By: Melissa Brown
My study breaks are essentially personal listening parties sponsored by a cool glass of Lemonade. Beyoncé is teaching me some things about being a Black woman in the 21st century and I, like many of my peers, have started to make the realization that this is a declaration of womanism1. Among the many themes of this album, I think it features content that speaks back to masculinity performed by men of color.
I think that another album that echoes these themes is Rihanna’sANTI . On 4/20, Rihanna released the visuals to “Needed Me.” Specifically, I think Rihanna lends a way to theorize ‘bad bitches,’which I conceptualize as an inversion of the gender policing associated with the angry Black woman stereotype including a reclamation of the sexual agency and emotional range of Black women.
The opening scene finds Rihanna in an immaculate house overlooking the bay, the Miami skyline illuminated in her glass walls. As a Caribbean woman, I can appreciate how the video is 200% Miami. Miami has a significance for many immigrant families in the United States2. In Rihanna’s Miami, the tension between how men and women manifest their power in absence of White cultural framing takes center stage.
The display of female sexuality in Rihanna’s Miami is audacious. In a sheer aqua gown, Rihanna bares her body as she begins her melody announcing “I was good on my own that’s the way it was. You were good on the low for a faded fuck.”
Rooted in dancehall culture, such brazen displays of Black female sexuality are tied intimately to notions of power. As the angry Black (Caribbean) woman, Rihanna is both angry and sexy. Rihanna appears to be both Trap Queen and Kingpin as she travels in between settings of corporate and illicit wealth.
This representation stands in distinction from the Angry Black Woman trope popularized in White cultural framing of ideal womanhood. In the American context the angry Black woman has no sexual agency.Her demeanor, coded as masculine, her behavior is characterized as a lack of femininity because her behavior differs from the purity and submissiveness privileged in ideal womanhood.
In contrast, with a gold pendant of the African continent between her breasts, Rihanna does not hesitate to establish her dominance just seconds into the video as she raises her weapon high. Rihanna never tells us why she is out to get this man,but her measured confidence suggests he deserves whatever is coming to him. As the angry Black Caribbean woman, her sexual agency remains center stage as she goes to challenge the embodiment of the male bravado.
The godfather reclines in a dimly lit VIP room curtained away from the rest of the club where not one but two women give a private show. A smirk the only visible sign on a face and body camouflaged behind a tapestry of ink.
Rihanna rides out to catch her prey with an army of unsavory characters like a true Queen Nanny, the leader of the Windward Maroons, a group of Coromantee people who fled for their freedom in the mountains of Jamaica in the early days of slavery. European colonialists used the term Maroon to identify the Africans that fled from slavery across the Caribbean as ‘rebellious negroes.’ Queen Nanny embodied the goddesses and the power of female authority at the center of the afromysticism of Caribbean people 3.
As the 21st century version, Rihanna stays flanked with a band of Black and Brown rebels, men whose gold grills, thick locks, and tribal war paint keep them on the fringes of society. These are the men society locks in cages of metal bars rather in the glass mansion that Rihanna occupies. You can’t help but to think that in this Gangster’s Paradise, she’s more Rocky than Adrienne.
Rihanna already told us about Peggy Sue, her accomplice in the balladMan Down from her album “Loud.” In “Needed Me,” Rihanna is a warrior woman, as she sings”Didn’t I tell you that I was a savage?” The word savage in reference to a Black female body harkens back toEuropeans describing Africans during the colonial era. What makes Rihanna the most savage in her narrative is that she remains nonchalant the entire time, thus flippantly dismissing the derogatory implications of the word by owning it.
Her face is a mask of serenity while she strolls into the VIP room of a Miami strip club in the final scene. She leaves the self-expression to the belles of Southern ratchet culture doing acrobatics before an audience who must pay per view. Naked Black women’s bodies writhe around her like harpys entrancing her man to his death.
Rihanna is a different type of woman scorned. We don’t have to get into the details at the individual level. At the societal level, the fluidity with which this pop princess moves through the type of spaces some sociologists would have a difficult time describing suggests that Rihanna embodies the complex politics of mobility around women of color. Where men of color might typically face surveillance, women of color operate under the invisibility afforded them by existing outside the more visible White cultural frame of ideal womanhood.
Rihanna eschews ideal womanhood by baring her body, which violates cultural norms about modesty and the female physique. All an empowered woman like Rihanna wants is for homeboy to remember to put some respeck on her name, but no. When Rihanna slides into the VIP area where our antagonist awaits, he gives her a Cheshire Cat grin because if there’s one thing this man likes to do, it’s making sure he indulges no matter what the cost.
Rihanna does not hesitate to draw her weapon and pull the trigger because she will not shield her intentions for retribution. Homeboy could’ve drawn his weapon as well, but first he has to remove that one obstruction to preserving his life: hypermasculinity4. His money, a status symbol, comes first – even before his life – as he asserts his power in the face of death, tossing a fistful of cash in her face that she clearly does not need.
Our antagonist, the tattooed man who died with money on his mind, now lies still in a halo of blood on a floor littered with dollar bills.
In the final scene, our heroine floats off alone on her yacht, giving her audience the same cold stare as she drifts off to sea, because what better way for a savage to clear her mind?
Womanism, coined by Alice Walker, refers to a form of Black feminism that emphasizes the strength and value of women’s spiritual, emotional, and physical abilities. ↩︎
Gottlieb, K. L. (n.d.). The mother of us all : a history of Queen Nanny, leader of the Windward Jamaican Maroons TT-. TA-. Trenton, NJ : Africa World Press,. ↩︎
According to Mosher and Sirkin (1984), hypermasculinity includes: regarding women as sexual objects as well as seeing violence as manly and risky behavior as exciting.http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/0092656684900266↩︎