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.