Let Rihanna Be Free To Make Art
By Nick Chiles
To create art is a curious endeavor. Artists often plumb their deepest, darkest fears and emotions to construct pieces that are then assessed by the masses. It can be a scary process, releasing your personal demons and having them judged by the rest of the world. When the art is intended as commerce, to be rejected or embraced at the cash register, the process is even more terrifying.
And that brings me to Rihanna.
She’s been getting a great deal of flack lately for creating evocative videos that clearly refer to some of the struggles she’s had in her 23 years–namely, her abusive relationship with singer Chris Brown. Her video for ‘We Found Love‘ is an exhilarating, disturbing depiction of a wild, intense, drug-fueled young relationship of needy, unstable, co-dependent lovers intent on destroying themselves. Her lover has his hair dyed blonde and bears a striking resemblance to Chris Brown, leading detractors to attack her for throwing her personal issues on film and painting such a disturbing picture of young love. In “Man Down,” we see Rihanna using a gun to exact revenge on a man who sexually assaulted her–leading some critics to accuse her of promoting violence. In “S&M,” she confronts the idea of women being derided for sexual aggressiveness and curiosity.
My first thought is worry: She’s crying out for help and somebody needs to get this girl into some kind of counseling. Then, because I’m the father of daughters, my next thought is to want to protect her, to try to keep the demons away from her.
But then I come to the realization that all these responses are wrong. Because Rihanna is an artist.
Writers are told to write what you know. We hear that all the time.
Visual artists are told to let the emotion spill out on the canvas. Make the viewer feel your pain.
And musicians are told to pour their suffering into their music, make those notes cry. It is why Mary J. Blige moves us so, why a few chords from Billie Holiday can bring us to tears, why Aretha Franklin can deliver a lyric like she has lived every single word. They have a rawness to their sound, an emotional depth that we find appealing.
So why are we so alarmed that Rihanna is actually trying to say something in her music? Is it because we don’t think there’s any room for that in black music? Or perhaps we just want our pretty girls to writhe and sing–leave the messages to somebody else?
Rihanna is pleading with us to let her be an artist. She did it quite clearly in one of her tweets:
“The music industry isn’t exactly Parents R Us! We have the freedom to make art, LET US! Its your job to make sure they dont turn out like US.”
Rihanna is a beautiful girl with a beautiful voice who could so easily give in to the industry standard, which is to put beautiful girls in revealing clothes, place them in front of a microphone and let them moan and tease the boys all the way to the bank. Certainly there’s some moaning and teasing going on in Rihanna’s music, but there is also an attempt to provoke, to challenge, to say something about the sexual exploitation and manipulation of young girls. She is a young woman who is thinking about her place in the industry, and she wants to use her platform to speak to society and more specifically, young girls, about the disturbing treatment of women.
As a father of daughters, that’s a message I could get behind.
So let’s give Rihanna some room explore her pain through her music. Let her bleed all her emotional anguish into the lyrics. Let her tell a compelling and controversial tale in her videos. That is the definition of art. It is immensely more interesting than the monotonous moans of sexual longing or sexual expertise that too often these days get passed off as music.
Nick Chiles is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and a New York Times bestselling author.