People tend to assume that because I was raised in Jamaica, I grew up with an intimate appreciation of dancehall and reggae music, but in church, we were told to only listen to music that encouraged decency and reaffirmed Biblical values. Still, I have early memories of Rihanna: The first time was because of my sister, who, against our religious tradition, must have been listening to (or been exposed to) secular music. I remember her talking about the song ‘Pon de Replay’ from Rihanna’s debut album Music of the Sun. It must have been 2005. My sister dismissed the song as too derivative, a girl singing a song about a DJ. Was she mentioning Rihanna because she was new on the music scene and Caribbean like us? I can’t remember. I would have been seventeen.

A few years later, I couldn’t help knowing of Rihanna because that song ‘Umbrella’ was suddenly everywhere in New York. Rihanna had cut her hair short, and she was no longer being marketed as the Caribbean Beyoncé. In the newfound edge and grit of her music, she was a ‘good girl gone bad’ – the title of that 2007 album – and this concept of a good girl going bad interested me. Where once she sang, ‘He’s more than a man, and this is more than love / The reason that the sky is blue’ in ‘Unfaithful’, she now sang ‘I ain’t gonna stop until I see police lights / I’m a fight a man tonight’ in ‘Breakin’ Dishes’. The truth is that I’ve long been interested in badness. I struggled with this knowledge as a child in my conservative Jamaican household. For a year in high school, I wore heavy black eyeliner and fishnet stockings because it was the worst thing I could think to do. As a child when I saw Gone with the Wind, I knew with mild interest that I was Scarlett, and my sister was sweet-sweet Melanie. There is a photograph from our childhood where we are both wearing white tights under our dresses, and mine are heavily dirtied and I am holding my favorite teddy-bear. For me that photograph represents how we have experienced the world as women.

I spent much of my early twenties trying to make my family’s religious tradition work for me. As children, my sister told me that she believed I would wear makeup when I grew up. I was horrified. It was true that I painted my face at a neighbor’s house, but this was play. I didn’t want to grow up to be an immodest woman. Our church had strict guidelines about a woman’s body, and what was deemed modest. As a teenager, I started to feel the weight of my gender in church. I had the sense, though I didn’t have the language for it, that my church cloaked Caribbean hyper-masculinity and misogyny with religious packaging. And so my leaving had everything to do with me being a woman. Yet, though I am childless and haven’t experienced the kind of soaring romantic love in novels, I sometimes think that leaving is to be the great heartbreak of my life. In part because my family is my family and what is precious to them is precious to me, but also because my religious upbringing feels uniquely Caribbean. People who are intimate with the Caribbean know that religion there can have a remarkable intensity. The resurrection could be tomorrow, and one has to be ready. I knew this as a child. I used to pray that the resurrection would happen before my exams. But there is also a milder brand of Caribbean Christianity, to which Rihanna seems to belong. After those years of searching, could her way have been a balm for me? I watch, admiring and apprehensive because she manages to have it both ways. She gives the glory to God in acceptance speeches, but she also models lingerie on Instagram. When I used to go to church, a Bajan friend told me that she used to be a fan of Rihanna out of national pride before the singer went ‘crazy’. What the friend meant was that Rihanna became indecent, ungodly. An older Bajan man at one of my book signings says a similar thing when I joke that Rihanna is the queen of the Barbados.

In graduate school in Iowa, I started writing about ‘Shirley’, a Jamaican popstar inspired by Rihanna. I had seen the Oprah special with Rihanna in Barbados. Rihanna drove to her childhood home, with Oprah sitting in the passenger seat. I observed how Rihanna interacted with people she knew growing up. There was a familiarity, which in a sense made it seem that she still lived down the road. A woman approached the car with a child, and Rihanna called the child pretty and asked if the child was Shakira’s daughter, and promised to check with the woman later. Watching the scenes in her childhood neighborhood, I couldn’t help thinking about relationship to place, how the ties bind or unbind. My family left Jamaica when I was twelve, and because we were undocumented in the United States for such a long time, I wasn’t able to visit for over a decade. There isn’t a child I could see in Jamaica whose face I would recognize to ask after a mother with both certainty and doubt that I know her. I started writing a story that imagined how those people might think and talk about a popstar like Rihanna now:

‘Titi and I started hanging around some boys in the district who played cricket and smoked and drank together, boys a little older than both of us, boys who had actual experience lying on top of a woman. If I told them about kissing Shirley behind the tank, they would have laughed. Or maybe it’s because the idea of a girlfriend hardly, if ever, occurred to me. Or maybe because the ideal girl I dreamed of was light skinned and tall haired and was absolutely not the girl I grew up next door to. And then when the school year ended, Shirley went to work at the resort for summer vacation and she never came back to finish school with us. And then she was on our television and newspapers and I kept thinking about the kiss behind the tank and the schoolbook squashed between us because she could have been mine. When I talk about her, and I always talk about her, sometimes I make it seem like I did more than kiss her. I don’t lie. I just hint a little and leave it up to the listener’s imagination since God doesn’t like liars.’

A few years later, I wrote and eventually published a story. I’d stuck with Shirley, exploring her relationship with fame, her sexuality, her mother and her homeland. It was the story I’d always wanted to write, but it was slow coming, because it took me a long time to feel capable of accessing a pop star’s consciousness. It seemed that my imagination had a cap – the life of a pop star was so far from anything or anyone I’d ever experienced.

People want to know if Shirley is Rihanna. Yes and no, I say. Or they want to know, why Rihanna? For selfish reasons, I’m interested in Rihanna. We grew up together – we were born almost exactly a month apart. If I was born in Barbados and not Jamaica and lived in her neighborhood or gone to her primary school, might we have been friends? I’ve watched as she’s come into her womanhood. I’m witness – as witness as a fan can be – to her maturing. Have I matured too? We turned thirty this spring. We have complicated relationships with our fathers. We have younger brothers. We are Afro-Caribbean. Our work is inspired and energized by our Caribbeans upbringings.

Once, in my mid-twenties, I briefly dated a Jamaican man, another writer, who told me that he could tell I was a traditional Jamaican woman. I think he meant it as a compliment, and because I wanted him to like me and because I was raised to be a traditional Jamaican woman, I was flattered. We both imagined roles for ourselves that would contextualize our relationship in a Jamaican gendered way. We quickly realized that a relationship between us would never work. The problem was that after all I was no one’s traditional Jamaican woman.

I’m drawn to Rihanna because she speaks to the Caribbean women I write about in my fiction. They challenge this notion of a traditional Caribbean woman. If Rihanna’s discography has a narrative, it charts the tensions of the over-sexualization and control of women’s bodies in the Caribbean, and the fluidity of values around modesty and femininity because on one day a woman may be at Carnival and on another, it’s Sunday and she is in church. Rihanna’s music is all of these things at once. It contextualizes, and then it complicates. I’m interested and inspired by her vulnerability and rawness. In her songs, women get to be messy, angry, jealous, opinionated, sexually liberated – they get to be everything, and every woman. The women in her music videos played by Rihanna herself behave like men, taking revenge – by shooting and killing a rapist in ‘Man Down’, a criminal in ‘Needed Me’. In the song ‘Desperado’ the speaker sings to a man, ‘If you want, we can be runaways / Running from any sight of love’. Sure, she engages with that clichéd top 40 desire to love and to be loved, but the intentions and resolutions are darker, and more true. I’ve listened to Caribbean people express dislike of Rihanna for being too free with her body, specifically her nipples. But I see her as a heroine, as part of a larger conversation that Caribbean women like myself are having.


This piece is part of an ongoing series on modern musical icons.

Read ‘Shirley from a Small Place’ – from Alexia Arthurs’s short story collection, How to Love a Jamaican.

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Feature image © duncan c 

Akwaeke Emezi | In Conversation