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Why Rhianna’s ‘Work’ is a human-rights anthem

“Work work work work work work
He said me haffi
Work work work work work work!
He see me do mi
Dirt dirt dirt dirt dirt dirt!
And so me put in work work work work work work!

[courtesy Metro Lyrics]

So probably you’re familiar with the controversy surrounding Rihanna’s hot, new(ish) single ‘Work’. You know, the one Music Week critics called “gibberish“, provoking a fierce backlash – “It’s patois!” stupid, jeered The Voice. This was all back in February. I found out about it last week. At an academic lecture at the University of Guyana (UG). Never let it be said I’m not right on the button when it comes to the world of entertainment and gossip.


Having enjoyed the previous workshop on writing Guyanese Creolese just a few weeks ago, I was keen to attend – but not entirely sure what to expect from this ‘lunchtime lecture and discussion’, mysteriously titled Caribbean Languages as International Language of Popular Music?

It turned out to be an excellent talk, from which I gathered all sorts of nuggets of information.

For a start, I had no idea that – according to guest speaker Professor Hubert Devonish of UWI – Surinamese creole (or Sranan Tongo) is closer to English creole than Dutch. That the deportation of Maroons (descendants of escaped slaves) to Sierra Leone, combined with expansionist colonial insurgencies, brought Caribbean creole to West Africa – influencing, for example, the English pidgin you find in Nigeria today. Or that Bob Marley was instructed by record producer Chris Blackwell to sing only the choruses of his songs in patois, and ensure the verses could be easily understood by audiences in, say, the UK – where Blackwell was from.

Which brings us back to Rihanna, who is ignoring that advice and singing, well, it’s not exactly clear what – Professor Devonish suggested a blend of Bajan and Jamaican, the latter tending to dominate when it comes to Caribbean culture abroad. (I’ll also add a Guyanese twist to the mix, purely because I also discovered Rihanna’s mother is Guyanese and so I’m claiming her as one of our own. Until she does something truly shaming in my eyes. Like accepting Bob Geldof’s invitation to join the third outing of ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’ Don’t think it’s over yet…)

Anyway Rihanna’s choice of lyrics, Professor Devonish argued, signifies her wish to reconnect with and show her pride in her Caribbean roots (just check out that Bajan flag). She says, he noted, ‘Him ah go act like he nuh like it” (the lyrics linked to earlier mistakenly record, ‘Him ah go act like him nuh like it”) – with the mix of ‘him’ and ‘he’ reflecting her own bilingualism in patois and  English. Of course, ‘work’ is a sexual reference, but you knew that right? “Even a child would know that,” laughed someone in the class. Ahem.

So is music the way forward for forging a new pride in speaking creolese? It could be, said Professor Devonish. And I thought back to all the afrobeats artists I’d encountered while working on the sadly defunct ARISE Magazine (whose Facebook page still clings on for dear life) and the resurgence in African pride this engendered among young people of African descent in London and on the continent itself, particularly in Nigeria – home of both afrobeats and the afrobeat well from whence it sprang.dashiki.jpg

African identity wasn’t always something you shouted about when I grew up in London. To be Caribbean was cool. To be African was often to be the butt of some very old and tired jokes. “When I grew up you kept that shit on the down low,” joked comedian Fumbi on ‘You Got Jokes’ (a quick clip here, worth getting your hands on the whole DVD). Now, you can hardly move in London for dashikis (see right), kente-trimmed shirts and headwraps.

Is ‘Caribbean’ going to be the next trend? Will the catwalks be awash with statement t-shirts declaring ‘I love Soca’? Will the charts be full of Chutney? Will Londoners start eating jerk chicken more than once a year (at Notting Hill Carnival, washed down with a can of Red Stripe). Will David Starkey crawl out from under his rock and adopt a Jamaican twang instead of name-checking Enoch Powell and bemoaning that “the whites have become black”? (Just re-watching this makes me angry all over again).

Or maybe, just maybe, the world will cease to see the Caribbean in those simplistic, sometimes reductive stereotypes and instead let each country, each individual, represent themselves and speak their mother tongue without guilt, shame or self-deprecation. And music could be what helps kickstarts that change.

Just don’t let Rihanna be the official spokesperson for it – Bajan Ambassador for Culture and Youth or not – if this video is anything to go by. Although these cringe-making presenters have a lot to answer for too… “Can you teach us some words in your language?… some pretty words”.

Or maybe the girl has hidden layers. After all, one of the dancers in her video is wearing a headpiece that looks suspiciously like the disguise worn by pioneering Ghanaian investigative reporter Anas Aremeyaw Anas. Coincidence?


4 thoughts on “Why Rhianna’s ‘Work’ is a human-rights anthem

  1. Reblogged this on projyct66 and commented:
    To my friend now living in the US who finds it a struggle to practice the American english when all their life they’ve been accustomed to the Guyanese vernacular.

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