As they say in Hollywood, the show must go on and if you want it to go well, you call on Rikki Hughes. Hughes is a veteran showrunner and producer for film and television projects known for producing acclaimed work like Dave Chappelle’s Equanimity & The Bird Revelation and BET’s American Black Film Festival (ABFF) Honors.
Her accolades include recognition as the first African American female recipient of an EMMY for “Outstanding Variety Special” and a GRAMMY in the “Best Comedy Album” category. No matter what she is producing or which celebrities she is working with, know that Hughes stays humble by remaining grateful. Gratitude is her self-proclaimed superpower and every litmus test.
She runs her own production company, Magic Lemonade, in addition to a non-profit that empowers millennial women interested in learning about the nuts and bolts of business. Though she is very proud of her accomplishments and many roles, she is equally proud of her title as the mother to two grown children.
Her Agenda caught up with Hughes while at home in Los Angeles and she gave us insight into the entertainment industry, her work as an entrepreneur, and what comedy legend Dave Chappelle has taught her.
Her Agenda: In a few words describe what a producer and showrunner does, based on your opinion and industry experience.
Rikki Hughes: Well, the producer title can take on so many different roles. There’s some people that are physical producers, meaning they really get into the nuts and bolts of it. They spend time with budgets and hiring crew and really putting together the physicalities of a show. There are producers that are just creative producers, they just say I have this idea and they kind of impart their ideas on how to make things happen and make the show come to fruition. And sometimes people they’ve lent their name or help and they get producer credits. So producer titles kind of runs the gamut. I’m a little bit of a unicorn and when it comes to producing because I’ve not only come from the physical production, the nuts, and bolts but I also now am a showrunner and creative producer. So I live in both worlds. That’s not something that happens a lot.
I’m a little bit of a unicorn and when it comes to producing because I’ve not only come from the physical production, the nuts, and bolts but I also now am a showrunner and creative producer.
And you know, as a showrunner, usually, a network will come to you and say, ‘We had this idea for a show, and we need someone that’s going to take the helm and kind of oversees everything from top to bottom.’ And sometimes as the showrunner, you’re pitching the idea and sometimes ideas [are] pitched to you. But however it gets there once you take on the role of a showrunner, it’s your job to make sure that everything gets delivered to the network or studio with the exact vision that they set out to shoot. It’s a lot of responsibility and a lot of showrunners are writer showrunners, meaning they’re writing the scripts. I’m not necessarily a writer showrunner. I’m a creator and physical producer showrunner. I kind of take on a little bit of a couple of different hats when I produce shows.
Her Agenda: What advice would you give to someone who wants to mimic your career and maybe doesn’t have either the connections or doesn’t live in a big town, like Los Angeles?
Rikki Hughes: I would say one, it’s not for the faint of heart. Two, you should really be dedicated. Spend some time researching and finding out exactly what people do and what type of producer you want to be. Then the very next step I would say is to be willing to be of service and stand next to someone who’s doing what you want to do. Almost anyone in this industry will say yes to free labor. If you really want to be the next Shonda Rhimes, I implore you to get a bus ticket, get a plane ticket, whatever you need to do get down there to Shonda Rhimes and say, ‘Look, I just want to be of service. How can I help at all with the production you don’t need to pay me. I just want to help.’ Because one, you want to see exactly what they do and make sure that’s really what you want to do before you get really committed to it. Two, you want to be next to someone who’s a great person doing it already. And that way you can see all of it. And so I think to me, that also shows dedication if you really want to do this. Some people want to see the glamorous part of it. They do not see [the time spent] reading scripts all night, looking at screeners, going home and giving notes, and then being back on set the first thing in the morning. If you aren’t ready for all of that you might want to rethink things.
If you really want to be the next Shonda Rhimes, I implore you to get a bus ticket, get a plane ticket, whatever you need to do get down there to Shonda Rhimes and say, ‘Look, I just want to be of service. How can I help at all with the production you don’t need to pay me. I just want to help.’
Her Agenda: You work with a lot of talented people, including comedian Dave Chappelle. What have you learned from him? And what has he learned from you, considering that you guys have worked together on award-winning projects.
Rikki Hughes: One thing I’ve learned from Dave Chappelle is one, I trust the genius. You know, Dave always is very deliberate and has a reason why he does every one of the specials there’s always a message and he’s really clear about it. And one thing he’s taught me is to suspend fear. When it comes to what we include in the [comedy] special, he runs it through the test of saying, ‘Am I taking this out because I’m scared of what the repercussions will be or what someone else feels or am I taking it out because it just doesn’t work for the flow of the show?’ If fear is ever part of it, he makes sure it goes in there because that means it’s really important that we look at that fear. If it’s a fear of his it could be a fear of many. So let’s, let’s talk about let’s examine. Because once you get a fear outside of your mind and outside of this closet, it’s usually not as big as you thought it was and now we can tackle it. So I’ve definitely learned that from him. Something I probably have taught Dave is that anything can be done. So, you know, I don’t know if it’s a good lesson or a bad lesson, but it’s definitely something that has come to fruition.
Some people want to see the glamorous part of it. They do not see [the time spent] reading scripts all night, looking at screeners, going home and giving notes, and then being back on set the first thing in the morning.
Her Agenda: You are a business owner. What has that experience been like for you?
Rikki Hughes: Entrepreneurship has been part of my life since inception. I’ve never really worked for anyone since I left the record label [Priority Records]. Because I’m an independent filmmaker and content creator, even when I work with people on different staff on their projects, I still never worked under a company. So in the freelance world, we always have to plan our next gig while we’re on our current gig. So that’s a mindset and that mindset forces you, if you do it right, to have humility as you move [it forces you] to be able to forecast, to be able to have discipline. [If] you made a lot of money on this one project but you’re not sure where the next project is then that [money] needs to last you for the rest of the year. It also forces me to step with integrity and constantly check my integrity on a regular basis. You know, every person that leaves a set of one project goes to 60 other projects. If they can carry your name, in a positive way to that next project, you now have 60 people speaking on your behalf on 60 different projects, which is an amazing thing to happen for free.
In the freelance world, we always have to plan our next gig while we’re on our current gig.
Her Agenda: Do you find it challenging to manage all these responsibilities or expectations as you try to produce creative content? Or does it all just come together because you’ve been doing it for so long?
Rikki Hughes: I think you just have to choose it. So much of what we do is a choice. If you choose to be kind if you choose to be gracious. If you really choose to have integrity, then it’s a done deal. And you do that. When you have to struggle with it on a constant basis, then I feel like you haven’t quite chosen it yet.
“You just have to choose it. So much of what we do is a choice. If you choose to be kind if you choose to be gracious. If you really choose to have integrity, then it’s a done deal.”
Her Agenda: What about your career makes you most proud as of right now, or what are you looking forward to?
Rikki Hughes: We just shot the Trumpet Awards, I’m really excited about it. And I’m really excited about that particular project because they brought me on to elevate the show. After the show, I really felt like mission accomplished. Xernona Clayton created the show 28 years ago. And for me to look in her eyes and she said, ‘Rikki, job well done. This was amazing. It surpassed my expectations.’ We had a great cast from Martin Lawrence, Cedric the Entertainer, Wanda Skyes, Mike Epps. We just had some amazing people that showed up. We moved the show to the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles, which was amazing in itself for us to be in the same home where they shoot The Oscars. And it was just a beautiful night of black excellence and I was just really excited about it. I’m very proud of that.
If we get into a place where we’re censoring every single thing that’s said that we’ll get to a very monolithic society, that does not reflect what’s really happening in the real world.
I have BET’s ABFF awards coming up in February, which is another amazing and very necessary event that happens in Hollywood. And I also manage Carlos Miller and I executive produce with 85 South Show. I’m so excited about these guys, a group of comics that have taken this podcast to a big worldwide stage now. So I’m excited about all of these things coming up.
Her Agenda: Is there anything that makes you suspend fear a little bit as you move forward to some of the projects you mentioned that are coming up, but just, in general, the trajectory of your career.
Rikki Hughes: I cannot try to really limit fear and kind of keep it in its place. I think it’s important because it’s there for a reason. But I think it should never be stifling. One of my biggest fears is that we get to such a politically correct world that viewpoints and voices are no longer expressed. And I think it’s one of the reasons why Dave Chappelle and I gravitate so much towards each other. It’s so important for there to be a stage that’s sacred.
Part of my career has always been to protect voice and protect the voice of people, that aren’t heard or that try to be shielded, try to be censored. And I think if we get into a place where we’re censoring every single thing that’s said that we’ll get to a very monolithic society, that does not reflect what’s really happening in the real world. So, for me, my biggest fear would be that we allow some of the censorship to go to a place that becomes detrimental to creativity.
[Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]