Lets have a bit of a chat, shall we? Have you gotten a whiff of the big stink some folks are making about Rihanna's supposedly amoral antics at the Kadooment Day Carnival celebrations in Barbados?
Allow me to enlighten you, if you haven't.
Apparently, photos of the Barbadian born-and-raised popstar have surfaced, showing Rihanna in the typical 21st century Caribbean Carnival costume, all smiles, with drink and waving-bandanna in hand as she gyrates with other festival patrons. Male & Female alike.
Above, in a photo snagged from Marie Claire UK, Rihanna 'bends down low' as she grinds back on a gleeful male festival-goer. In other shots posted on the US-based YBF website, some well-positioned photographer managed to capture images of the singer's crotch, snapped from below...
The rest of photographs feature candid moments of Rihanna chipping along with the street parade, jamming back on a female masquerader, bending over another, and being hoisted on the shoulders of a burly man.
In the wake of this semi-inconsequential occurrence, the deeply disparaging and negative reactions by some folks in the US have thoroughly baffled me. Why do these images of a popular singer raise the ire of the public? And for arguments sake, what is so reprehensible about her conduct - is this any different from her gyrating, scantily-clad performances at the various American award shows, concerts and such?
Taken from the YBF website, here are a few samples of the tamer comments on Rihanna's Carnival moment, if you may:
"She uses her body as a sex and marketing tool..."
"Such depraved behaviour..."
"You would never see Alicia Keys, Keyshia Cole, Kelly Rowland or Beyonce's booty shaking ass looking like this... She should be [ashamed] of herself..."
"No damn class..."
"Celebrating the end of slavery [through Carnival] has nothing to do with [dancing like that] and having a camera in your vajayjay... Can't you dance with some class and dignity?"
"Being half nekkid and parading like that [might] get you raped in the middle of all that chaos..."
"All island people are so loud... be classy... so glad I'm not from there..."
All things being equal, Rihanna's conduct at Kadooment day was not unusual, immoral, shameful, classless, or degrading in the least. Given the bacchanalia element of Carnivals in general - and West Indian Carnival celebrations, in particular - I'd say her display was in keeping with the norm. This is not to say that one shouldn't conduct oneself in a more ladylike manner, especially when being a celebrity in public.
And I repeat, in case this statement goes over the head of some incensed reader: This is not to say that one shouldn't conduct oneself in a more ladylike manner, especially when being a celebrity in public.
But still, who are we - people with many a crass skeleton lurking in our closets - to judge?
In fact, I'm quite sure there were other patrons whose gyrations would have surely put Rihanna's to shame.
For the benefit of the puritanical tongue-waggers who may be, at this very moment, staring bug-eyed at my words in utter disagreement, let's break it down. And before we do so, let's also remember that the Barbadian - and larger West Indian - culture is inherently different from that which exists in North America.
To a West Indian, Carnival is a rite of passage, an opportunity to parade in the streets with reckless abandon in the face of conventionality and social constraints. This is a time where the average Joe can dance with high-and-mighty politicians, and the vagrants can jump-up with the middle-class folk. Under the facade of a banal street parade lies a deeper, ritualistic happening that commemorates the attempts of seventeenth and eighteenth century slaves to hold onto their own culture in the face of stringent measures to erase their 'savage' African ways.
Without launching into a ramble on West Indian slavery, it should be enough to know that in their attempts to preserve their own traditions, slaves from the islands combined their rituals and dances with that of the colonialists' masquerade balls and European Carnivals in a mocking fashion. Thus creating the fore-bearer of the modern-day Carnivals of the region.
Wildly erotic dances are a must. It just goes along with the pulsing Soca and Calypso music that's driven by heavy, rhythmic sounds. In Trinidad, we call the sexually charged, sinuous rotation of the waistline Wining. in Barbados, the same motion, albeit with a tad more jerking elements thrown in for good measure, is called Wukking Up. People can wuk up or wine on their own, but generally, it's more fun when you have a partner, not unlike Rihanna in those images.
One is expected to know how to do these things as a West Indian; it's almost an impulse to move the body in that manner, similar to the inclination one gets to shuffle the feet back and forth, upon hearing Samba or Bossa Nova music. This may be a simplistic way to sum up the situation, but in a nutshell, it's just what we do.
Madonna was celebrated for wearing 'avant garde' pointed bras and S&M bondage gear on stage whilst simulating masturbation, oral sex and a host of other erotic acts. And let's not forget her raw exploits in that naughty little publication, SEX. If you're too young to recall the images from that book, I suggest you go to Strand Booksellers in New York and ferret out a copy.
Some have said that it features Madonna at her best.
And not surprisingly, regardless of the eyebrow-raising that came on the heels of the book's release, the coffee-table glossy went on to quickly become the best and fastest-selling 'art book' of the modern era...
In November of 2010, Kim Kadarshian appeared on the cover of a greatly-touted issue of W magazine, in the nude, with bars of words covering her nipples and crotch areas. Inside, she appeared fully naked, bare nipples erect, and painted in silver.
On Coco's World, Ice T's voluptuously-enhanced wife has her entire body on display from the back, with only a few strings of rhinestones hung in strategic places; under the semi-nude shot lies an image link to her TV show that is currently airing in a primetime weekend slot on E TV...
And what of poor Marilyn Monroe, whose foray into fame came via a full nude, pinup-girl centerfold in a 1953 issue of Playboy Magazine? Or Dita von Teese, the Burlesque dancer who has made a name for herself amongst the high-rollers of the entertainment industry as a performer whose on-stage costumes make Rihanna's Carnival getup seem like a matronly shroud?
Not to mention the numerous male performers whose concert, back-stage, and everyday sexual braggadocio is flagrantly applauded as cool, edgy displays of celebrity. Red Hot Chilli Peppers' Anthony Kiedis performing on stage with nothing but a sock covering his penis in the 90s was not considered to be gross, disturbing, rude, or depraved; it was rad, man.
Can we say, hypocrisy?
I'm thinking of the eighteenth century tendencies for Primitivism and depicting Noble Savages in works of art. When artist Paul Gaugin left his French wife to set sail for Tahiti, taking up with a much younger Tahitian woman, his nude paintings showing his concubine in bed were deemed too raw for the cultured Europeans.
By itself, it stood as an overtly, sexually charged work of some strange, disturbingly dark-skinned creature whose seductive stare made the buttoned-up viewers very uncomfortable. Throw in a quaint little story about the foreign sitter's native customs that douses the erotic element in a light of non-threatening, unrefined naivete, and suddenly, everything's acceptable - novel, even.
In Gaugin's case, a simple bit of repackaging for unaccustomed eyes solved the problem of the exotic Other.
Apparently, without her shiny music-industry trappings to tame her vulgar island ways, the reality of Rihanna's Otherness is quite bothersome to the uninitiated. Even within the twentieth century, where the internet, TV, and a host of other mediums are supposed to bring the world together in an awareness and celebration of global cultural differences, the pesky issue still persists.
Frankly, these reactions to Rihanna's Carnival moment smack of a dehumanizing, demoralizing righteousness that is rather shocking. Especially as it has emanated from within another culture, where similar acts are publicly sanctioned and celebrated across all sectors of society as artsy, daring entertainment.
Once again: can we say, hypocrisy?
NB Image for Composite Courtesy Marie Claire UK.