Sunday, February 20, 2011

I didn't use to believe in Rihanna

She holds four grammy awards, has had seven number one billboard singles and sold over 25 million albums to adoring fans in every corner of the globe. This lovely young lady who celebrates just her 23rd birthday today has taken my little island Barbados to a place that nobody before her has ever done. However, as incredible as it sounds, there was a time that I  just didn't believe in Rihanna.

Yes, I was living in Barbados in 2004 at the beginning of what would one day become the Rihanna phenomenon. That was the year when Robyn Fenty, as she was then known, sang with two of her school friends at a  local restaurant in Barbados. Among the patrons on the night was record producer Evans Rogers and the rest as they say is history.  I remember when the local newspaper carried a short article  about a girl being discovered by a famous producer . The story went that he just took one look at her and declared that she would one day be an international superstar. Next to the piece was a small  black and white photo. Looking at her face, she was strikingly beautiful but I was sure in my mind that Mr. Rogers had gotten carried away by this. It can happen in Barbados. When the surf, the music and the rum punch converge, anyone can seem like a star. After all, how could a person just after looking at somebody for  a  few seconds  really be able to know that they are going to explode like a supernova on the world stage.

I didn't pay much attention to the story after that day but I realised the talk was not dying. People really began to believe the hype and think that this girl would go to the US and Evans Rogers would change her life forever; but I was a skeptic. The evidence certainly did not support that this would be the case. For one thing , Rihanna was  anonymous on the local music scene. It is true that at the time she was only sixteen but many prodigies in the world start to show that they are something special by the time they are five or six. Barbados has a well entrenched teen talent competition where thirteen year olds have regularly featured, Rihanna was never on that roll. There are also a number of junior calypso competitions and pageants that had failed to bring her out.The church has been a breeding ground for a number of local crooners and Rihanna had also not made a mark there.

The chances that such a superstar was living among us without anyone ever noticing seemed unlikely at best. However, that was not the only reason why I was skeptical. I did admit it could be that none of the competitions appealed to Rihanna or she just hadn't honed her skills yet at that age. The fact was that in spite of the talent that we have had in the island over the years nobody had come close to making even a a ripple on the international music scene before then. To think that a Barbadian, any Barbadian could be even on the charts in a country outside of  the Caribbean was at that time as outrageous a thought as someone from our island heading a team of astronauts at NASA.

So, my response to Evans Rogers and others who told me that Rihanna would boldly go where none of us had gone before was to show me that evidence. I heard them talk about how hard working Rihanna was, that she was very open to taking advice and had a good head on her shoulders. I thought that was encouraging but still I couldn't just go on those words alone.I had heard such glowing accolades said about many whose names have long since fallen by the wayside. Still, one thing I would say was that my mind was open. I really wanted Rihanna to succeed but I  just couldn't take the word of a record producer, however famous, on faith. I had to be convinced myself.

I have to confess that  when Rihanna started her career with her song " Pon de Replay" I was just blown away by what took place. Overnight she was a sensation , just as Evans Rogers had predicted. To this day I have to tip my hat to this man for what he was able to see. To me he is far greater than any Isaiah or Elijah . He saw something that I certainly didn't and he and Rihanna have proven me wrong, spectacularly wrong and I could not be happier that they did. Today I am a convert. I recognise how remarkable her achievements have been and am filled with pride to see how she has reached the highest of heights against so many odds. It is true that in her short career Rihanna has had a few bruises, both literally and figuratively. However, given the transformation that she would have gone through from school girl to pop icon in just months, I think she has done  brilliantly  to remain at a high altitude after an explosive take off.  Ironically, these days I defend Rihanna sometimes  against  colleagues in Barbados  who have turned against her in spite of their faith in her at the outset. Many think that a "good girl gone bad" is a fitting description of  her. I still have trouble understanding why some of my people in Barbados are so quick to pull down their own, but that's a discussion for another time.

What of course I am illustrating here is the principle of living life as a skeptic. So often the believer thinks that the atheist is just picking on God. They  consider that we are the ones engaging in special pleading. They see us as the toddler pouting in the corner, arms folded furiously shaking our heads, resolving to not believe no matter what. But for me at least, it is just a matter of being consistent and my message to those in the church is the same as my message was to Evans Rogers. "Show me the things  of which you speak ."  I am a skeptic and I am inviting you to prove me wrong. I am not just saying that in an " I dare you!"  sort of way , I honestly would not be unhappy to find out there is a God. I would not look forward to one who would send me to torture for non belief, but there are definitely many concepts of a God that have been put before me that I would be grateful to accept. A  cosmic  being that was watching out for me and  who I could consult when I needed  a more informed opinion would be great. Even finding a God who was a bit eccentric and even brutal at times  would still be exciting to me,  at least it would be interesting to study him and find out what really makes him tick. What I want to stress, is that even in the days when I didn't believe Rihanna would be a star I never  wished for her to fail. I always hoped I was wrong. It is a pity  our society labels those of us that are skeptics as "naysayers." As if thinking something won't happen somehow means that we are affecting the result. This is in itself a form of superstition which goes hand in hand with religious thinking. We prefer the man who believes he can fly rather than the one who knows he can run. As I write this I am watching World Cup cricket in Asia where the West Indies are taking part. Do I think West Indies will win the tournament? No. Would I like them to win? Nothing would please me more.

Another thing that I hope the Rihanna account demonstrates is that I am willing to admit I was wrong and I don't see it as anyway diminishing my admiration for her today. I am also not going the route of pretending that I was really always a supporter and those that thought I used to say she wouldn't make it merely misunderstood or misinterpreted what I was saying. I am  not taking another tactic that I see on the other side, which is maintaining my original position on Rihanna by subtly adjusting the goalposts for the word "superstar." I could say that seven years is not enough to judge stardom, that you need at least eight years at the top and then move that to ten or twelve as the years go by. I could say she is not a star until she has a number one hit in North Korea, just to save face and prove I was always right. Then I could jump up at the moment  the number one hits dry up and say, " I told you so !" But no! I just call it as I see it at a particular point . Making the judgement on the information I have at the time. Things will change as more information comes in. Clearly, when I first heard of Rihanna my judgement  was flawed because my information was limited. The years went on and I saw more  of this lady and recognised what she was capable of and my opinion changed. So what if I had to do it again? Would I believe in Rihanna a bit more up front ? Would I show more faith? No, I would be just as skeptical next time. I will always argue that my judgement of Rihanna at that time was justified based on the evidence before me. The information I have obtained since does not change that fact. Moreover, of course, I continue to evaluate. I am certainly a supporter of Rihanna now, but it's not worship. If further information causes me to reassess the evidence and adjust my opinion of her I will do that.

I hope that the theists understand this point. If evidence for their God comes tomorrow it doesn't mean that I have been a fool all along to deny him. It would have been irrational to assume that the evidence I sought existed but I just hadn't found it yet. There is another thing that bothers me about embracing God. The Christians often make accepting Jesus seem like a one way ticket. You accept Jesus in your heart, come in to the house of the Lord and it's like you lock the door and throw away the key. I just couldn't do that even if I met Jesus and saw how great he was. I could accept him but I could never give my life to him. I would have to keep evaluating to make sure that what he showed me when he first met me is what he keeps doing.  It amazes me that the Christian can be so confident that God will be good all the time and if he does it once he will do it again.

One thing I can say about you, Rihanna is that you have proven you can do it again, again and again. Have a great birthday! You deserve it. Hopefully you will be more forgiving than God and not  grudge me because I once didn't believe in you.  You have convinced me through  hard evidence  that you are indeed the only girl in the world today that can control the billboards . Interestingly, my Christian friends tell me they have the only God in the world and to be fair, the record  they have produced has sold many more copies than even your 25 million. It's just a shame that when you listen to the lyrical content of their compilation, they have been far more misses than hits.


  1. A well written piece. I couldn't remember the name of that first song, so you helped me. ;) I also think its fascinating to think of failure to believe as a kind of moral failure. I remember many years ago when I first started calling myself an atheist, I felt like it was my best judgement at the time. I also figured if I was wrong, any reasonable god would have little problem with it.

  2. Thanks! I am glad I reminded you about 'Pon de Replay' too. I fully agree with you that no reasonable God could possibly punish you for making an honest judgement based on available evidence.

    Interestingly enough, my family also generally have that view. It makes them far more comfortable with me being an atheist. Even though they continue to believe, they can't accept that their good God could punish me for my honesty. I am glad they feel that way and it makes for continued good relations in the face of conflicting beliefs.