Rihanna released the widely anticipated video for the Drake-assisted “Work” last month, the first single off her eighth studio album, Anti. Not only were we lucky enough to receive two separate clips in a single sitting, but the Barbadian singer graciously took us into a steamy night of Caribbean-tinged twerking and whining (two dances that she executes quite well).
While the catchiness of “Work” is irrefutable and Rihanna yet again showed us her vocal versatility, her sexuality as a black woman—not her undeniable talent or almost magical pop star staying power—is at the forefront of discussion surrounding the song. In fact, anytime a black female pop star shows conceptual complexity, it is almost inevitable that mainstream criticism will soon follow. Publications and outlets balk at the idea that black women can be multifaceted—and Rihanna’s latest visuals are just the tip of the iceberg.
At twenty-eight years of age, Rihanna has literally grown up right before the world’s eyes. She signed her record deal with Def Jam when she was just sixteen. Over the course of her career, she has publicly dealt with financial troubles, family turmoil, and high-profile relationships. Despite all of her setbacks, she has remained fearless when it comes to artistic reinvention and uses her music videos to convey the power of her brand and agency.
Considering the history of black women in this country, to say that Rihanna shows resilience and confidence as she navigates the music industry would be a vast understatement. It is groundbreaking to watch her become so successful by disregarding what society deems acceptable and by following her own creative impulses.
All too often, this particular narrative surrounding her career is ignored in favor of focusing in on one single aspect of her life, regardless of how irrelevant it is to her artistry. As a survivor of domestic violence, her personal life is often used to frame her every musical move; others view her as a sexual object whose sole purpose is to perpetuate male hedonism. Her cultural roots make her an exotic entity to some, and her current stint as creative director at PUMA left naysayers wondering what her credentials are when it comes to designing fashion. While her contemporaries are also subjected to unwarranted scrutiny, the words used to describe Rihanna and her professional endeavors are always harsher and often contain racist undertones.
Why is it so hard to believe that black women can occupy such visible spaces while being multidimensional?
This question has never been more prevalent than when Beyonce recently released the video for her latest song “Formation.” A departure from her signature universal love ballads and boisterous club anthems, the single celebrates her black roots while addressing police brutality and promoting sisterhood. Her Black Panther tribute at this year’s Super Bowl cemented the predictable backlash centering on Bey’s “newfound” political awareness, and a bevy of ridiculous questions and critiques soon followed: Is Beyonce now anti-police? How could a light-skinned, blond black woman be pro-black? Doesn’t her being rich make the likelihood of Beyonce experiencing racism obsolete?
Once she used her platform to voice what matters in the black community—and step outside of the comfort zones of her listeners—the adverse reactions became inevitable.
Nicki Minaj is another talented black female musician in the limelight who is often forced to justify her sexuality, outspokenness, and drive in a genre dominated by men. Her gritty and brilliant delivery of bars is frequently juxtaposed by her choice to treat sensitive subject matter, yet her creativity and proliferation in hip hop is overshadowed by her body type and how she chooses to showcase it. Minaj is aware of the controversy surrounding her career and has stated that young women can dance and dress as provocatively as they want yet still be well educated—though society encourages us (read: black women) to choose between the two.
And earlier this year, former video vixen and model Amber Rose had to explain—in the most elementary of ways—to two grown men on a naturally syndicated television show that just because she used to be a stripper and has dated famous men doesn’t mean that she wants to be viewed as a sexual object. She is a mother, a feminist, and an author—but that seems to be lost to the mainstream, which has written her off as they see fit. Will black women ever be embraced as the complex, talented, and fascinating beings we are?
Despite the strides made by the aforementioned celebrities, the lens used to view black women in pop music and culture is dangerously narrow. What is even more disheartening is that for many, perception equals reality.
The depiction of black women over hundreds of years has been nothing short of an assemblage of conflictions. We are regarded as hypersexualized yet undesirable, simplistic but routinely analyzed, and renowned while being innately feared. While many look to pop culture to clarify, exacerbate, or extinguish these tired tropes, we are led to believe that we somehow bear the burden of disproving both historical and generational stereotypes.
However, black women are not responsible for the ignorant assumptions surrounding how we talk, what we wear, how we dance, who we date, and ultimately who we are. There was a time in this country when our bodies were sold, then literally caged and put on display. It wasn’t that long ago that there were laws concocted to remind black people of the disdain America had for us. The criticism that black women in the music industry face today is also a reminder of this contempt, although it is guised as harmless commentary instead of as thinly veiled racism.
The burden is not on Rihanna or Beyonce or Nicki or Amber to prove they can embody various principles and ideologies—it is on society to cultivate and continually harbor safe spaces for their complexities to exist in the first place.
Rihanna has gone from Good Girl Gone Bad to bonafide style icon, pop culture heavyweight, and international superstar.
In the past few years, she’s successfully turned her name into that of an influential tastemaker, a woman often imitated but never duplicated, who does what she wants, when she wants, without fear or worry of judgment or disapproval.
The release of her eighth studio album, Anti, marks a decidedly different direction in the Rihanna sound. In an interview with Vogue, she admits, “It might not be some automatic record that will be Top 40. But I felt like I earned the right to do that now.” Anti, unlike previous albums, doesn’t settle for a theme-driven package of perfectly produced pop bangers and radio-friendly tunes. From the SZA-featured opening track, “Consideration,” to the Drake-aided, dancehall-infused “Work,” Riri’s Anti prefers the visceral power of atmosphere.
Despite the variations in style and production per song, the album’s overall intent is to conjure a certain mood. Whether she’s venting frustrations with overwhelming love affairs gone wrong or lust at first sight, the album wields Rihanna’s voice as both weapon and refuge. In a poem written by Chloe Mitchell exclusively commissioned for the album, Mitchell’s words provide an unapologetic mission statement:
I sometimes fear that I am misunderstood.
It is simply because what I want to say,
what I need to say, won’t be heard.
Heard in a way I so rightfully deserve.
What I choose to say is of so much substance
That people just won’t understand the depth of my message.
So my voice is not my weakness,
It is the opposite of what others are afraid of.
My voice is my suit and armor,
My shield, and all that I am.
Writing for Billboard, Julianne Escobedo Shepherd notes in her review of Anti that Rihanna “exists on the languorous edge of Carefree Black Girlness, all Instagrams from Saint Barts and red carpet stunting and relaxed dismissals of thirsty men pretending to know her.” Rihanna, both the brand and the public persona, does not thrive on attention, but rather the seductive thrill of self-fulfillment. Her image is not necessarily about accessibility or even likeability, but unabashed ownership of the self. She is not concerned with role-model status. On the contrary, obeying such strict demands would compromise her sense of authenticity. The Rihanna brand doesn’t just advocate independence, because independence without the foundation of self-fulfillment is a hollow achievement.
The concept of the Carefree Black Girl seems to have been born from social media and (Black) Tumblr culture. In an essay for Refinery29, Jamala Johns explains, “There are varying ways in which the title is bestowed, but a common tone connects everything. It’s the freedom and exuberance of simple moments and pleasures: clutching flowers, enjoying the company of your equally stylish friends, reveling in creative endeavors, and even finding the ethereal beauty in not-so-carefree moments.” She adds, “For women of color, such basic depictions continue to go underrepresented.”
The Carefree Black Girl attempts to soften and humanize the crushing, insular cage of the Angry Black Woman. The Carefree Black Girl is radical in the sense that she does not submit to the expectations dictated by the establishment of white supremacy. The Carefree Black Girl realizes that pain is a part of life, but she does not drown under the weight of struggle. The Carefree Black Girl searches for freedom and self-fulfillment beyond society’s paltry offerings. She seeks what white supremacy routinely denies her: the ability to radiate inner peace despite the harsh cruelties of everyday life. This does not mean that the Carefree Black Girl is not allowed to feel self-doubt, anxiety, fear,or disappointment.
Anti is as joyous as it is melancholy. Tracks such as “Desperado” and “Never Ending” showcase the unraveling of romance and the portrayal of love as a force of destruction and ruin. In the world of Anti, to be in love does not promise salvation. Love itself is often two-faced, a fight for domination and control. “Desperado,” which samples background vocals from “Waiting Game” by Banks, talks about a lover who is on the run and the prospect of escaping with him. Rihanna sings:
If you want, we can be runaways
Running from any sight of love
Yeah, yeah, there ain’t nothin’
There ain’t nothin’ here for me
There ain’t nothin’ here for me anymore
But I don’t wanna be alone
It is not love that motivates this unexpected union, but the tortured desire to run away. Similarly, “Never Ending,” written by Dido and Paul Herman, contemplates the mixed emotions of opening one’s heart after a devastating breakup. She sings:
They’ll never understand
This feeling always gets away
Wishing I could hold on longer
Why does it have to feel so strange
To be in love again, be in love again, be in love again?
Love is not portrayed as a magnificent source of pure happiness and freedom, but an unpredictable and mysterious enigma with its own agenda. Anti’s vision of the Carefree Black Girl is not superhuman or inhuman. She is complicated and vulnerable and does not sacrifice self-awareness for the comfort of oblivious denial. Billboard notes the moody peaks and valleys of the album’s sound, declaring, “Anti is evidence that being America’s foremost Carefree Black Girl is a beleaguering endeavor, one destined to land a bad gal in a bout of depression now and again.”
Looking inward is not always pleasant, and the truth is not always flattering, but self-reflection can act as a healing salve and serve as a defensive barrier against the antagonistic violence of white supremacy. Rihanna’s Anti is fueled by the basic principles of the Carefree Black Girl ideology. Yet listeners cannot discount the unflinching chameleon nature of the album or the fullness of its emotions. Anti presents the idea that the Carefree Black Girl is not about blocking out negativity or distress, but about using these emotions to achieve self-actualization. In other words, Black girl, in all your contradictions, you are enough.