’10 completed a degree in Peace and Conflict Studies at Trinity College before attending Columbia University in New York City to complete her Masters degree in Investigative Journalism. At 21, she was named one of Canada’s 100 Most Powerful Women, the youngest honouree in history at the time. She has also been a previous recipient of Canada’s Top 20 Under 20 award, named in Glamour magazine as one of its Top 10 College Women, and is a past recipient of the International Radio and Television Society fellowship. She has taught, spoken and written widely on issues relating to leadership, youth engagement, feminism and entrepreneurship.