“Work” is the lead single of Rihanna’s latest album, Anti.
So I’m siting in my living room with a couple of my suite-mates, doing homework. We want to listen to music so we take turns playing songs, making sure the song choice is okay with everyone. (We try to be fair.) One decides to play “Work.” This is met with one refusal. The rest of us were on board. It’s catchy. Makes us want to dance. It’s Rihanna and Drake. Naturally we asked her, why not. She responded with: “I don’t like it. It sounds like she’s speaking gibberish and I don’t understand her.” She, the roommate, followed that answer with a mimicking of the song.
That was a popular response. Of course, a lot of people loved it. It’s a hit. On the other hand, a lot of people didn’t because they “couldn’t understand it.” My immediate response to this that they don’t understand it because she is speaking in another language. Several artist collaborated with Rihanna to create this song. But the one producers and one of the lyricist for the song are both Jamaican and Canadian. They wanted to use their Jamaican culture within the song. In the song, she is speaking Patois, the language spoken in Jamaica. Some people would say that it is not language but it is. Songs like this, dance-hall or reggae pop, are a great blend of Caribbean and American culture. This song is the first dance-hall song to top the charts since Sean Paul’s “Temperature” in 2006. Ten years. Not that songs like that haven’t been made in the past ten years, just that they weren’t as popular. Rihanna being as successful as she is, made a song she knew may not be received as well as her other songs because it’s different. Taj Rani of Billboard said “she is able to display West Indian culture front and center without appropriation from mainstream culture.”
Not being able to understand a song shouldn’t cause you to dislike it. There are many a popular songs sung partially in Spanish, and sometimes Portuguese, that are extremely popular despite the language barrier. If you don’t like the song because music like that is not your cup of tea, then that’s fair. But don’t dislike it on the basis of not understanding the language because that making you uncomfortable is less about the language difference and probably more about that culture’s representation in society.