According to charts and memes, “Work” is the most popular song off Rihanna’s latest album, Anti. (Though my personal favorite right now is “Woo” with production from Hit-Boy and Travis Scott.) Including a feature from Drake, this song has a lot of star power as is regular for any Rihanna record. One of the many aspects of the record that has contributed to its success is the catchiness of the hook. Though singing along has proven somewhat difficult for those not familiar with Rihanna’s native tongue. All throughout the song Rihanna uses a fair amount of the language native to her birthplace, Barbados. This language, Bajan Creole, is mostly concentrated in the hook and has been labeled as “gibberish.” The vernacular spoken is very similar to Jamaican Patois, which has a similar speech pattern. The fact that her lyrics have been referred to as gibberish has revealed something that has been going on with popular black music for a while now.
When black culture reaches the masses, there seems to be a limit on how much people can take. You can be black, but you can’t be too black. This appropriation of culture can be seen in form of clothing style, trending slang, and musical genres such as rock n roll, hip-hop and R&B. People mirror within boundaries safe enough for themselves with no true understanding of what they are mimicking. I am in no way against the collision of worlds but the method when it comes to black culture is really skewed and has been for most of our “free” history.
Recently Beyoncé’s last few media headlines involve controversy with her last music video for “Formation” and her performance at Super Bowl 50. They both received polarizing responses from the world that has supported her thus far. SNL summed it up perfectly in their “The Day Beyoncé Turned Black” skit. When she took a stance regarding the devaluation of black lives and celebrated her blackness, the same people that hailed her as queen began to antagonize her as an enemy. She was just being too black.
This is the case on a much less political scale surrounding Rihanna’s latest single. When people look at the lyrics as nonsense, appropriation is still taking place but from a much more intricate viewpoint. What is happening here is a modest result of hundreds of years of western globalization. In this particular scenario the ideas from “Work” are not being taken but rejected. People assume that the tongue being spoken has to be English, so that is the standard they will judge by. While the U.S. doesn’t operate with an official language, English is the official language of 65 countries and territories. Out of these places, 35 have made English their only official language. The impact of English has led to influence on other languages, like Bajan, as a superstrate.
The problem with this outlook is that the world is judging cultures by the standards of their own rather than the local standards of the cultures being observed. If you truly listen to a song only expecting to hear English you have closed yourself in a lone world as if music isn’t universal. This methodology applies to all culture and forms of diversity across the globe. (If you need to get clarification on lyrics and their meaning the best site to do so would be genius.com.)
With that being said, I love that Rihanna went all out with her West Indian customs from the track itself to the double video. (Fader did an awesome interview with Director X that dives into the themes and mindset behind the illustration.) “Work” is the perfect ratio of dancehall, electronic sounds and pop appeal that she has been working on for 8 albums. Everyone I know and have seen when exposed to it has felt it’s undeniable danceability. With the success of this record I’d hoped there would be a better response to the mesh of culture but it seems we have a long way to go.
When approaching diversity in music and life I hope you please try to remember the following:
“The world in which you were born is just one model of reality. Other cultures are not failed attempts at being you; they are unique manifestations of the human spirit” – Wade Davis