Anti-Everything: The Culture Of Resistance Behind Rihanna's Latest Album
The release of Rihanna's much anticipated Anti was a mistake. Or it was on purpose? The album is "adrift," "confused," "not what we expected at all." What's Rihanna doing anyhow? Review after review has seemed to struggle with the Barbadian superstar — the coolest girl in the world is being just plain frustrating. But maybe that's the whole point.
"That all these songs exist side by side reaffirm that Rihanna is our least aesthetically consistent — least aesthetically committed? — major pop star", wrote Jon Caramanica in The New York Times. But could it not be that Rihanna's aesthetic project might be consistently committed to representing Barbados and the Caribbean? As Rihanna's fame grows, there seems to be less and less of a reference to the relevance of her Bajan roots. Yes, she's super popular worldwide — despite the bumpy release of Anti,the album sold 124,000 copies last week, making it Rihanna's second No. 1 album — but she is also from Westbury Road, Bridgetown, Barbados. And this matters. To understand Barbados and the Caribbean is central to understanding Rihanna.
"Rihanna wants to remind us of those Caribbean, Barbadian roots," says Heather D. Russell, co-editor of Rihanna: Barbados World-Gurl in Global Popular Culture a 2015 book of scholarly essays on the phenomenon that is Robyn Rihanna Fenty, the most famous Bajan on the planet. Rihanna shouts out Barbados at awards shows, features her island home in videos, makes sure she's always back home for the annual Crop Over Carnival, and soundtracks perfume launches with local soca. These roots in the Caribbean, however, are arguably front and centre on Anti, and it's not just because there's a cover of a 20-year-old dancehall reggae riddim that's the foundation for the first single, "Work."
Featured prominently as part of the album art — and featured in much of Rihanna's recent self portraiture — is the crown of Neptune. It's hard not to see this as a direct reference to the trident on the Barbadian flag. And on the wall of the first "room" in the Samsung-sponsored series of "ANTIdiary" videos — a room filled with white sand that would match the beaches in Rihanna's home country — is a crayoned map of the world with Barbados, indicated in big letters, clearly between America and Africa. The historical relationships are not hidden.
The album is called Anti. It's anti-establishment, anti-expectations, but it's also anti-colonial. Is Anti also a wide-ranging commentary on relationships? Sure it is. That's part of what makes it a consistent, coherent representation of the postcolonial. It doesn't have to be (or want to be) one thing. Rihanna is a one-woman argument for the importance of cultural studies.
Jamaican-born cultural studies scholar Stuart Hall revolutionized his field by calling for the decoding of meaning from popular messages. From this perspective, Antiprovides perhaps Rihanna's most obvious pop music expression of postcoloniality. There are layers to the lyrics, the videos, the imagery on her Instagram to decode. "I do advise you," Rihanna sings, "Run it back, run it on back, when you breaking it down for me".
The struggle that reviewers seem to be experiencing seems to really be a struggle with language to frame her artistic output. The use of the fraught, exoticizing term "tropical" is emblematic of this difficulty to describe. People don't know what to do with Antiand its lack of coherence. "And I think that's radically Caribbean!" exclaims Russell. "They want to fix it into defined, pre-determined categories and they can't. That resistance to conformity, that resistance to needing and pleasing and placating the global marketplace is absolutely very much situated within her context. Anti is actively telling you, song after song, that it's not trying to fit."
Listeners are presented with stripped down, early-2000s left field hip-hop on "Consideration," folky guitar on "Never Ending," the '60s doo-wop swing of "Love On the Brain," the smoky piano ballad "Close to You," the dancehall rhythm of "Work" and that's only a few. The range of stylistic experimentation serves to reinforce Anti's resistance. Why can't the record be more than one thing at once? "That persistent discomfort and dealing with ambiguity," Russell says, "is something that Caribbean people have always been more comfortable with. Given the long history of imposed colonial culture, you are consistently challenging ... you are working within to escape. That resistance to conformity, that resistance to needing and pleasing and placating the global marketplace is absolutely very much situated within her context." Indeed, the challenge to borders and boundaries is part of the history and culture of the Caribbean.
One of the ways her roots and connection to the postcolonial space of the Caribbean has been successfully read in her music is through demand for reparations. Rihanna engages with repayment, entitlement and owing — and not just in the single "Bitch Better Have My Money," as Doreen St Felix's pointed out in her excellent piece "The Prosperity Gospel of Rihanna," describing Rihanna as a "black wom[an] recouping historical debts." Sure, it can be read in the context of relationships, but her songs demand, to quote the title of the new album's first track, "Consideration" — an analysis that perhaps sees a metaphorical discussion.
And in the context of Barbados, the demand for reparations is particularly significant. Rihanna's demands for repayment are reflected in recent Caribbean conversation. "Barbados has a long history of public discourse and public activism," says Russell, "The reparations discourse is not some Ivory tower thing. It has filtered into everyday talk. CARICOM has formalized its process. To assume that she would not be privy to this discourse would be naïve." Months after Sir Hilary Beckles, historian and vice-chancellor of the University of the West Indies, released his book-length argument for reparations entitled Britain's Black Debt, Ta-Nehesi Coates's landmark article "The Case for Reparations" lodged additional and important support. Beckles, more than incidentally, is a Rihanna fan. He co-edited Rihanna: Barbados World-Gurl in Global Popular Culture alongside Russell. Right after a book on reparations, Beckles wrote about Rihanna.
With this in mind, take a listen to lyrics from the slow woozy R&B jam "Needed Me". A third of the way in, Rihanna asks the question "Didn't they tell you that I was a savage?", following up with "F*** ya white horse and ya carriage / Bet you never could imagine / Never told you you could have it." These phrases are framed as the beginning of a conversation between lovers — and the song has been hailed a female empowerment anthem of sorts — but Rihanna is also speaking against the larger narrative of colonialism and her work responds with multiple counter narratives.
Thus there are further layers to Rihanna's project. From Bob Marley to Usain Bolt, the most visible space of the Caribbean in the popular imagination is Jamaica. But Rihanna is a Bad Gal from Bimshire, not a Bad Gyal from Jamrock. With her insistence on repping Barbados, it is always clear that Rihanna is a Bajan person who is interpolating Jamaican music and language — she chats Jamaican, not Bajan patois on "Work," for instance — as well as numerous other types, styles, genres. This means that she not only challenges pop music, but also specific assumptions of that which equals Caribbeanness. It's important to note, says Russell, that "some commentators and even scholars are guilty of presenting a dichotomy of Barbados as the little England, the ruly, conformist, conservative space and Jamaica as outlaw, unruly. Rihanna's work radically disrupts that binary, and that's important."
Rihanna plays with her positionality as Bajan and Caribbean, but also American. She's a huge star in the U.S.A., but she's still speaking from foreign. The chemistry that exists between the Canuck Drake and the Bajan Riri is well acknowledged, but could it also be explained by seeing how the two are consistently speaking from spaces as outsider insiders? Canada and Barbados exist externally to the juggernaut that is American culture, but Aubrey Drake Graham and Robyn Rihanna Fenty have been able to navigate the waters of the U.S. pop music industry. Their collaborations, with "Work" being the most recent, act as a story of negotiation and navigation: from a ditty demanding name recognition, to a promise to protect each other through to Anti's acknowledgement that continued resistance takes work. Cultural studies demands we take a look at this; saying "it's only a song" holds us back from valuable analysis. The fact that she seems to continually produce these complicated cultural products means that it's not possible to deny layers. Discussions of Anti in the context of how the pop music industry functions or should function leaves out the possibilities of situated, nuanced arguments that place her solidly within the frameworks of Barbados world girl.
Guyanese-Canadian poet Cyril Dabydeen has written of the "many selves" of Caribbean migrants. Rihanna presents a consistent, coherent aesthetic representation of this multiplicity of identities. She experiments with style, image, voice; evoking roots and staking out routes while challenging colonial, Caribbean and gender narratives, resisting fixity at every turn. And all this takes work, work, work, work, work.
Erin MacLeod teaches Caribbean Literature in Montreal, Canada.
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