In the last month, two megastars released music that has left us talking ever since; not only of their musicianship, but also of their implications and significance –– and maybe even their inherent problems.
Three weeks ago, Rihanna released Work, the first single off her eigth album Anti. The single features rapper Drake, but the conversation did not start because she is accompanied on the track by a former flame, but rather because of her use of a dancehall riddim, or rather what Rolling Stone rather bafflingly referred to as tropical house. Suffice it to say, tropical house is not a thing; it is a merely an attempt by white people to claim something they know nothing about or how it came to be. But I digress.
The initial reaction to Rihanna’s song was marked by questions of authenticity. Could she as a non-Jamaican sample dancehall? Was she attempting to mimic patois in her lyrics? Could she do so without herself taking from a culture that is not hers?
Rihanna is allowed to be influenced by and perform dancehall. As a young Barbadian woman of her generation, how could she not, given the proliferation of the music and culture, both in her formative years and now. To deny her such would be to deny us all.
However, In my mind the mimicking of patois would have been too much, a kind of appropriation which even her proximity would not allow her.
While the Jamaican influence in Rihanna’s music is understandable, it would be fantastic to hear her release a track with an obvious soca influence. We know that soca has crossover appeal because we have seen talents not in the stratosphere of Rihanna take the genre to higher heights.
And, we know that the woman who can sell $1,500 bejewelled Dolce and Gabana headphones can sell anything. Imagine, a song released in the midst of Crop Over season which we all could pelt waist to being sung by one of the world’s biggest stars who is born and bred Bajan. It would be pure shellings.
Undoubtedly, however, the most significant thing about Work is its buffing of universality. Here is a global megastar being heavily influenced by dancehall, and performing it in all of its richness –– a reality that contradicts what is appreciated to be the experience of global music stardom where the artiste is forced to pander to the desires of their most faithful demographic.
There is something both astounding and almost revolutionary about a Bajan girl making the entire world sing along to words they hardly understand.
Apparently, the work of making the marginal mainstream also required the force that is Beyoncé. Beyoncé took a regular Saturday afternoon last week and turned it into mania with the release of her Formation video only 24 hours before an epic Super Bowl half-time performance.
Formation is political for its centrality of blackness. It must be noted that the blackness which Beyoncé is celebrating is deeply American and thus is largely not synonymous with the kind of blackness which this author expresses and celebrates. However this was too epic a moment not to allow myself some solidarity despite my recognition of difference.
I cannot think of a song in recent years that celebrates blackness in all of its texture and nuance like this one. Beyoncé’s privileging of blackness is beautiful in the age of extreme cultural appropriation where parts of black culture, body shapes, and fashion and music have been taken by people to whom these things do not belong, and then celebrated most when they are carried and performed by said people.
In the age of rampant cultural appropriation, she allows black people to see themselves and to celebrate themselves as fiercely as possible.
But not only did Beyoncé centre on blackness; she took her literal formation to the Superbowl, the game that epitomizes American middle class standards and in so doing no doubt left many clutching their pearls, and others utterly bewildered.
Lines like “I like my baby heir with baby hair and afros. I like my negro nose with Jackson Five nostrils”, references to both her husband and their child who are often critiqued for their appearance, perhaps rightly confused the middle America because this is not the Beyoncé with whom they are familiar.
A large demographic of Beyoncé fans know her for a cookie cutter, almost pageant girl image and sexy but safe sound.
Her last album, in which she expressed her adult sexuality, saw her being called all sorts of unseemly things, the least of which was a bad role model. Now that Beyoncé is sitting atop a drowning police car in Katrina-ravaged New Orleans and asking that the police “stop shooting us”, at a time when they seem to be doing nothing but shooting and killing the innocent, she has been called un-American and too black.
It is hard not to notice that the video, for all of its textured blackness, is headed by a woman who adheres to largely European standards of beauty. But perhaps that is the complexity of the moment. Who is to say that one cannot rock a Remy and simultaneously be down for revolution.
As much as Beyoncé privileges blackness, it also centres on capitalism, with references to wealth accumulation and aspirations to be white, the Bill Gates reality that has led to one of the more consistent critiques.
Capitalism is everywhere. It defines this age, and it is obvious that success is hinged to capitalist ideals. Being aware of the functioning of the system is not antithetical to financial flourishing. This critique is a classic example of setting the bar to an impractical standard.
The existence of both these ladies and their work at this moment ask that we not blindly consume their art, but recognize both their significant progress and their problems. Additionally, in their work lies a lesson for us all: not to negate the complexities of our own experiences.
(Andwele Boyce is a young commentator who is passionate about politics and popular culture.)