Fantasizing About an Island Girl

“But I'm from the left side of an island, never thought this many people would even know my name” — Rihanna, Love Without Tragedy/Mother Mary

Pop Cultural

There has never been a better time to be an Island Girl. You know the type—tanned skin, a scanty two-piece, and English tinged with a foreign accent. She’s probably a good dancer, knows how to sway her hips. The Island Girl sits on a beach, sipping on a cocktail. Inexplicably, her hair looks good wet.

The Island Girl is an increasingly popular staple of the pop music industry. Rihanna is one. She was born in Saint Michael, Barbados and lived in the country’s capital until she started making music in the United States. Before moving to Queens as a five-year-old, Nicki Minaj was born in Saint James, Trinidad and Tobago. Though long separated from the shores of their motherlands, both Caribbean-born artists use a warped American perception of the Caribbean as some sort of careless paradise to sell their music.

On her latest album, ANTI, Rihanna puts her Barbadian accent front and center. In previous hits, and interviews with press, she’s made efforts to hide her accent. On ANTI, she’s decided to accentuate it. In the album’s most widely distributed song, Work, Rihanna gives listeners a pan-Caribbean earful. Though critics have dismissed it as gibberish, parts of the hook are sung in Jamaican patois. The lines—“he said me hafii,” “when you ah guh,” “meh nuh cyar if him”—were likely a result of working with Jamaican-Canadian producers Boi-1da, Sevyn Thomas, and PARTYNEXTDOOR. Coupled with Rihanna’s Barbadian accent, the hook constructs an amorphous, borderless island sound.

Nicki Minaj, who has spent the majority of her life in New York, also produces music that attempts to create a universal vision of the Caribbean. A prime example is Trini Dem Girls. The hook uses patois—“dem a wine up dem waist”—and references a district in South London—“Brixton girls, dem a pat the pum pum”—that is an ethnically mixed enclave of the Caribbean diaspora. In addition to the title, Nicki Minaj also references her birthplace saying “them island girls is the baddest” and “he in love with a girl from the island.” On her remix of Black Barbies, she raps, “Island girl, Donald Trump want me go home.”

Rihanna and Nicki Minaj’s recent hits, both in their lyrics and Afro-rhythms, mimic a tropical sound that listeners would want to imagine coming from a far-off island rather than a New York studio. The listener won’t be able to guess where exactly the music is from, but they’ll know it’s foreign, and their best guesses will land them somewhere in the Caribbean. Blindly fantasizing about their music is dangerous, though, since it allows consumers to ignore the ways the Caribbean has been a site of exploitation.

Stories of sandy white beaches, beautiful brown and black women, and green expanses of vegetation have transformed the Caribbean into the ideal vacation destination. This contemporary perception has historical precedent. Professor Lorgia García-Peña, who teaches a class at Harvard entitled Tropical Fantasies, outlines how postcards were used to spread travel stories from the Caribbean across the world. She writes that postcards, “were important metropolitan texts that created a visual narrative of the Caribbean as a fantasy of colonial desire.” As a landing point for slave trade and agricultural exploitation by both European nations and the United States, the way the world thinks of the Caribbean is rooted in histories of colonialism.

The effects of these images of tropical, fantastical islands could not be more real. Tourism accounts for approximately a third of the region’s GDP, and higher for some individual countries. Over 60 percent of Antigua and Barbuda’s GDP in 2016 came from travel and tourism. The heavy reliance on tourism weakens Caribbean economies, makes them dependent on foreign visitors, and ultimately hurts local people. The Dominican Republic has become a hotspot for foreigners looking for sex tourism, which has brought a child-trafficking crisis. Cruise ships often pollute the coasts and hurt marine wildlife. Tourists’ stays at high-end resorts put a strain on water resources, lowering the amount of clean water available to locals. For citizens of Caribbean nations, there is no lush paradise; only the fallout from the world’s fantasy.

Nicki Minaj and Rihanna’s music helps build images of beaches brimming with baskets of sweet fruit and exotic music. They use a popular understanding of the Caribbean—one that ignores the way tourism and foreign presence has exploited the islands—to market their music to consumers. Listeners engage with the music on the shallowest level, putting it on summer playlists and ignoring its bloody roots: 15 million enslaved black people, blood shed harvesting sugar cane, countless deaths.

We should listen to Caribbean-infused pop music. After all, it’s much better than most of songs on the top 40 charts. But we should be responsible consumers when we do so, as we should when we vacation. When you lay beachside abroad, think critically about what your presence entails. When you listen to Rihanna, remember that her music is the unintended result of centuries of colonialism and exploitation. Listen to your favorite Island Girl, but don’t blindly fantasize about her.

Ruben E. Reyes Jr. ’19, a current Crimson Editorial Chair, is a History and Literature concentrator in Leverett House. His column appears on Mondays.

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