FOR THE RECORD: Fighting the cultural battle
Of no surprise to me, Rihanna became the talk of the town, again! Her sado-masochistic video, in which all the accoutrements of this sexual nuance were on display, has brought out of their strait-jacketed perspective the hordes of armchair critics each armed with his or her imprint of yesteryear’s moral values.
Hear them: She is no longer a good role model for our youth; she should be stripped of her title of Cultural Ambassador; the authorities should do this or that, or the other . . . and the beat goes on! As I said, I was not surprised. It has happened before.
The British prosecuted the publishers of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, by D. H. Lawrence, before the Central Criminal Court at the famous Old Bailey. It is a novel of great movement and feeling, based on a relationship between the lady of the house and a wood chopper; but it offended the moral values of the class in authority and a full-scale battle occupied the court system for weeks before a jury of ordinary men and women reflected the views of the vast majority and acquitted. It is now a recognized classic. Thank goodness, we have unbanned the film Black Swan.
The furore about Rihanna is located in the same mould, and more.
We fret and delude ourselves in describing her as an exponent of our culture. Nothing that she does on stage reflects the classic exposition of our culture as recorded by the Mighty Gabby in his eponymous rendition Culture. Indeed, our culture, such as it is, is a mélange of other cultures.
We play cricket and not baseball and we stopped singing God Save The Queen, but we retained her as our head of state. We have a written Constitution like the Americans have and unlike the British. And we request and sing most country and western songs, even if they have “red-neck” origins. Our food is rooted in African traditions.
Given this quilted cultural patchwork, Rihanna, gifted performer that she is, must not be burdened by the false ascription to her of an exponent of our culture, simply because she is not.
Similarly, she should not be burdened by the need to tailor her every action and reaction by reference to our cultural values, real or imagined.
To succeed at her craft in an American market of 300 million people, she has had to master and assimilate the culture of that marketplace, package it in her songs and reflect it in her video and audio recordings.
In her case, cultural penetration has become a two-edged sword, for having absorbed the American culture she has successfully penetrated and conquered it. The small Barbadian market of 275 000 people has been ignored and the larger market, one thousand times larger, has been pursued.
She has succeeded simply because she has a wise head on her shoulders, and has never allowed herself to be seduced into thinking that she could not be an international multi-Grammy winning star!
Her symbolic message is that neither Barbados nor Barbadians can survive by being inward looking. World draughts maestro Ronald “Suki” King and our National Hero, the Right Excellent Sir Garfield Sobers, are in a sense co-signatories to this message, for they too, have taken individual effort to Olympian heights by painting their picture on an international canvas. The domestic drawing board is too small for large talents!
Fortunately, the national policy to drive exports, and expand tourism and the international business sector, carries the same message, and it is ironic that at the same time that Rihanna earns another Grammy, the Global Forum is confronting us with yet another challenge to our efforts at earning foreign exchange in the offshore sector.
Rihanna’s success and work are therefore at once a political and cultural statement, and a triumph of determination. We can conquer the world. We can take them on at their game and beat them, whether it is cricket, draughts or pop music.
To do so, however, we must understand and harness the power of cultural penetration. Rihanna reminds the world that she hails from Barbados, because that is where her heart is; but she could never have conquered the world pop market unless her head was in the right place.
Like cricket and draughts, pop entertainment is a “head” thing. No one ever got to the mountain top on heart alone, and Rihanna proves that!