When Janet Hubert approached Will Smith on a sparse Hollywood soundstage neither party knew where the cameras were hidden. After 27 years of hostility and hearsay they had nothing to focus on but each other.
The woman who designed it that way? Rikki Hughes.
“I cleared the set. I said, ‘I don’t want anyone here,’ and then on the set what you saw on TV was the very first time that they saw each other in 27 years and I wanted their most authentic,” she told ESSENCE.
Her goal was “finding ways to just really bridge that gap…” and “…bring the rest of the world into the Fresh Prince‘s family.” The superproducer was even willing to make herself smaller in service to the occasion. “I stepped out, I covered the cameras. I didn’t want them to see cameras. I wanted them to just really have an organic moment. And I said, look, some of this might not ever see the light of day, but I do want you guys to have this moment and to be respectful.”
Respect is recurring ambition in her project goals. From fallen music industry luminaries, to reality television contestants – if you have a story it matters to Hughes.
She produced some of the most “authentic,” and impactful Black pop culture moments of the past twenty years including VH1’s Dear Mama, the BET Comedy Awards, iHeart Radio Living Black, A Tribute to Andre Harrell: Mr Champagne & Bubbles, Def Comedy Jam Healing Through Laughter, ABFF Honors, BET Honors, and BET’s Rip the Runway.
Her company, Magic Lemonade, operates in Los Angeles and Atlanta, employing creatives in both cities. She is the only Black woman in Emmy history to take home the award for Outstanding Variety Special (Pre- Recorded).
She also earned three Grammy Awards, and two NAACP Image Award nominations for producing Dave Chappelle: The Age Of Spin & Deep In The Heart Of Texas, Dave Chappelle: Equanimity / The Bird Revelation, and Dave Chappelle: Sticks And Stones.
Before she was shifting the zeitgeist she was sprinting towards medical school. “I was going to be a pediatrician,” she revealed. Ultimately she found another way to care for others, producing comedy specials that brought joy into the lives of the audience.
“Comedy is healing for the soul,” she said. “Whenever people can laugh, then they can put all their other cares aside.”
Ironically, her own medical therapy inspired a pivot in her future.
“That was where I was going. But when I was younger, I used to stutter. So I went to speech therapy and I started doing public speaking at a young age just to overcome the stuttering. And so that was my first kind of foray into being in the spotlight and being able to see, you know, see how things were working behind the scenes. So I think maybe a seed was planted at that moment.”
Hughes is one of the role models planting seeds in a new generation of creators using what they learned on the job. “Stan Lathan and Ralph Farquhar and Carl Craig were really great,” she said. “I was a new mom. I had babies, had been divorced, and I’m launching into a new career and they had so much grace.”
Still, “it wasn’t an easy journey,” and there were few people who looked like her paving the path. Now there are mothers, wives, survivors, and sisters holding the key to major productions. Today the visibility of Hughes and her peers fills a void that was present during their rise.
“There was not a template,” she said. “That’s been a story of my life, there was never a Black female showrunner that worked in comedy that I could ever look up to, I had to create the footsteps, I didn’t have the footsteps to step into.”
Hughes has strutted into a creative home at HBO Max, where Michaela Coel and Issa Rae have also planted creative flags. “I’ve been doing a couple shows with HBO Max and one thing I can say is they’ve been amazing partners,” she said. She has also produced major comedy specials with Netflix.
She appreciates the freedom the streaming services have given her to find the right tone for her projects. When she told them she didn’t want the Fresh Prince to be a cast reunion but “a family reunion,” Hughes said the response was “I don’t know what that means, but okay, we’ll go with it.”
“They trust the process,” she said. “With each one of the shows I’ve done with them, they didn’t always know what I was going to do, but they trust me. And there’s something so beautiful about having that trust.”
She used that trust to highlight the true history of streetwear on The Hype. As an L.A. girl who collects Chuck Taylors, she committed to getting it right.
“I wanted it to look like something different. I wanted to elevate these designers to a place where they should have been. And I wanted to give them shine that light and give them that platform,” she said. “This world—although it’s a $160 billion industry—a lot of people didn’t know about this world. So I was charged and tasked to really unearth these moments.”
Hughes understands the “immediate gratification,” the comedy performers she works with feel.
“They get that immediate gratification the moment they tell a joke and get someone to get a response. And I get that same kind of thing when it comes to one of my shows hitting the air and seeing people be able to respond to it,” she said.
The other side of that is pressure which she handles by maintaining the ability to put her importance in perspective. “I don’t feel like my ego is so big. I think that if I turn everything off, that the world will stop for a moment,” she said. Selecting collaborators with caution saves her headaches as well.
Hughes has one must-have all potential partners must abide by. She will only work with someone, “If they are kind.”
“That’s my number one because if they aren’t kind, I can’t work with them–even if they have the skillset,” she said. “I start every production with a conversation with my crew and tell them, I don’t care if you like each other, but you must be kind as humans. For me, if we have that kindness and that mutual respect, there’s nothing we can’t create.”