Cultural Resonance in Rihanna’s Dancehall


Rihanna’s “Work” is slathered with dancehall aesthetics, oozing and dripping off the brows and shoulders of dancers, the froth spilling from Red Stripe neck and mouth, and in every twist, dip and arms crossed on the lower back arch of a woman throwing it back on a man. The dancing is straight dancehall as is her look, equal parts dancehall queen and fashion staples from yard.

When The Guardian explored Rihanna’s use of accent and language in the song, linguist Lisa Jansen is quoted as considering how, “Although she uses some prominent Caribbean features in Work, they are not specifically or uniquely Bajan”; while contemplating that “Rihanna draws on various elements and eclectically builds her own linguistic repertoire.” What Jansen doesn’t note is that those “Caribbean features in her lead single” aren’t just quasi-Caribbean-sounding-kinda-ting, and yes, it’s not Bajan at all, but it’s not some Rihanna-speak, it’s specifically Jamaican patois with a Bajan lilt. I am not fluent in Jamaican patois (not even remotely close), so I won’t presume to comment on the replication of that patois, but we know it’s Jamaican patois being employed — at least the Anglophone West Indies and anyone who knows sung Jamaican patois knows this.

Jamaican patois is the lingua franca of Caribbean Cool and dancehall is its long standing center as the pulsing vein of contemporary West Indian popular culture. And in a region that is sometimes bubbling with inter-island assertions and jealousies about culture, pride and ownership, this might be a difficult thing for some of us to acknowledge, but it is. Jamaicans know this; the rest of us either begrudgingly admit this or pretend this isn’t the case.

Where dancehall culture and black cultural masculinity meet, further interesting things unfurl which dictate the lean and swag of men, the stereotype of the screw face of every badman in a Jamaican movie, the clothes they wear, how they operate, receive and give wines, dagger, receive or give oral, or purport not to, and this is all encoded in the language of dancehall. It’s part of what DJ Khaled taps into in his snapchats punctuated by sporadic Jamaican patois interjections and phrases, and his claims that he doesn’t go down on women (“like a Jamaican”): it both complicates and ups his cool quotient.


If you trawl through a place like YouTube commentary, where some of the most explosive and curiously insightful revelations are shared by West Indians both diasporic and resident, you’ll see a lot of this. There might be a thread with an indignant Jamaican telling off a Trinbagonian (these two fight a lot) about how other people love to mimic their musical culture and accent, even some Trinis. When Jamaicans throw salt in a war of islands’ wound, it’s often to remind everyone else that here you are listening to a dancehall song, watching the video, loving or hating on their culture, dissing them, but you are still here.

Especially because the cultural transmission is usually one-sided, and more dancehall culture (along with roots reggae) gets absorbed into the wider region than the other way around, which is not to imply that there aren’t Jamaicans who enjoy and participate in soca and various other kinds of Caribbean and American popular music, but the levels at which dancehall edicts, slang, cultural references, dances and fashion influences the wider archipelago versus what goes back in, is really quite different. So who’s surprised that Rihanna is influenced by dancehall culture? No one should be at this point as she is not a stranger to making dancehall inflected songs. That said, dancehall remains rooted in, watered and nourished by Jamaica for Jamaicans. Collaborations and other musical gestures which amount to acknowledging or connecting to the wider region remain relatively newish occurrences and are not numerous. That is to say, dancehall is not overtly regional music in the way that calypso and soca makes overtures to be. Dancehall is always Jamaican music gone regional.

Yet, as I said in an older post once, West Indian music culture is where you’ll see the most regional integration, the most cross pollination, sharing and joy, without regard to borders. On North American university campuses, it’s in the international students’ and Caribbean Association parties and the club or restaurant dances in neighborhoods. It’s in the global Carnivals influenced and inspired by the one in Trinidad. It’s not quite the Federation, but it’s what we’ve got now, the moves, music and sounds of our integration. You know it when that bass drops and everyone knows what song it is: the gun fingers go up to “Bogle,” or the waist swings left to “Dollar Wine,” and in the opening strains of “Tiney Winey” or “Pump Me Up” when you look for a dance partner.

In there, is bound to be some chest thumping and resentment and dismissiveness from all sides. There might be wistfulness from the sidelines, but the familiar is always recognized too. You see it in the Trinis I’ve already seen online saying, look we ting there, a bucket of Carib in Rihanna’s video, too — see! Yes, there is, but we don’t have to clamour to find ourselves; no one does. We are all a part of dancehall’s wider culture and we are all already there, or rather, we can legitimately see ourselves there. It’s true too, the ways in which aspects of Jamaican cultural hypervisibility usurps or erases regional cultural diversity and annoys every non-Jamaican West Indian who gets asked “What part of Jamaica are you from?” does occur and does piss people off. But it doesn’t change the fact that we probably have all been exposed to or participated in aspects of Jamaican cultural exports in one small way or another.

What dancehall partying West Indian doesn’t know what a dance like this feels like? The too-loud music reverberating at the pit of your belly, the synchronized dancers and the steps you may or may not know, the heat. Then there are the dancehall DJs. I’ve never heard a Caribbean dancehall sound whose DJs and mic men don’t affect Jamaican lingo and cadence, and this happens globally as well as inside the region.

What’s really good is that dress, like an overly long and snug mesh vest in the black, ites, gold and green, and the Bajan flag garter across the rise of the thigh, a small nod to nationality pride and soca culture, where the fete flag is still a requirement for segments of the diaspora; and if that’s not a symbol of Caribbean cultural unity, then what is?

Image sources: Rihannainfinity via Tumblr

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3 Responses to “Cultural Resonance in Rihanna’s Dancehall”

  1. thanoparis Says:

    “Skerrit said his own feeling about daggering hadn’t changed, it is his feeling about the impression he leaves on others that is evolving.

    “When you hit a stage and it’s like 10,000, 20,000, 50,000, however many, a hundred people, looking at you, you can’t go to each one of those people and go, ‘listen, you see this daggering thing, man, it’s just entertainment, it’s not meant to be anything sexually explicit.’”

    And he said behind his ladder dagger performances with Major Lazer was a club scene taking the art form to some unseemly heights—a legacy he did not want to pass on.

    “Would it be cool if 15 years from now, 16 years from now, I’ve got a son in the club with his penis out in his hand trying to rape some girl in the corner? And that’s what it turned into.” :”Skerrit Bwoy Puts Down the Dagger, Picks up the Cross”

  2. Thano Paris Says:

    I meant for the above commrent to actually go in the discussion around the peice on daggering but made a mistake…

    • soyluv Says:

      Fascinating. Thanks for d link. I didn’t know this about him though I had heard about him before! I think it’s very interesting when folks like Skerrit Bwoy and Lady Saw hang up their dancehall clothes so to speak. I respect their stance even though I think it can encourage a dangerous dichotomy of either/or, but I suppose that’s what being very religious is like for some folks.

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