Rihanna’s patois and your misinformed memes

After the Bajan singer dropped ‘Work’, sections of the internet responded by wilfully refusing to understand what it means

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Rihanna work meme
@fuckjerry via Instagram

If you’re going to say something on the Internet, in a public forum, for anyone to see, it’s in your best interests to understand what you’re commenting on, so you don’t seem, at a loose best, willfully ignorant, or at worst, pretty racist. Over the past week people have – by criticising Rihanna’s Barbadian patois in “Work” as “gibberish” – once again proved why we can’t have nice things, and why a lot of us need to sit the fuck down. “Work” is nothing less than a jam, but it’s being co-opted by a white pop culture that has omitted to recognise the song’s dancehall roots (outside of music critics and genre fans, of course), essentially rejecting the cultural history on which “Work” is predicated.          

As memes essentially making fun of Ri’s patois have emerged, like the one Le Meme Blog posted of Rihanna’s singing interspersed with Iraqi character puppets from Team America or one posted by Fuck Jerry with the word “Work” typed and followed by a mashing of keyboard letters, it’s hard to not cringe at some people’s sense of humour. It’s worth noting that accounts that post this sort of rubbish are just “meme generators” that mostly just steal their “jokes” anyway, but that takes me back to my point – if you’re going to steal a meme, at least know the importance of what you’re stealing. And it’s not just the posters of the memes that are at fault. Beneath the insensitive jokes are hundreds of comments saying “LOL”, “haha” or “this is accurate”. The same can be said of other social media, where thousands of people have come out to call Rihanna’s lyrics “gibberish”.

Calling the lyrics “gibberish” is like going to France and disdainfully saying everyone there was inconveniently indecipherable. Creating memes making a joke of Rihanna’s speech is like putting a picture of a Chinese person next to crudely white-interpreted Chinese words and laughing at it. You wouldn’t do these things because they’re moronic and ignorant. Which, by the way, is not an excuse for casual racism. Just because someone doesn’t know Rihanna is using patois in her lyrics, it doesn’t make mocking what they perceive to be “slurring” any less stupid. You can be an idiot not realising you’re being an idiot and still be an idiot. Mark Abley of the Montreal Gazette addressed the inherent racism of using “gibberish” and other analogous words like “jabber” and “gibber”. “Birds and animals are said to jabber” he wrote, “so are speakers of a foreign tongue. Sometimes the underlying implication is that only people who talk English are fully human.”

Patois is a local dialect spoken in Caribbean cultures, from Jamaica to Rihanna’s native Barbados, including pidgins, creoles and other dialects. That’s the official definition. In terms of Rihanna’s “Work”, her patois takes on an even looser form, broken up with full English sentences. But it’s not like this is the first time Rihanna has sung in patois. Both “Rude Boy” and “Man Down” pay homage to her linguistic culture. Other contemporary artists have also used patois, from DJ Agent Sasco’s speech on Kendrick Lamar’s “Blacker the Berry” to Kanye West and GOOD Music’s “Mercy”, while Shaggy, Beenie Man and Sean Paul all sang liberally in patois throughout the 90s and early 00s, building careers on a pop-reggae-dancehall hybrid. If you want to go further back still, one of the most legendary artists ever to live, Bob Marley, sang predominantly in patois (with his son, Damian Marley, still carrying this legacy). Patois in popular music, essentially, is not new.

What is new is our awareness of the misappropriation of culture. As Ariel Leconte wrote in Jawbreaker, white pop culture is more than happy to celebrate black culture, but only on its own, whitewashed terms. She says mockery of Rihanna’s speech in “Work” “just continues to back up the idea that White people love Black culture and concepts just as long as they’re not being portrayed by Black people.” If that seems like something of a stretch to you, consider the way in which an “anglicised” version of “Work” has been widely celebrated online for its “cleaning up” of the songs lyrics. Indeed, as British YouTube singer Samantha Harvey wrote about her cover, “I did spend a while translating the lyrics before I could sing it.” Samantha to the rescue! Harvey’s fans went on to praise her for her good work helping them “understand” the lyrics and essentially for making “Work” a much better, more white friendly song.

“Calling the lyrics “gibberish” is like going to France and disdainfully saying everyone there was inconveniently indecipherable”

The idea that someone needed to “translate” and perform “Work” in order to make it more palatable to other white people is needlessly insulting. In Paper, Sandra Song writes that these kinds of demands from white consumers in order to increase enjoyment of “Work” is a worrying trend. “A Barbadian accent is still 100% English,” she writes, “and all this "Wow!! It's actually a great song now that's it's stripped of its Caribbean heritage" is unsettling, to say the least.” We should consider, as white consumers, that “Work” might just not belong to us, and that, like Beyonce’s “Formation”, we can’t just carelessly shout the lyrics to as we bounce around on the dancefloor. And that’s okay – not everything has to be specifically catered to white tastes all the time. It is possible to enjoy “Work” from a passive distance, without shaving off the idiosyncrasies of a culture we’ve repeatedly attempted to bludgeon in order to make songs like “Work” fit more neatly into our little boxes.

We shouldn’t dismiss Rihanna’s patois as gibberish. Nor should we consider it “abnormal” or “out of the ordinary”. It’s as normal and ordinary to Rihanna and Bajan culture as the Queen’s English is to ours, or as any other language is to the culture it flourishes in. Rihanna’s patois doesn’t have to suit you. That’s not the point of “Work”. And if you’re going to make value judgements about things you perceive to be “funny”, make sure those “hilarious” points of difference aren’t the artefacts of someone’s cultural identity. For non-patois speakers intending on enjoying “Work”, it’s our responsibility to ensure the cultural canvas on which it’s written and performed is not only safe from erasure, but that we acknowledge and respect it. By conflating actual spoken language with “gibberish” we’re playing into the exact stereotype that white culture should be vehemently attempting to distance itself from, and eradicate.

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