Why Rihanna Is a National Hero in BarbadosPosted by Mike Schumacher
The timing of Rihanna’s appointment as a national hero of Barbados, which coincides with the country’s transition to independence, could not be more perfect. Not only has she been the country’s official ambassador for culture and youth since 2018, but she is also its most renowned citizen and champion.
Her Bajan accent has never been softened, and her music, although influenced by pop, R&B, and dance, has stayed true to her Caribbean roots.
Mia Mottley, the country’s prime minister, addressed the pop singer, fashion icon, and hugely successful entrepreneur as “ambassador Robyn Rihanna Fenty: may you continue to shine like a diamond, and bring honour to your nation, by your words, by your actions, and to do credit wherever you shall go” – a reference to 2012’s global hit Diamonds. “God bless you, my dear,” says the narrator.
Pon de Replay, released in 2005, featured a bass-heavy dancehall sound and relentless handclaps to entice listeners to the dancefloor, with Rihanna shouting directions in patois to a DJ over the top.
She had a charismatic voice, but there were plenty of Caribbean pop-dancehall stars in the mid-2000s whose international fame didn’t last beyond one hit, even if their domestic careers did: Wayne Wonder, Kevin Lyttle, Gyptian, and Puerto Rican-American vocalist Lumidee, whose Never Leave You was a clear antecedent of Pon de Replay.
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Rihanna’s star potential, on the other hand, received some similarly stellar backing. A demo of Pon de Replay and other songs made their way to Jay-office Z’s at Def Jam Records, where he was president and CEO at the time. She nailed an in-person audition for him and legendary record executive LA Reid, and they immediately signed her to a six-album contract.
With melodic roots reggae backings, digital dancehall rhythms, and a version of Jamaican singer Dawn Penn’s classic No, No, No, her Bajan origins shined through on her first album Music of the Sun, released when she was barely 17 years old. The quick follow-up, A Girl Like Me (2006), included much the same dancehall, skanking reggae, and Destiny’s Child-ish R&B, but Rihanna showed capable of more than attractive, summery tunes, with a vocal that could be powerful or honestly vulnerable.
SOS had no Bajan swing to it all, giving her a club stomper that even the most inebriated could clomp about to – it diversified her audience and became her first US No 1. Unfaithful expanded into classic pop balladry, and with an insistent sample of Soft Cell’s Tainted Love, SOS had no Bajan swing to it all, giving her a club stomper that even the most inebriated could clomp about to.
Her genuine breakthrough, Good Girl Gone Bad (2007), featured powerful, extremely synthetic guitars, while her massive single Umbrella had a hip-hop breakbeat — yet Barbados’ syncopation can still be found in Don’t Stop the Music. Rihanna became one of the greatest pop sensations in the world thanks to Umbrella, and her country’s prime minister, David Thompson, declared Rihanna Day in 2008.
She kept up a phenomenal work pace for the following four years, delivering one album per year. She became more open about her sexuality – her bawdy single Rude Boy is still one of her greatest, and one of her most obviously Bajan – and songs like Russian Roulette grew in rawness and keenness of emotion as she grew older.
She overcame a shocking physical assault at the hands of R&B singer boyfriend Chris Brown (and the ensuing tabloid circus) to produce arguably the best track from the early 2000s EDM-influenced pop bubble – We Found Love with Scottish producer Calvin Harris – as well as forge other megastar musical pairings with Drake, Eminem, and Britney Spears.
Many consider Anti to be her best album, and its lead track Work saw her return to her native patois: “He said me haffi work,” a complex double entendre that is both a sexual come-on and a request for emotional labor. Since then, she hasn’t released any new solo music (although it was previously rumored that she was working on a reggae album), but her cultural prominence has grown thanks to her extraordinary Fenty network of enterprises.
Fenty Beauty and Savage x Fenty, a lingerie company, saw a void in the industry that was horribly underserved, notably women of color and those who didn’t aspire to the slender figures extolled by underwear competitors like Victoria’s Secret. Rihanna’s businesses have made her very rich, thanks to her honest representation of Rihanna, who is unabashedly sexual and body positive.
Her worth was projected to be $1.7 billion by Forbes earlier this year, making her the richest female artist in the world. Some of her fortune has gone to her Clara Lionel foundation, which was named after her grandparents and has helped Barbados with emergency storm aid, healthcare, and education.
Rihanna, disguised due to the epidemic and dressed in a form-fitting gown with the grace of a now-veteran celebrity, made no words after accepting her country’s highest honor. Fans have become used to the stillness and have taken her assertions in September that “you’re not going to expect what you hear [next]” with a grain of salt, but Rihanna will remain Barbados’ defining symbol, regardless of when that music comes.
Thanks to Ben Beaumont-Thomas at The Guardian whose reporting provided the original basis for this story.
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