From Drake to Justin Bieber, it seems a favorite pastime of popstars is to dabble in Jamaican music. Reggae and dancehall are infectious sounds developed by Jamaica, a small but culturally powerful island in the Caribbean. But outside of Bob Marley and stints on the Billboard charts from artists like Sean Paul, Jamaicans themselves have yet to receive the international renown that should accompany the global reach of their country’s music. Last summer, Rihanna’s catchy dancehall track ‘Work’ took the airwaves by storm and reignited the conversation about the listening public’s love for this music that seems not to extend to its actual originators. Music critics inadvertently highlighted this disconnect in their own dissections of the wildfire spread of the track, by even coining new names for the genre (like the laughable incongruous ‘tropical house’) rather than tying it to its established Jamaican roots.
But Rihanna is a quintessential Caribbean ingénue, and she is reportedly working with an array of Jamaican producers to create her next project—an album made up entirely of reggae and dancehall music. My excitement at her irresistible artistry being stamped on these genres is tempered by an understanding that this will also be a turning point for Jamaican music on the international stage—and it will be spearheaded by the daughter of a country that has held enmity towards Jamaicans. Though Caribbean countries can be said to be connected tightly through proximity as well as culture, the truth on the ground is a little more complicated. Outside of Trinidad and Tobago, there is no disdain for Jamaican citizens greater than that of Bajans’. The case of Shanique Myrie is perhaps the most representative of this anti-Jamaican sentiment. Myrie’s detainment by Barbados’ immigration authorities featured two invasive cavity searches, as well as remarks from officers describing their hatred of Jamaicans. The incident prompted the Jamaican government to reveal it had received numerous accounts of their nationals being mistreated in Barbados, and resulted in a judgement by the Caribbean Court of Justice in Myrie’s favor—complete with damages and a declaration that Bardados had breached the plaintiff’s rights.
To me, it is distinctly unsettling that members of a country that once suggested banning Dancehall from their airwaves countries can then bask in the products of Jamaican creativity when it suits them, and also replicate that creativity when on the international stage and profit from it. To be fair, RiRi has never perpetuated the disdain for Jamaicans that seems to be characteristic of some of her countrymen and those in other Caribbean countries. She’s collaborated with artists like Sizzla and has been seen dancing to the likes of Vybz Kartel and Popcaan. But my real concern stems from a fear that she will take ownership of Jamaica’s music—on a global stage—without giving due recognition to where it actually comes from.
Culture is made to build connections between people, and so by its very nature is not meant to be insular. But the crux of the issue when it comes to cultural appropriation is this: a people cannot be divided from their creations, and one cannot love the culture while also despising those who created it. The current latent opposition to Caribbean unification—and Jamaicans’ freedom of movement within a formal system of such—also doesn’t hold with the absurd inclination to now claim shared ownership of the creative products developed by individual countries. Rihanna’s newest project will no doubt shoot Dancehall and Reggae further into the stratosphere, but it will also expose the many cracks that exist within our region and that we are so determined to pretend, when we are on the world stage, do not exist.