By: Ali Harris-Saunders
Recently, Rihanna dropped her much anticipated video for her song “Work” featuring Drake and in less than 24 hours after release , the video garnered over 11 million views on YouTube. It has already risen to the number one spot on Billboard’s Hot 100, and with that she now has more number one hits that Michael Jackson.Safe to say, Bad Gal RihRih is doing her thing!
Her music video was filmed at the award wining and landmark Jamaican restaurant,’The Real Jerk’ in Toronto, Canada and I couldn’t be prouder to see not just my city, but one of my favourite places to eat get some lime light. It also helps that Drake who just received the key to the city, was in the song too.
They captured the essence of Toronto’s Caribbean culture with not only the location, but the feel of the video, the dancing, the colours, and the unity that dance brings across the city. It’s no surprise that Toronto’s multiculturalism has strong roots in the Caribbean. A lot of Torontonians are either immigrants or children of immigrants, all identifying with their respective islands.
With that said, dancehall and Soca music have a strong hold on Toronto. From our city holding the greatest carnival in North America (Caribana) to the parties that happen across the city- just ask anyone who has ever gone to a BareGyal party!
To give a bit of context, dancehall is a genre of Jamaican popular music that originated in the late 1970s and is a more sparse version reggae. As for Soca, it is a genre of music that comes from Trinidad, and is also known as “the soul of calypso,” created within a marginalized subculture. So you can imagine the Caribbean pride that comes when we see our cultures in full effect on a large scale for the world to see.
But with many eyes, comes much misunderstanding and quite frankly, much disrespect. I couldn’t help but notice people express their dissatisfaction with Rihanna and her dancing. Saying that she is objectifying herself and setting a bad example. I even saw one lady (who claims to be a sociologist and educator) tweet, “It’s disturbing to see a woman who has been in a public relationship with a violent abuser continually subject herself to objectification.”
Now, as an educator, I would have expected one to be able to recognize sexual autonomy/agency in women, but that is an entirely different article in and of itself. The policing of Black women’s bodies has been under a microscope, being analyzed by those who understand very little of the culture; and as a second generation Canadian whose parents are Jamaican, who has been raised by Jamaicans, who is surrounded by Jamaicans and has done the leg work in understanding her roots- I’m insulted.
So let’s talk about this dancing. I’m zeroing in on Jamaican culture regardless of the fact that Rihanna is Bajan for two reasons:
1. The video was filmed in Toronto, which is saturated with the Jamaican influence
2. The dancing is universal across the Caribbean, but predominant in Jamaica.
For those who think that Rihanna is objectifying and degrading herself, we need to throw back to some history. This idea of decency has been fabricated and fed to us. Dance in the Black community has dated back to tribes in Africa. Our movement has always ranged from fluent, to abrupt, from reserved to sexual.
During slavery, slave masters who seen Black women dancing, deemed it as not only demonic, but lacking morality because of the sexuality portrayed in our dance. The idea of decency is rooted in that history; they didn’t understand it, so they belittled it.
Let’s fast forward to dancehall music in Jamaica. The very first dancehall queen was Carlene Smith in 1992, crowned at the once famous Cactus Night Club in Portmore, St Catherine. From there, the official Dancehall Queen Competitions started in 1996 and to this day, hundreds of Dancehall Queens have been crowned. Not only is this competition, and dance form uplifting for many, but it is a chance for women to reclaim their bodies and redefine their sexuality- on their own terms.
Black women come from a history of their bodies being dictated and devalued and dancehall has given us back a piece of the control we deserve. It’s hard to find the oppression in something that gives us our confidence and reclaims our freedom to express ourselves.
Let’s put this into context. In 18th century France, white upper class women (known as courtesans) would frequent the male-dominated arena of the court and dance for their suitors, eventually gaining their compassion, affection and respect. All this done completely of their free will. These women were applauded and called bold, as opposed to stereotypically docile, and through their dancing they began to be treated as equals to their male counterparts.
So why is it, in 2016 when Black women take autonomy of their bodies and do the exact same thing- we receive backlash? We are called every derogatory name in the book. The world makes it seem like we have set Black people back 100 years without realizing that 100 years ago, even 400 years ago, women expressed themselves through dance- and no one found issue with it until we were told there was an issue with it.
Why do our bodies offend people so much so, that they demand a sense of entitlement to them? We are told what we can and cannot do. What is acceptable for ourselves and what isn’t. When do we get to be in charge of our own bodies? Who are you to tell us what should uplift and empower us? I can understand and respect differing opinions. We don’t always have to agree, but the trivializing of a cultural aspect is wrong. Especially when that sentiment is coming from a place of misunderstanding.
When our male counter parts don’t receive black lash, and our white female counterparts are praised for what we’ve been doing for centuries, that is a problem. As a Black woman of Afro-Caribbean decent, I take pride in the ownership of my body- and that should be celebrated.
How can we as a community, learn to celebrate ourselves, our dance, and our bodies instead of taking every chance we get to attack each other? When will Black women finally be able, to own themselves fully, and unapologetically?