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 for 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:
“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.
By and large, “Work” – like much of popular culture – substantiates the international belief that the Caribbean is a Jamaican archipelago. It 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). If 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).
*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.
I suppose Rihanna and Drake (among many others) enjoy Jamaican dancehall imagery because it’s popular and requires less explanation when feeding it to the intended masses. On the other hand, for a change or a fresh perspective it would be cool to do the less predictable thing and fill a video with images of how some people party in Barbados. The whole “Jamaica equals the entire Caribbean” belief isn’t going to go away as long as the world at large a) thinks everyone that speaks English from the Caribbean sounds the same (Jamaican to them), and b) people in the public eye like these artists/entertainers continue to capitalize on the recognizablity of things that are culturally Jamaican in their origin (like dancehall) regardless of how that may perpetuate this whole lumping everyone together business.
I couldn’t agree more. Better must come. And a broader view must come. Generalizing and essentializing will always create problems.