finding the caribbean in rihanna’s jamaican work song

Published in 2007, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Dominican-American novelist and activist Junot Diaz remains my top pick for masculine, contemporary, aggressive, historical, feminist, political, Caribbean, border fiction.  Yes, it lives up to all of those descriptors and more.  Early on in the novel the suspect narrator, Yunior, ventriloquizes the voice of protagonist Oscar to ask these rhetorical questions: “What more sci-fi than Santo Domingo? What more fantasy than the Antilles?” (6).  Well, after watching Rihanna’s latest music videos work titlefor her 2016 lead single “Work,” I am compelled to ask: what more Antilles (read Caribbean) than exploiting the black woman?  Taking this all the way, I ask what is more Caribbean than human exploitation that satisfies the distant, greedy voyeurs who cannot get enough of the sweet stuff that they crave?

I could be talking about slavery and the sugar plantation, à la Kara Walker’s 2014 installation “A Subtlety” (see video above), but this is not the 17th, 18th, or 19th century, nor is it 2014. It’s early 2016 and I’m talking, rather bluntly, about the bittersweet exotification of Caribbean women and sex. And alongside all of that, I am talking about the way that Bajan Rihanna harnesses her Caribbean-ness through Jamaican dancehall sexuality on “Work.”  I’m talking about how a Canadian rapper with no Caribbean roots continues to channel Jamaica with his contribution to “Work” where he even uses the Jamaicanism “forward” to coax Rihanna closer. (Sidenote- Do you recall last year’s “Hotline Bling”?  Do you recall Virginia rapper D.R.A.M.’s “Cha Cha” that came out in 2014? Well, Drake used a “sunnier” version of D.R.AM.’s production to build “Hotline Bling” and when The Fader asked about him about it a few months ago, Drake defended his choice by citing Jamaican musical culture:

drake and movado
Photo source:

You know, like in Jamaica, you’ll have a riddim and it’s like, everyone has to do a song on that… Imagine that in rap, or imagine that in R&B…”  Moreover, The Fader also pointed out that the video for “Hotline Bling” visually paralleled music videos for Jamaican dancehall artists Sean Paul and Kardinal Offishall.  You can read more about that here.  For now, let’s get back to “Work.”)

Part one of the two part video for “Work” is brought to us by none other than Director X (the same director who directed Drake’s “Hotline Bling,” Mavado’s videos, Sean Paul’s videos, Kardinal Offishall’s videos, etc. mentioned parenthetically above).  The video is set in a well-known West Indian restaurant in Toronto called The Real Jerk where, according to the restaurant’s website, they specialize in “authentic Jamaican and Caribbean food.” Really? Both? What’s “Caribbean” food and why isn’t Jamaican food Caribbean too?  Sorry, back to “Work.”  Complementing Rihanna’s choice to hop on a twenty year old Jamaican dancehall riddim (Sail Away riddim, to be specific) and complementing her capacity to chat Jamaican patwa on the song, the Bajan singer wears a red, gold, and green mesh dress over a red, gold, and green bikini.  Jamaican Red Stripe bottles litter the floor and everyone in the video a gwan-bad-so.

work daggering


By and large, “Work” – like much of popular culture – substantiates the international belief that the Caribbean is a Jamaican archipelago. work dancingIt also substantiates popular deductions of Jamaicans as a lascivious, drunken, weed-smoking people that dance well and are hyper-sexual.  And these generalizations of Jamaica get assigned to the entire English speaking Caribbean, whereby negating the very diversity that defines the Caribbean and uniquely marks Anguilla, Barbados, St. Lucia, Grenada, Antigua, Dominica, St. Vincent, BVI, Guyana, St. Kitts, The Bahamas, Belize, Turks and Caicos, and Trinidad and Tobago as distinct nations with their own individual cultures.  Add to this the fact that the video for “Work” was released just after Trinidad Carnival and Director X’s own mother is from Trinidad!  All of this, yet an essentialized Jamaica is how one communicates “Caribbean” for a Barbadian global pop singer. Sigh.

While experiencing  “Work” the only visual cue that Rihanna is Bajan is in a bold but subtle flag (Kara Walker pun intended). rihanna bdos flag workIf you blinked you may have missed it. But with all the dancehall queen antics of women on head-top and men daggering, why would you blink?  With the positioning of Barbados’ flag around Rihanna’s thigh, gathered and suspended from a garter belt, why would you look away?  Sexy, isn’t it?  Exploitative, no?

Long before Rihanna’s “Work” song hit airwaves, Caribbean work songs were being sung in cane fields by enslaved Africans who stowed their West African rhythms deep in the bowels of their souls so that those melodies and connections would survive the Middle Passage.  As Marc Aronson and Marina Budhos said in their book Sugar Changed the World, “Every land where the Africans worked, where the cane grew, has its own form of beat, its own rhythms, its own songs and dances that can be traced back to sugar – and even to sources in Africa.”  The repetitive cadence of Rihanna’s “Work” echoes those Afro-Caribbean songs that survive in Puerto Rican bomba and plena music, Jamaican mentos, Trinidadian calypsos, and Haitian folk songs, to name a few.  The video for “Work” takes us back to those exploitative days when African and creolized women were commodified for what their bodies were believed to be able to do.  And, politically, the video and soundscape of “Work” take us into the complicated world of the Caribbean where big island/small island overshadowing is still very much worthy of our attention.

Despite the “Work” that she performs, Rihanna is not Jamaican.  Despite the beliefs of outsiders, Jamaica is not the Caribbean.  And despite 400 years in the New World, the Caribbean woman’s work is still bittersweet.  So, in a gesture that returns to and extends a quote from Junot Diaz’s Oscar Wao, I will close with the reality check that in some critical respects, the Caribbean woman is still “a broken girl, atop broken stalks of cane” (148). work head top

*For more on “Work” and Rihanna, I recommend reading “Anti-Everything: The Culture Of Resistance Behind Rihanna’s Latest Album” by Erin MacLeod (Caribbean literature professor).  Macleod’s article in NPR came out before the music video was released.

**For more on Director X’s vision for the “Work” video see yesterday’s (Feb. 23, 2016) interview in The Fader.  In the article titled “Director X on What People Are Getting Wrong about Rihanna’s ‘Work’ Video,” X discusses dance culture in the “West Indian” community versus in America.

beyonce, formation, & contemporary black activism

Super Bowl L will go down in history as the Super Bowl that Beyoncé “slayed.”

For the last several days the internet has belonged to the Queen Bey.  Twitter subscribers, magazine contributors, news outlets, academics, fans, ranters, and racists have all weighed in on the experience of “Formation,” Beyoncé Knowles’ newest single.

Starting with internet and radio, “Formation” was introduced on the afternoon of Saturday, February 6, 2016 and enthusiastic praise rained down.  The video was set in New Orleans, Louisiana and images of the singer atop a sinking police car called forth the natural and political disaster that was Hurricane Katrina.  Images of a hoodie wearing black teenager facing angry police mobs reminded viewers that Black Lives Matter far beyond the hashtag.  In various respects — from images of New Orleans’ infrastructure to the black church and contemporary black hair-dos — images of a black American experience were presented in startling ways.

For me, having a wide catalog of Caribbean literature always present in my mind, I was taken by Beyoncé’s use of colonial era clothing (read *literally* these historical fictions: Marlon James’ Book of Night Women, Nalo Hopkinson’ Salt Roads, and Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea).

Beyonce and her ladies, early 2016, New Orleans (Photo source:
“Free woman of color with quadroon daughter,” Late 18th century, New Orleans (Photo source: wikipedia)



Then came the live Super Bowl Halftime show on Sunday night.  By all accounts it was powerful. Black berets and black leather clothing channeled the Black Panthers.  With a machine gun chain “X” on her chest, Beyoncé’s fashion triggered iconic images of the King of Pop and global humanitarian, Michael Jackson.

Bey (2016) and M.J. (1993) (Photo source:, Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic; Getty Images)

And when Beyoncé’s dancers aligned in an “X” formation on the football field, the never-forgotten single letter surname of Brother Malcolm was evoked.  The recorded images in her music video coupled with the live performance at the Super Bowl have marked a notable shift in who Beyoncé is as a celebrity and how fans and audiences ought to read her. From Destiny’s Child to solo artist, Beyoncé Knowles has rebooted herself yet again.  Beyonce, her 2013 album which featured hits like “Partition” and “Flawless,” ushered in what many called a feminist Beyoncé.  And graduating once again, this black American woman singer is now being considered a celebrity activist (or at least she is thought to be moving in that direction as Arthur Chu of the Daily Beast suggests in this article).  All hate aside though, congratulations are certainly in order for Beyoncé on this achievement.  (And while I have a few seconds of your attention, let me throw a little necessary shade on rapper and non-activist Nicki Minaj.  Yes, I’m still talking about Minaj’s decision to perform in Angola last December at an event tied to the African nation’s corrupt dictator).

No doubt “Formation” has stirred up a lot of conversations.  “She killt the Super Bowl!” “Coldplay, who??” “Slay.” “Slay.” “SLAY!!”  But it seems that conversations about Beyoncé are also taking some of the attention away from the words and images that she used to speak to, speak for, and speak about the experience of being black in America today.  For example, black Princeton Professor Imani Perry’s (follow here @imaniperry) arrest over an unpaid parking ticket had far fewer tweets (#StandwithPerry) when her story broke during Beyoncé’s big media weekend. This could be for many reasons (racism, sexism, distractions, ignorance, fear, conspiracy, etc.). But the intense attention paid to Beyoncé’s visual performances (live and recorded) could also point to the coding in her lyricism.  While it is a far lyrical departure from “Bills, Bills, Bills” and “7/11,” is the trap element of “Formation” obscuring a message that all — not just those Americans who are black and/or trap-oriented — but a message that truly ALL Americans need to hear and understand about being black in America?  To put it another way, I cannot help but wonder how much of “Formation’s” message is communicated through its imagery and how much, perhaps, is lost in its lyrics.  Further still, I wonder whether or not the arguable lyrical limitations of the song are subversively emblematic of a contemporary society in which a black person’s words are not heard by all American ears (read: “Officer, I have done nothing illegal” and “Officer, please do not shoot”).

In 1968 James Brown’s activism was as clear as his lyrics: 

Re-delivering the words given by Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie I before the United Nations in 1963, in 1976 Bob Marley’s activism was as clear as his lyrics: 

Exactly how much social investment (read: black activism) does “Formation” convey without the video or live performance as visual supplement?  I do not have a formal answer to this, but I will offer Gil Scott-Heron’s 1971 words as a reminder: “You will not be able to stay home, brother/ You will not be able to plug in, turn on, and cop out/You will not be able to lose yourself on skag/ and skip out for beer during commercials/ Because the revolution will not be televised… “

nuyorican fan support

Let the record show that I am a huge Jennifer Lopez fan.  And as a fan it brings me great pride to announce that Jennifer Lopez is having the best week ever.

In the last seven days Boricua-Bronxite-dancer-singer-actress-mom-designer J. Lo. has been very, very busy. She is headlining a 4-month Las Vegas residency titled “All I Have,” she premiered the new movie “Lila and Eve” on Lifetime co-starring none other than Viola Davis, she is once again inspiring and soothing contestants as the sympathetic judge on the final season of Fox’s American Idol, and she is pulling double duty as a dirty cop on her new primetime television show  “Shades of Blue” on NBC.  This is just in the last seven days!

So while conversations swirl about on-screen diversity for Latinas and black women, Jennifer Lopez has been quietly getting it done. By “quietly” I certainly am not referring to her social media outlets where she has done her own fearless and necessary self-promotion. Instead, what I mean by “quietly” is that the mainstream media, which is the same media that is always at the ready to hypersexualize Jennifer Lopez and broadcast her romantic partners as news, has paid very little attention to her professional accomplishments of late.  The media has silenced Jennifer Lopez’s deserved acclaim. I will not.

Image Source: Getty / David Hume Kennerly
Inaugural Ball 2009, Washington D.C. (Image Source: Getty / David Hume Kennerly)

We should all take a moment, whether we like her skills as an actress or not, to congratulate my celebrity friend-in-my-head and fellow Bronxite. But before anyone suggests that I am suggesting it, let me be clear: No, Jennifer Lopez’s access and success is not a sign that the serious problems of racial, ethnic, or cultural representation in the US are on the mend. I mean, honestly, if having President Barack Obama as the Leader of the Free World cannot move the US toward possibilities of being post-racial, post-racist, post-dangerousforblackpeopletowalkdownthestreet, wouldn’t it likewise be a stretch to say that Jennifer Lopez is the harbinger of equality in the performing arts arena? Exactly.  But, that does not disqualify her from having a very, very good week as a very, very successful actor, performer, and entertainer.