As the Billboard Music Awards recipients were announced, an interesting thing was going on: people were laughing about Rihanna being award-less. They found it humorous and gloated to her fans that their favorite artist hadn’t won anything. They asked, “What happened to her being Queen of the Billboard Hot 100” and how her record for presumably being most awarded was going to be surpassed.
Curiously, I thought, “If this was Beyonce, there would be outrage and a million think pieces.” It struck me as ironic that Beyonce fans, known as the Hive, give passionate arguments about misogynoir in the music industry, especially because it’s dominated by white people, how white mediocrity is always awarded, and that we need to support black women, yet cheer whenever Rihanna doesn't get awarded, praise, or do well in general. It’s as if she’s exempt from being defended despite the fact that she’s Black Girl Magic as well.
At the age of 29, Rihanna has 14 numbers ones, surpassing artist such as Michael Jackson, Madonna, and Janet Jackson all while being within reach of the Beatles and Mariah’s records. She has sold over 270 million records as a solo artist and has a stellar video discography. Her sound is distinct—not just voice, but the type of songs she sings. People often say, “This sounds like a Rihanna reject.” Puma credited her with helping them rebound in sales after they signed her. She has graced the covers of many magazines and, in the process, was endorsed by the fashion community. Most recently she awarded by Harvard University for her humanitarian efforts.
Despite this, she is constantly disrespected, minimized, and not protected. “She only sings about/sells sex”, “Chris beat her because she put her hands on him first/she gave him an STD” (and general jokes about her abuse), “she’s just a singles artist—she doesn’t make albums”, she “sounds like a goat”, “people only like her because she says whatever she wants and because of her fashion”, “she has so many STD’s that she can’t have kids”—you all get the picture, right? These are some of the many things said about her that people let slide because they don’t feel she’s worth protecting for their lists of “legitimate” reasons. It’s totally fine not to like or even be indifferent to Rihanna, that’s a person’s right to feel however they want, but Rihanna’s receives very abusive criticisms and responses about her music, artistry, and personhood that is indefensible.
The question some may ask, "...but, why you got to bring up Beyonce???"
Because, some if not most, of this vitriol comes from her fan base. Naturally, they’re protective of her because many have grown up with her. When Rihanna was discovered, her record label tried to turn her into a Beyonce lite, and then when she started working closer with Jay-Z, rumors swirled around about an affair. From there, it was cemented that the Hive perceived these two women must always be at odds and Rihanna must be downplayed to uplift Beyonce. Ironically enough, many of the Hive are also fans of Rihanna. The huge difference is they won’t buy Rihanna’s music and actively cheer if it seems like she isn’t selling or charting well. Granted, this isn’t ALL Hive, of course, but it’s a significant number, in my honest opinion. Even though all of them aren’t vocal about ripping Rihanna to shreds, they are silent when they see it happen regardless if it Hive or not. That’s complicity.
It is vital to compare their professional images. Beyonce is praised for being able to sing, dance, and perform all at the same time. She is nice, incredibly polite, and as far as removed from scandal as you can be. Beyonce dated her husband for a long time before they settled down, and then had kids a few years later. You almost always see them together along with their child and they look so in love. Beyonce has curves but dresses conservatively. She does dress provocatively at times, but only when performing, so that’s different. Compared to Rihanna who underwent a noticeable transformation in front of our eyes. Rihanna went from the girl next door to what she now calls herself “Badgirl Riri.”
During Rihanna’s third album, she dropped the nice girl persona and started dressing in provocative clothing and overall messing with her hair, makeup, and whatnot. Then, after she went through a public examination of her personal life via her domestic abuse situation being revealed, her personality changed to something more directed and unfiltered. Whether it’s on the stage or on the carpet, Rihanna dresses in whatever she wants. She’ll cover up one day and show her nipples the next. If someone says something rude and disrespectful, she will address them in an equal manner. Rihanna became empowered and unapologetic in ways that many people aren’t accustomed to, especially when it comes to women and, subsequently, and many rejected the new her. Rihanna has literally stated that the ordeal with Chris hitting her changed many parts of herself, but this isn’t taken into account when she is scrutinized—it’s just, “Oh, she sells sex.” When really, it’s Rihanna living life on her terms and, if she happens to be more sexual, so be it.
People’s perceptions of these women’s personalities and their behaviors are what heavily influences how they measure the quality of their music. Before Beyonce dropped her self-titled and Lemonade albums, she and Rihanna weren't that far off in artistic quality with, I believe, Rihanna having the advantage. But, during this time, Beyonce was always said to be the “quality” artist—the one who cares about music, where as Rihanna was a quick singles artist. Now that Beyonce has gone down the road of being more artistic and focused on concept albums, it’s used as further ammunition as to how Rihanna’s success is predicated on sex and quick singles. Furthermore, it’s also used as the criticism against the industry at large and it is framed that only Beyonce cares about making “real”, quality music. Interestingly enough, when compared to an artist like Janelle Monae, someone who address social issues in concept album form, there are excuses, “Beyonce could’ve ruined her career”, “I need something I can shake my ass to”, “Janelle is too serious”, “Beyonce should be allowed to talk about what she wants in her own way—it doesn’t all have to be the same.” Yet, Rihanna is crucified for not taking the same serious approach to her music when it comes to subject matter.
With this in mind, we must consider how both women are viewed when they are successful and awarded. Beyonce’s success is seen as breaking barriers and a step forward in the right direction for black women, where as Rihanna’s successes are largely ignored in the same context. When Beyonce loses, it’s a trending topic on several social media forums and many artists are published the next day, where as it’s a Kanye shrug for Rihanna. People raised hell over Beyonce not winning Album of the Year at the Grammys and Adele for accepted it even though she said Beyonce deserved it. Rihanna walked away with zero and only a handful talked about this. Someone raised a bigger question, why didn’t we say anything about the fact that Rihanna wasn’t nominated for Album of the Year at all? We loved Rihanna for bringing her flask, but we didn’t defend her for being snubbed.
Rihanna received 14 nominations at the Billboard Music Awards and wasn’t awarded any and, again, radio silence about her shut out. Do we believe that Rihanna deserves no awards and that her snubs are justified? Must there only be one version of Black Girl Magic and multiple forms can’t exist? For some, I believe they love Beyonce because of her idealized nature and they want to be her—perfect, loving husband, beautiful children, seemingly perfect life, talented—a man from a troubled past who quit his games and devoted himself to her, and so on. They can’t stand the fact that they are Rihanna: still dating around (has even gone back to the person who hurt her), confident but still figuring some things out, makes mistakes—flawed.
Not to say that Beyonce doesn't deserve praise, but her protection is rooted, for the most part, in traditional patriarchy—respectability politics. She is protected because we can only connect her to one man who she’s had all of her kids with after she married him and she “covers up.” Even when she doesn’t, we excuse it because it’s for work and she can sing and dance—the excuses over runneth. But, Rihanna, she has no man to give her a free pass. Even then, we can connect her to men she’s slept with. How dare she be the empowered woman we praise Beyonce for being? You can only be empowered if you are married and covered up. Not if you are single and wear whatever you please. Ironically, these same people praise individuals like Tina Turner, Josephine Baker, Maya Angelou, etc, who were either promiscuous, prostitutes, or wore revealing clothing. I’m not shaming these women because that’s their lives, but I do want to point out the hypocrisy in the standard to which we hold Rihanna all while praising women for the very thing she’s condemned for as an excuse not to defend her or think that she’s deserving of anything.
So I ask: does Rihanna need to change the way she expresses herself or should we need to change the way we think?