Voices Of Live: Dionne Harmon On How The First Black-Produced Super Bowl Halftime Show Came Together

 Dionne Harmon

Dionne Harmon, the first female Black producer of the Super Bowl Halftime Show, which this year was produced by Roc Nation and Jesse Collins.

Dionne Harmon, Executive Vice President of Content & Strategy at Jesse Collins Entertainment (JCE), is an anomaly within an anomaly. Not only is she a Black woman executive in the entertainment business (of which there are sadly all too few), but she also is the first Black female producer of the Super Bowl halftime show, which this year featured a complex and artful performance by The Weeknd. The show featured pyrotechnics, The Weeknd’s bandaged army, a full choir, and, of course, the singer’s impressive catalogue of pop hits built over the last decade. Here, Harmon discusses JCE’s work on Kendrick Lamar’s Coachella show, how the Super Bowl gig came together (including Zoom calls with 130 people) and stealing her mom’s records.  

Pollstar: You were raised in Texas, went to college at Harvard, and now have worked on iconic performances at Coachella and the Super Bowl.
Dionne Harmon: Well, I’m from Philly originally and my whole family is pretty much in Philly. My mom moved us to Texas when I was pretty young and my aunt followed. 
So I spent most of my time in Texas, although I went back to Philly every summer. But I would say [I’m from] Texas. I grew up in Garland, which is just north of Dallas. And my mom, I give it all to her. Education was something that she instilled in us early on. Our responsibility as kids was to make good grades. And she is also an Ivy League graduate. She went to Penn. And so that was always something that was important to her because she saw firsthand how that impacted her life and so she was fully supportive of me wanting to go to an Ivy League as well – and actually Harvard was the one school that I didn’t visit. I applied to Penn, I applied to Princeton, Columbia and Harvard was “That’s my reach school. I’m probably not going to go there.” And when I got accepted, I got accepted to all the schools I applied to. Slight flex. 

Super flex.
I was just like, “I can’t not go to Harvard.” So I went, and I’m glad I did it. It’s opened a ton of doors for me throughout my life and career. 
Was music a big part of the household? 

Super Bowl Super First
– Super Bowl Super First
Team members on site included The Weeknd’s creative director La Mar Taylor, Alex Lill, wardrobe designer Lila Nikole, Roc Nation’s Jana Fleishman, and pre-show producer Jeannae Rouzan-Clay.

Music was huge in my family. I’m still trying to get my mom’s record collection, which, by the way, she has not touched in 30 years. And every Christmas, I’m like, “Mom, can I please – I have turntables at home that I play all the time. Let me just take these records.” And she’s like, “No.” 
I managed to steal a couple. I mean, I tell her after I’m back in LA like, “By the way, I took your Luther Vandross records. But it’s cool. I’m going to take care of them.” She’s like, “Dionne!” But I mean, every year, I grab a few.
I need the ones from watching my dad pull them out and put it on the turntable. 
Oh, yeah, and reading the liner notes was a big thing and often they have the lyrics, too, so I finally understood some of the words I didn’t know. I’d memorize them.

First concert? 
Okay, so the first live concert that I can really remember is Michael Jackson. It was the “Bad Tour,” 1988. I was 10. I’ve just aged myself. And it was at Reunion Arena in Dallas. And what I remember is my mom was pregnant at the time with my young sister. I just remember these green lasers and you can almost reach your hands up and they pierced them and I was just in awe. I was a big Michael Jackson fan. 
Is that a Top 5 concert because of what it represented as a moment in your life?
I mean, it’s a top in the sense that it was my first real conscious experience of that environment, right?
But I mean, I have to say later in life concerts for sure. James Blake, one of my favorite artists, I saw him perform in an old church. Gosh, I’m trying to remember. Was it in Silver Lake or somewhere? But it was this beautiful two-level church. I was in the upper level in the front, so just a direct view. And it was him at his keyboard, his band, this beautiful stained glass. And you know his music is so ethereal anyways. So it was just something about the environment matching it that was really, really powerful. That’s one of my favorites.
“Watch The Throne,” I saw that in Paris. So that was twofold, one the visual and production value of that show were already top notch, but to be in the energy of Paris just elevated the whole moment. I think that was my first international concert too, so it was special. And then I have to give you one more, Kendrick Lamar’s 2017 Coachella performance was one because I was a part of it, we helped produce it.
Tell me about that Kendrick Coachella experience.  
It was just an incredible experience. And Kendrick is such an artist and such a visionary. I genuinely love that album too. Damn was a phenomenal album. Obviously, he won the Nobel for that. It’s just an amazing piece of work.

Yeah, anything Kendrick puts out is amazing. I feel for him because he has to try to outdo himself, unfortunately, which is a lot of pressure.
Yeah, he is a true artist. There are some artists that are [super] involved in the process. We’ve worked with some artists that are like, “Oh, just tell me what you want me to do and I’ll come do it.” There are others who are involved every step of the way. The lighting, the screen content, the songs, the arrangement, the choreography, every piece of it. And that’s who he is. It told a story. It was very intentional. And it’s amazing to hear somebody describe what their vision is and then to fast forward to a stage like Coachella and watch that vision come to life. And the icing on the cake was that performance basically became the blueprint for the entire “Damn Tour”. They took those set pieces and that whole concert and they took it on the road. So it was pretty amazing to be a part of that.

Dionne Harmon
– Dionne Harmon
on site at Raymond James Stadium for the Big Game.

So fast forward. When did the Super Bowl call come in and what’s the immediate reaction with your team?

I remember I was driving, and Jesse called me, and he said, “Guess what?” And I was like, “What?” and he said, “So it’s not done yet, but I’ve been talking to Dez (Desiree Perez, CEO of Roc Nation), and I think I’m producing the Super Bowl.” I was like, “Shut the **** up.” I was just in shock. I said, “Are you serious?” he said, “Yeah. We’re working everything out, but if it happens, I want you & Jeannae to do this with me!” 
I was just in shock. It’s one of those things, I never sat and said, “Oh, my dream is to produce the Super Bowl halftime show.” It honestly wasn’t even in my realm of possibility at that point. 
I mean, I’m not a super big sports fan. I love watching them, but it just wasn’t there. So, for this thing to happen, it was surreal. And the first thing I wanted to do was tell my mother, which I couldn’t because my mom would have promptly posted on Facebook, the church website, the book club, every other forum, and then it would have gotten out before the deal was done. 
But it was a surreal, surreal moment, something that – we’ve been doing live shows and award shows and performances for years and years, so for some people that aren’t familiar with Jesse Collins, it may seem kind of out of the blue –  but this is something that we all have been training for. 
So it was amazing to get this but also super scary because of the circumstances. It was like you have that reaction where you’re super excited, and then you’re like, “Oh, shit, COVID.” How are we going to do this? And, I mean, we’ve been very fortunate to have figured out a way to produce content during the pandemic. We did a special in March of 2020, and that kind of set it off. And we did the BET Awards, which was the first awards show in the pandemic. And from there, we did a John Lewis special. So by the time we got to this, we understood COVID protocol. We understood how to do things safely. We knew that there were ways to be creative despite the limitations. So it’s the saying everybody says, opportunity and preparation, that’s really what it was. Without even knowing it, we were being prepared for that moment.
When does preparation start for a Super Bowl halftime show? 
I would say the early conversations started late fall.

Wow, so not a lot of time. 
We hit the ground running with Roc Nation and DPS (an incredible live events production company), and together we built out the team to execute The Weeknd’s vision. Abel [Tesfaye, The Weeknd] is another artist that is very intentional. He and his team – La Mar Taylor, Es Devlin, Alex Lill – all had this vision. They knew they wanted a Vegas vibe. They knew they wanted to tell this story. And from that point on, it was just making sure that everybody was aligned. 
So this, literally, was not a one-man show or a one-production-company show. It’s the best in each field. I mean, you have Bruce Rodgers on set design and set build. Drew Findley on screens. Al Gurdon on lights. Charm La’Donna doing choreography. Lila Nikole doing wardrobe. Hamish Hamilton directing. I mean, there’s just so many pieces, and it all centers around Abel’s vision. So I think that once we got past the new year it kicked into overdrive. Now things are starting to be built. Now the dancers are starting to rehearse. The band is putting together the arrangements. All of those things are kind of happening individually. And that’s just the creative piece of it. I mean, there were so many Zooms. Zooms with the NFL. Zooms with Pepsi. Internal Zooms with the creatives. Normally if you think about the sets that are built on the field. That has to happen in a very short time. They’re usually 2,000 people that come in and build this set really quickly after halftime. And that was impossible because you can’t have 2000 people interacting with or passing the players in light of COVID. So they were just so many things to think about like, “How can we build a set that’s not on the field?” And that was where Bruce and his team came in. How can we take advantage of the stadium itself? We didn’t want it to feel like the COVID halftime show. So there was a lot of pressure on it. A lot of pressure on it because 1) COVID and 2) it was the first black executive producer. There were a lot of other firsts as well – I was the first black female producer, Lila Nikole was the first Latino wardrobe designer, Jeannae Rouzan-Clay was the first black female pre-game producer. So there was all this pressure to do well in spite of. 
And still we rise. 
And still we rise. Because the sad thing is, it’s as my mom would always say, “You have to work 10 times harder because of that scrutiny, right or wrong.”
So you had to kick into overdrive at the new year and ramp into 150,000 Zooms with NFL and your internal team to coordinate with the production teams?
Have you ever been on a Zoom with five pages? Literally five pages of people. There were 130 people sometimes on these Zooms. It was insane.
What’s it feel like to be the first Black woman producer for the Super Bowl? In these times of racial inequity, social justice protests and movements that have shaken a generation, you all rose above and executed the Super Bowl halftime show at the highest level.  

Blinding Lights, Big City:
Kevin C. Cox / Getty Images
– Blinding Lights, Big City:
Blinding Lights, Big City: The full spectacle of The Weeknd’s Super Bowl Halftime show, which was produced by Jesse Collins, the event’s first Black executive producer.

I don’t even know that I processed it yet. To be honest, I didn’t even realize that I was the first until we were in the middle of it. Someone said it to me and I said, “Is that true?” And then I thought about it, I was like, “Of course, it’s true. Let’s look at what it’s been.” And if we’re just now getting a Black male producer, then I don’t know what would make me think something had happened prior. But it’s pretty surreal. And I just have to give credit to Jesse for giving me the opportunity, for sharing the opportunity. And I’ve been at that company nine years now. And sometimes in this business, people tend to hoard work, hoard contacts, hoard opportunities because there’s this sense that there’s not enough to go around. And that’s the exact opposite of what it is at JCE.  There is a culture there that we all have about coming up together and supporting each other. And when we have an opportunity, we do everything that we can to pass that on and to share it and to shine a light on as many people as we can. Other people have been preparing for this moment their whole career and just never had the shot. So, I am just super grateful to be in a space where my talent has been cultivated and pushed forward. Because it would have been very easy for him to just be like, “Great” and do it alone. And it wasn’t just Jesse – Roc Nation, the NFL (especially Seth Dudowsky at NFL Network who we couldn’t have done this show without) and Pepsi all created space for people like us (and artists like The Weeknd) to showcase our work and our talent. 
So, I know that this opens doors. We may have been the first, but we definitely won’t be the last. And I think this shows that – and we all know this anyways, intellectually, it sounds stupid to even have to say this – but black producers are capable of producing at the same high level as their counterparts.”
Just give us the opportunity.
Yeah, exactly. 
Jesse was the first, but he most certainly will not be the last. The conversation just has to become normalized where it’s like, “Oh, yeah of course, it’s Jesse and team,” “It’s Sarah and team,” or whoever else.

But now here are the options and there’s a mix. And that’s just because these are the people that are qualified. Just pure talent and qualifications. And that’s it.
Dionne Harmon is Executive Vice President of Content & Strategy at Jesse Collins Entertainment (JCE). She also works with the organization Minds Matter Los Angeles.