Didn’t They Tell You I Was a Savage?: the language of physical violence in Rihanna’s art.

I am nearing the one-year anniversary of my ‘viral’ moment with Rihanna, to celebrate I have created The Rihanna Files.

This essay is the first in this series about Rihanna’s cultural relevance, iconography, and the importance of the histories/legacies of her Caribbean roots; as they relate to her identity and career. 
TW: physical violence, gun violence, rape, murder.

Robyn Rihanna Fenty is inarguably one of the biggest stars and cultural icons in the world. Her impact is far reaching with notable accomplishments in music, fashion, beauty, and philanthropy. Beyond what may be on the surface, Rihanna is also a torchbearer, and through her art, she has unearthed and reminded us of a longtime tradition regarding the implementation of physical violence as a means of resistance and survival. This critical imperative is noteworthy and should be examined for its cultural relevance in her feminism as a Caribbean Black woman.

Rihanna engages in lyrical resistance through her art, from Breaking Dishes to Fire Bomb. However, I want to focus on three more recent, extreme, and visual examples: Man Down, Bitch Better Have My Money & Needed Me. Each of these pieces of art represents the most extreme manifestations of resistance through physical violence and murder.

Man Down

,Rihanna in ‘Man Down’

Man Down chronicles a story of a young woman who has killed a man. Throughout the song Rihanna wrestles with the deed, recounting the story to her mother, one moment she says “I didn’t mean to hurt him, could have been somebody’s son”, in another moment she states:

What you expect me to do
If you’re playing me for a fool
I will lose my cool
And reach for my firearm

On the surface, it might seem that Rihanna is confused. However, the visual shows us a very clear story. It becomes evident that Rihanna has been sexually assaulted by the man she ultimately murders. After she commits the crime, the video flashbacks to Rihanna who seemed to be a very different person a few days earlier. She was a person who was okay with her life before being presented with violence by the antagonist of the story; she seemed happy. In the moments leading up to her attack, we witness Rihanna physically and verbally resist, and her rapist ultimately overpowers her in the video. Rihanna, made a choice in that moment, one that was unmistakably vivid. At that moment, Rihanna decided to use different language, physical violence, as a means to advocate, to protect herself, to resist. She made a decision outside the bounds of a system of dominance, that would usually tell her to allow “justice” to run its course. Rihanna decided to use the language of physical violence to make clear her intentions and to illuminate which of her boundaries you should never cross.

Naturally, this particular video struck a nerve with many people. In fact, the conservative advocacy group, The Parents Television Council, condemned Rihanna for her artistic choices citing: “Instead of telling victims they should seek help, Rihanna released a music video that gives retaliation in the form of premeditated murder the imprimatur of acceptability.” This critique is both shallow and naive and ignores statistical data that show a gross lack of justice for survivors of sexual assault, especially Black women. Furthermore, their critique, like many, reveal a critical question and subsequent truth in our society: for whom, is violence is an acceptable mode of communication? For whom is help available and for whom is justice in reach? Is it Black women?

Note: On ‘Man Down’ Rihanna cited wanting to make art with a message, and these views are my own, not hers.

Bitch Better Have My Money

Rihanna in ‘Bitch Better Have My Money’

Bitch Better Have My Money, recounts a tale of a woman who is seeking revenge, and trying to recoup her financial losses. Throughout the video, we bear witness to Rihanna antagonizing a white woman, who, we believe to be the “Bitch” who owes Rihanna money. White feminists heavily criticized Rihanna because of the violence thrust upon this woman in the visual for the song. The video later reveals that Rihanna used her as a tactic to get to a white man, (perhaps a husband/partner) the accountant. He was the actual “Bitch” from which Rihanna demands her money. By the end of the video, we can presume that Rihanna has killed the accountant as she lay bloodied in a pile of money, her money.

This particular video had many things to unpack but generally raised a question for me around how is money uniquely weaponized toward Black women who already earn much less than their white and male counterparts? Rihanna rejects how society deems Black women as undeserving of financial gain and security, through this visual representation. Furthermore, what does it mean, to use the language of physical violence, to recoup financial loss at the hands of someone else? Bitch Better Have My Money, as a visual piece, was radical because it also raised this issue of violence among women. White feminists were quick to critique Rihanna’s portrayal in the video, but many ignored the way white women have historically reigned terror and violence on Black bodies. Most analyses also failed to call out and problematize how white women love their approximation to, and use of, the power that white supremacy offers them.

A critique of capitalism notwithstanding; the dollar often means the difference between life and death, in a capitalistic society. Furthermore, that reality is even more pertinent for Black women. Rihanna portrays the language of physical violence, to resist and to be sure she will survive and thrive. Historically, white supremacy (the system of dominance), has utilized physical violence to halt and further subjugate Black people in the United States and abroad, particularly when the matter related to Black economic growth, finances, and financial wellness. Their violence is further reinforced and maintained through policy and disenfranchisement, and yet again shows us who gets to enact violence and who gets away with it. In the case of BBHMM, Rihanna makes her case through physical violence, which violations are off limits. In her artistic universe, physical violence is a tool of communication when others don’t seem to work.

Needed Me

Rihanna in ‘Needed Me’

In the visual for Needed Me, we saw a more obscure and yet still nuanced Rihanna. In the video, she went to confront a man in a strip club, her motives were unclear. If history is any indication, revenge seemed a plausible explanation. Given Needed Me is the most recent video in the physical violence catalog, it may not be a stretch to assume Rihanna went, once again, to offer a lesson in boundaries. The video included several images of guns, reminiscent of a cartel or some other crime ring, and Rihanna was very much in charge.

As Rihanna walked through the club and entered the back room, she wasted little time raising her firearm, and quickly discharged it, three times. Of course, this occurred after a wad of cash was thrown in her face by the man she confronted, a significant gesture to note given the dynamics of the location (strip club) and the man-woman dichotomy presented by Rihanna and her foe. This particular example is one of my favorites, because of the complicated story, the Needed Me video was part of how I came to this revelation. Physical violence is a tool, not the only tool, but a tool nonetheless. MLK once said that a riot is the language of the unheard, which legitimizes the point that the physical violence as language isn’t a new concept, yet, when utilized by a Black woman society tells us it’s radical, jarring even.

I want to situate this context of resistance and physical violence as language (in Rihanna’s art) within her identity as a Barbadian woman. Part of my work is leaning toward trying to move us to diasporic thinking and beginning to understand the intricate experiences of Black histories and legacies across the Black diaspora, and not only within the context of the continental United States. Rihanna has time and time again shown us that she does not care to live on any terms other than her own. She embodies a culture of resistance which is relevant to her Caribbean context. Barbados and the Caribbean, in general, have a rich history of resistance, including slave rebellion and revolt. These narratives are often left out of discourse around the nuances of the Black experience but should be included with analyses of someone like Rihanna.

The culture of Caribbean women resistance has a well documented and rich history, as such, physical violence as language was triangulated for me when I reflected on another important woman from Barbados, Nanny Grigg. Little is known about Nanny Grigg, but we do know she was instrumental in the rebellion of 1816 in Barbados and included thousands of enslaved people. Some historians report that she was knowledgeable about the Haitian revolution and began sharing information with other enslaved people. She, along with many women, had become known as ‘the unmanageable’ of the workforce, likely due to the unique way women experienced the horror of slavery: they became labeled ‘rebel women,’ and they were Black. Some reports also state that Nanny Grigg was quite vocal about violence and identified fighting as the only way liberation was possible. Nanny Grigg believed no other language was available. Thus physical violence is what was required.

Slavery in the Caribbean — Sugar Plantation

Granted, our contemporary context does not necessarily mirror that of chattel slavery, yet, the survival of Black women is still an important conversation to be had, one that I believe Rihanna’s art raises. Black Trans Women, for example, have been on the receiving end of terrible violence and murder, with little sign of relief. It makes me wonder what language can be used (should be used?) to protect these women? What is the recourse for Black women in need, when survival is the issue at hand? I once heard a quote that said: “If injustice is the issue then agitation is what’s required.” In this context does that mean, if survival is the issue then physical violence is what’s required?

To be clear, I am not advocating for or against physical violence; I am however arguing that we must change our perception of what physical violence means. I am also not speaking on violence that is perpetuated by a system of dominance or by people with privileged identities towards the marginalized/oppressed. I am speaking about what I have come to call “righteous violence.” When Black women resolve to violence, we must ask ourselves why? Who were the actors? What power dynamics were at play? What language was used, and what language was ignored? As a queer Black man, I recognize this sentiment because I have experienced moments where I have needed to navigate the use of physical violence when words and other methods of communication fail me. For me, physical violence is an option, a choice, when other language neglects to secure my safety.

I believe, Rihanna’s art rejects the notion that violence should be unavailable to Black women. At the same time, Rihanna’s Man Down showed us that Rihanna the actress/artist understands that the use of physical violence has consequences, and at the same time her art warns us that perhaps for Black women, abandoning the language of physical violence, too, has its consequences.

I do not identify as a Black woman, nor do I claim to be an expert, authority, or voice on feminism for Black women in the diaspora. My interests center on uplifting analysis about the importance of Rihanna’s work. As such, I welcome feedback and critique, specifically from Black women, about this piece.

I would like to highlight the movement: #LifeinLeggings that was brought to my attention by @VerbalFlair on Twitter regarding a current resistance momvemnt by Bajan women regarding violence against women. Check it out and amplify if you can.

I also want to share two pieces that loosely connect to this piece and prompted my meditation on the topic.

A few resources/references below (others are hyperlinked throughout the piece):

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