a student-run publication that seeks to provide space for voices that are not being heard on our campus. we are grounded by politics that are radical, anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-classist, anti-homophobic, anti-ableist, and anti-transphobic (against all forms of oppression) and that reject the structural neo-liberal paradigm that characterizes middlebury college and its official publications
By Kizzy Joseph
To deliberately de-intellectualize the lyrical content of Rihanna’s Work by deeming it “gibberish” is to reinforce entrenched racist notions of black inferiority. It is to undermine the contributions people of Caribbean descent have made to larger society. Furthermore, it is to erase my history as a person of Caribbean descent, a history weaved with remnants of motherlands and of European colonizers.
It is quite frustrating to have a dialect spoken by your own parents be laughed off and disregarded as “nonsense” and “unintelligible” by white people. One critic at “The Gizzle Review” described Work as “slurring soon…devolv[ing] into gibberish,” asking readers “Has Rih been smoking too much pot?” Another critic from Music Times labeled the song as “gibberish filled madness.” This kind of ignorant backlash has surfaced beyond the music industry level. Countless insensitive jokes and memes have been made on social media platforms such as Twitter, dismissing the song’s artistic value and ultimately, Rihanna’s intellectual abilities. What was most aggravating for me, however, were comments under a video by British YouTube singer Samantha Harvey, in which she performed her own rendition of “Work.” While I recognize that the singer regularly does song covers in her own style, what I am more fixated on are the reactions towards her Rihanna cover. Many praised Harvey for making the song “better,” thanking her for the translation and new-found appeal. One user commented that Harvey transformed the song into a “more musical piece.” What was once a song containing Caribbean rhythmic elements suddenly became a watered-down version that was more pleasurable for the ears of a white audience.
Reactions such as these reveal an important point: products (whether tangible or intangible), especially in the art world, are not considered of value until white Western mainstream society deems it so through acclamation. More specifically, in a global power structure designed solely to benefit white people and preserve whiteness, the contributions of people of color are required to cater to white sentiment and approval in order to gain extensive recognition and accolade. This is what makes the term “crossover appeal” (especially in regards to music) quite problematic; it implies that the artistic work of PoCs must either conform to Western standards, or defy them and be labeled as “exotic” in order for it to “cross over” into the Western world and attain success. White people never truly have to “cross over” because they are the norm. Thus, to say that Samantha Harvey’s cover is “just a cover” is to deny her white privilege, and her erasure of Work’s cultural authenticity and significance, and its blackness to produce a more white-friendly version, as well as the privilege of white mainstream society to deem Harvey’s version “better” and more importantly, their privilege to select what elements of black culture they want to embrace, engage with and appropriate. You are quick to say your party is turnt and your eyebrows are on fleek but suddenly cease to talk when the conversation turns to the value of black life in America. As my Grenadian mother would say “Wah kinda dotishness iz dat?”
Caribbean culture encompasses a rich myriad of dimensions. Reggae isn’t our only genre — we also move to the rhythm of soca, salsa, bachata, calypso, and more. We speak French, Spanish and dialects such as Jamaican Patois, Haitian Creole, and Grenadian Creole English that reflect the synthesis of Indigenous Caribbean, African, and European languages. You may say “What’s up?” but we say “¿Qué pasó?” “Wah gwan?” or “Sak pasé?” Work is not gibberish — sung in Jamaican Patois, a dialect spoken by approximately 3 million people, Rihanna expresses her feelings of being mistreated and taken advantage of by her lover, as well as her hopes of deepening their relationship beyond the sexual level.
There is no need for a spell or grammar check. White people blatantly discrediting the lyrical content of Work only perpetuate ignorant beliefs constructed by a white racist power structure that undermines black intelligence because it doesn’t reflect notions of “proper (white)” English. They also seem to forget or just flat out deny their history of colonialism, genocide and enslavement, the same history that stripped us naked of our motherland tongues and branded the words “colonized” across our backs with the blistering iron — the reason why this so-called “gibberish” came about. With that being said Work is not “tropical house,” a gentrified, white-washed music genre that has Caribbean roots along with house music influences, either — it is a fusion of reggae-pop and dancehall, two trademark Caribbean music genres. At its core, Work is Rihanna integrating unique elements of her Caribbean culture into her own art.
Your labeling of “gibberish” is an attack to my Caribbean identity, an identity that is much more than your Caribbean vacations in which you bask in your white privilege under the sun. It is the laughter and frustration that comes along with someone telling you to “pass mi de ting ova dere.” It is the feeling of delight when opening the green shell of a guinep when it’s in season. It is brukking it down on the dance floor and having your older relatives side-eye the hell out of you.
I will not let you erase my history, yuh undastan? The art that we, people of color, share with the world reflects our unique forms of expression and finding value and pride in that, our own art, is the only genuine acclamation we need.