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.