Barbados’s icon: why Rihanna’s national hero status is so apt

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<span>Photograph: Toby Melville/PA</span>
Photograph: Toby Melville/PA

Rihanna’s designation as a national hero of Barbados, to coincide with the country’s transition to an independent republic, could not be more apt. Not only has she been an official ambassador for culture and youth in the country since 2018, the singer remains the country’s most famous citizen and indeed advocate. She has never softened her Bajan accent, and her music, while tapping into pop, R&B and dance music, has remained rich with her Caribbean heritage.

In her investiture ceremony, the country’s prime minister Mia Mottley addressed the pop singer, fashion icon and hugely successful entrepreneur as “ambassador Robyn Rihanna Fenty: may you continue to shine like a diamond” – a reference to 2012’s global hit Diamonds – “and bring honour to your nation, by your words, by your actions, and to do credit wherever you shall go. God bless you, my dear.”

Rihanna’s career began with Pon de Replay in 2005, a track that used a bass-heavy dancehall beat and insistent handclaps to usher listeners to the dancefloor, with Rihanna singing instructions in patois to a DJ over the top.

She was clearly a charismatic singer with a distinctive voice, but in the mid-00s there were plenty of Caribbean pop-dancehall stars whose international fame didn’t last beyond one hit, even if domestic careers endured: Wayne Wonder, Kevin Lyttle, Gyptian, and Puerto Rican-American vocalist Lumidee, whose Never Leave You was a clear antecedent of Pon de Replay.

Rihanna’s star potential was given some equally starry support, though. A demo of Pon de Replay and other songs reached the office of the Def Jam record label, where Jay-Z was then president and CEO. She nailed an in-person audition to him and record industry veteran LA Reid, and they signed her to a six-album deal on the spot.

Her Bajan roots shone on debut album Music of the Sun – released when she was just 17 years old – with lilting roots reggae backings, digital dancehall beats, and a cover of Jamaican singer Dawn Penn’s classic No, No, No. The swift follow-up A Girl Like Me (2006) had predominantly the same dancehall, skanking reggae and Destiny’s Child-ish R&B, but with a voice that could be commanding or earnestly vulnerable, Rihanna was capable of more than pretty, summery material. Unfaithful expanded into classic pop balladry, and with an insistent sample of Soft Cell’s Tainted Love, SOS had no Bajan swing to it all, giving her a club stomper that even the most inebriated could clomp about to – it diversified her audience and became her first US No 1.

She continued to branch out with her true breakthrough, Good Girl Gone Bad (2007), which used heavy, highly synthetic guitars while her enormous hit Umbrella rode a hip-hop breakbeat – yet you can still detect Barbados in Don’t Stop the Music’s syncopation. Umbrella installed Rihanna as one of the world’s biggest pop stars, and in 2008 her country’s prime minister David Thompson announced an annual Rihanna Day.

She maintained a remarkable work rate, releasing an album a year for the next four years. She leaned into her sexuality – her raunchy track Rude Boy remains one of her best, and one of her most audibly Bajan – and as she got older, there was a greater rawness, and keenness of feeling, to ballads such as Russian Roulette. She endured a shocking physical assault at the hands of R&B singer boyfriend Chris Brown (and the tabloid melee around it) to emerge with arguably the best track from the early 00s EDM-influenced pop bubble – We Found Love with Scottish producer Calvin Harris – and forged other megastar musical pairings in Drake, Eminem and Britney Spears.

2016’s Anti is regarded by many as her masterpiece, and its lead single Work saw her return to the patois of her home region: “He said me haffi work”, a sophisticated double entendre that is both sexual come-on and a call for emotional labour. No new solo music has emerged since (it was once rumoured that she was making a reggae album), but her cultural standing has continued to grow via her remarkable Fenty group of companies.

Makeup brand Fenty Beauty and lingerie line Savage x Fenty spotted shamefully under-served gaps in the market, namely women of colour and those who didn’t cleave to the slim figures lauded by underwear rivals such as Victoria’s Secret. Her companies, authentically represented by Rihanna who remains proudly sexual and body positive, have made her hugely wealthy: Forbes estimated her fortune at $1.7bn earlier this year, making her the world’s richest female musician. Some of that wealth has been diverted to her Clara Lionel foundation, named after her grandparents, which has frequently benefited Barbados with emergency hurricane relief, healthcare and education programmes.

Dressed in a form-fitting gown and with the poise of a now-veteran star, Rihanna, masked due to the pandemic, did not make any remarks following the acceptance of her country’s highest honour. Fans have got unhappily used to that silence and took her claims in September that “you’re not gonna expect what you hear [next]” with a pinch of salt, but whenever that music eventually arrives, Rihanna will remain Barbados’s defining icon.

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