To the renaissance nasty woman and the only “badgal” I look up to
I’m aware that fans fawning over you must not be a novel concept anymore. I read about your fan who spent two years-worth of savings on a single ticket to your “Anti” concert. I’m sure the experience was priceless and that if she could do it five times over, she would. I heard about the other fan whose hobby is replicating all your iconic outfits. She recreated your elaborate Giambattista Valli look from the 2015 Grammys completely by hand. The one that takes the cake, however, is your fan from Wiltshire who tattooed not one but 14 of your faces all over her body.
There (unfortunately) will be no tattooing on my person, but the sentiment is all the same. As unconventional and extreme as some of these declarations of love are, who could really blame these people? You have this astonisihing ability to stun, inspire and mesmerize, to move mountains and affect change. You can cause a multibillion-dollar company to lose nine-digit figures with a single Instagram story. Now, that's power.
It did start with your music, naturally.
The year was 2005 and airwaves were filled with a fair share of provocative tunes. Kanye West's “Gold Digger” was climbing the charts. 50 Cent seemed quite fixated on “taking you to the candy shop and letting you lick the lollipop.” The Black Eyed Peas posed questions like “whatcha gonna do with all that junk, all that junk inside your trunk.” And there you were: a bright, sunny island girl from Bridgetown who sang: “come Mr. DJ song pon de replay,” turning everyone’s attention immediately to dancehall. It occurred to some while hearing “Pon de Replay,” that you were musical antidote people didn’t know they needed. By the time they heard “If It’s Lovin’ That You Want,” they then knew for sure.
You, a bright-eyed, laser-focused teenager, came in guns blazing. And it wasn’t long until you began playing with “the big boys” like Ne-Yo, T.I., Justin Timberlake, Kanye West and of course, Jay-Z, the man who signed you the very same day he met you.
Rihanna, you were one of the few badgals at the time who joined the game created by men, who played by the rules created, too, by men. As if that weren’t enough, the skyrocketing of your career was, for a time, attributed to your label, Def Jam Records and its newly minted president, then Jay-Z and crazily enough, the Illuminati. In all other directions, people pointed. In all other places, they gave their thanks.
But you stuck to your craft and succeeded (as of this writing, you hold the record for most dance club #1's from a single album in Billboard's history). You made your sweep at awards shows and produced critically acclaimed studio albums not even a decade into your career in the industry. You. Not Jay-Z. Not your famous rumored relationships. Not your collaborators on singles. You.
With the rise, however, comes a catch. You had to deal with the ugly side of fame: becoming public-figure-therefore-public-property. You had to become somewhat of a commodity…a living, ongoing act with no intermission. At least you still had some privacy—until an LAPD officer decides to leak images of your beautiful face beaten to a pulp by your then-boyfriend Chris Brown.
The year was 2009. And the world stood by in utter disbelief that their beloved Barbadian superstar with the world at her feet had been a victim of domestic violence. “This happened to me,” you said in your chilling interview with Diane Sawyer. “It can happen to anyone.”
True enough being so far in love (in your own words: “so unconditionally in love”) that you would go back to a toxic relationship isn’t all that uncommon a scenario.
“On average I think it takes a woman seven times before she leaves,” said Sawyer.
“Eight or nine, actually,” you quipped.
Lo and behold, you rejoined the music scene with Loud in 2010. You found a way to turn your wounds into some art form that I, a fan, at one point did not understand. For sure, though, it had more attitude. It had more bite.
Two years later, when you released Unapologetic, dare I say I was part of the group that did more than lift an eyebrow when your “Pour It Up” music video came out. You were pole-dancing with barely-there underwear, dollar bills flying around and strippers in the background. The only other thing distracting me from lyrics like: “I still got my money / The look in yo eyes I know you want some” were all the twerking scenes. I admit I was disturbed because I didn’t understand. I was raised to root for the team that says “women have to present themselves in an acceptable manner” but again, it was because I didn’t understand where the women rooting for other teams came from. Then I read that you just really wanted to produce a stripper song, period. It really wasn’t that deep. Here, I caught myself laughing at the thought that I was so set on policing another woman’s ideas and body of work simply because I didn’t understand a way of thinking different from mine.
This was when I decided to listen to you speak instead of merely listening to your music. You had been doing it all along (surprise, surprise). I guess I just didn’t notice. See, I helped myself to media that busied itself with reporting how you looked, who you were wearing or how little you were wearing and stood witness as they overshadowed the fact that you were a bright woman who believed in forging her own path (whether in designer heels or sneakers she helped design), not giving a fuck and setting her sights on a grander venture. For every PUMA, Fenty Beauty, Manolo Blahnik or Chopard campaign, you had work with Kids Wish Network, Raising Malawi, Red Cross and UNICEF. You never—not once—turned your back on your hometown of Bridgetown, Barbados, which now has a state-of- the-art center for oncology and nuclear medicine thanks to you. Your Clara Lionel Foundation Global Scholarship Program is changing the lives of children by providing education.
You became a force to be reckoned and lived like a legend. Not in a “hey, I’m a rock star, let me piss all my wealth away” kind of way, but in a manner that lifted spirits and taught many others to pay it forward. In February 2017, when you were awarded the Harvard Humanitarian of the Year award, that was your thrust: “The truth is, and what I want the little girl watching those [aid] commercials to know, is you don't have to be rich to be a humanitarian. You don't have to be rich to help somebody. You don't gotta be famous. You don't even have to be college-educated. All you need to do is help one person, expecting nothing in return,” you said in your speech. “To me, that is a humanitarian. People make it seem way too hard, man.”
All this shy of your 30th birthday.
Here you are, a woman so powerful that a single decision of hers can cause massive ripples in society. Consider your effect on me a tiny ripple, but it’s one that I am always going to be thankful for. Through your battles in your private life that were made public, I learned that inner peace starts with forgiveness. Through your unabashed representation of different kinds of women, I learned to get on the right side of feminism: to let women do whatever the fuck they want with their bodies (because if they do it with dignity, who are you to make it your business?) Most importantly, through your legacy, I learned the value of self-pull: that self-care and self-love are all well and good, but to effect change, you learn to get back up by yourself, for yourself with that same desire to steer yourself in the right direction and soldier on.
Art Alexandra Lara
Photos by Steven Klein via wmagazine.com