According to the government of Barbados, the proper way to address Rihanna is “the Right Excellent Robyn Rihanna Fenty, National Hero”.
It is an appropriate formality for the pop icon and beauty magnate often lauded by her fans as a “queen”, who was granted lifelong honours by her Caribbean homeland on the first day of its official divorce from the British monarchy in 2021.
Yet such sobriquets also imply a degree of political influence. In a career spanning nearly two decades and at least five industries, Rihanna has not shied from wielding hers.
In interviews and on social media, the 34-year-old has spoken out about gun control, Barbadian independence, violence against Asian Americans, Donald Trump, police brutality in Nigeria and more, at the same time donating millions to charity and using using her make-up company Fenty to transform the beauty industry’s approach to skin colour.
This February, she will end her three-year boycott of the US National Football League (NFL) over racial injustice issues to perform the coveted half-time show at the 57th Super Bowl, prompting accusations of hypocrisy.
So what are Rihanna’s politics, and how has she used her wealth and fame to put them into action?
‘This pussy grabs back’
Spray-painted on a rusted vintage car half-buried in the ground, it was not an ambiguous message: “F*** TRUMP.”
When one of Rihanna’s fans asked what the caption “#81days” meant, she replied: “ELECTION!!! Wake up! Stay woke!”
That Instagram post in August 2020 was neither the singer’s first nor her last broadside against Donald Trump. On the day after his inauguration in 2017, she attended the Women’s March in New York City, wearing a pink “this pussy grabs back” hoodie, joining chants of “my body, my choice”, and dabbing in front of Trump Tower.
“So proud to be a woman!” she wrote afterwards. “So proud of the women around the world who came together today for pro-choice.”
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When Trump launched his so-called “Muslim ban”, forbidding all travel to the US by citizens of seven mostly-Muslim countries, she said: “Disgusted! The news is devastating! America is being ruined right before our eyes! What an immoral pig you have to be to implement such BS!”
In 2018, she joined numerous other musicians in sending Trump’s campaign a cease and desist letter after he used one of her songs at a rally. “Trump’s unauthorised use of Ms Fenty’s music… creates a false impression that Ms Fenty is affiliated with, connected to or otherwise associated with Trump,” it said.
Meanwhile, in an Instagram post backing Democrat Andrew Gillum in his bid to become Florida’s first Black governor, she described her political priorities: “Making the minimum wage a livable wage, paying teachers what they’re worth, ensuring criminal justice reform, making healthcare a right, and repealing Stand Your Ground [laws].”
The following year, she criticised Trump’s response to mass shootings in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio, which he pinned on mental illness. “Um, Donald, you spelled terrorism wrong!” Rihanna posted on Twitter and Instagram.
In a later interview with Vogue, she explained: “People are being murdered by war weapons that they legally purchase. This is just not normal. That should never, ever be normal. And the fact that it’s classified as something different because of the colour of their skin? It’s a slap in the face. It’s completely racist.”
She continued: “Put an Arab man with that same weapon in that same Walmart and there is no way that Trump would sit there and address it publicly as a mental health problem. The most mentally ill human being in America right now seems to be the president.”
As the 2020 election campaign geared up, she swung her fame behind Trump’s rival Joe Biden, repeatedly exhorting her followers to vote for change and retweeting an election message from Hillary Clinton.
In June she told American voters: “VOTE. Ya ain’t got s*** else to do man! Get yo ass off the couch and go vote!!! I don’t wanna hear another excuse… this the illest way to protest.”
While she did not mention Trump, her past statements made her intent fairly clear.
She also mocked Trump by dubbing her 2016 hit “Needed Me” over the top of a viral video of the then-president and his wife Melania, in which he tried in vain to take Melania’s hand while she apparently ignored him.
Having hit back at Trump’s election denialism while the ballots were being counted, Rihanna celebrated Joe Biden and Kamala Harris’s provisional victory on 7 November 2020 with the words: “Congratulations to you both, and mostly to the American people! So much work to do, so much hurt to undo!”
Standing with Colin Kaepernick and George Floyd
Many of Rihanna’s most prominent political interventions have concerned racial justice and minority rights, particularly the shooting of unarmed Black people by US police officers.
Famously, she turned down an offer to perform in the 2019 Super Bowl halftime show in solidarity with Colin Kaepernick, a mixed-race American football quarterback who alleged that he was frozen out of the industry in retaliation for his political statements.
Kaepernick had begun kneeling during the US national anthem in 2016 in protest against police racism. In the following season he went unsigned by any teams despite his impressive performance on the pitch. He settled his dispute with the NFL out of court in 2019, but remains unsigned to this day.
“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses Black people and people of colour,” Kaepernick said in 2016. “To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”
Rihanna signalled her frustration in February 2019, posting a picture of Kaepernick on Instagram with the caption: “For those of you who thought I was watchin’ the Super Bowl … we beefin’.”
When asked that autumn about rumours that she had turned down the next year’s halftime show, she told Vogue: “Absolutely. I couldn’t dare do that. For what? Who gains from that? Not my people. I just couldn’t be a sellout. I couldn’t be an enabler. There’s things within that organisation that I do not agree with at all, and I was not about to go and be of service to them in any way.”
Rihanna had already turned her attention to this issue in 2016, appearing in a video produced by fellow musician Alicia Keyes’ We Are Here campaign group titled: “23 Ways You Could Be Killed If You Are Black in America.”
When the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer ignited protests and riots in cities across the US in June 2020, Rihanna joined the chorus, participating in the “Blackout Tuesday” social media boycott and condemning Floyd’s killing.
She was particularly passionate about the killing of Breonna Taylor, a Black woman who was shot dead during a no-knock raid on her boyfriend’s house in Louisville, Kentucky, in March 2020, by police officers who allegedly did not announce themselves.
Although an investigation by Kentucky’s attorney general Daniel Cameron ended without any charges filed against the officers, one of them later admitted to lying to a judge in order to get a warrant for the raid. Two others will go on trial this year for depriving Taylor of her civil rights.
Rihanna has repeatedly criticised Cameron personally, taking the opportunity of 2021’s Black History Month to tweet at him: “Sup n***a? #JusticeForBreonnaTaylor.” The comment drew attention to their shared African ancestry, with the implicit suggestion that Cameron was betraying Black people.
The “Umbrella” and “B**** Better Have My Money” singer has similarly stood up for the rights of other minorities. In the wake of the 2021 Atlanta spa shooting, she condemned “rampantly perpetuated hate” against Asian Americans and Pacific islanders (AAPI).
At a live show in 2016, she condemned an Indiana state law that made it easier for businesses to resist claims of discriminating against LGBT+ people by citing their religious beliefs.
‘For me, immigrant is a word of pride’
In the aftermath of Trump’s election, Rihanna’s harsh comments about the “Muslim” ban brought her into conflict with another Black musician: New-York-born rapper Azealia Banks.
“Is she even American???? Can she even vote?” Banks reportedly wrote on Twitter. She later added: “As far as Rihanna (who isn’t a citizen, and can’t vote) and all the rest of the celebrities who are using their influence to stir the public, you lot really REALLY need to shut up and sit down.”
Rihanna’s answer was a selfie with the caption: “The face you make when you a immigrant.”
It was a revealing response, because Rihanna has consistently expressed pride in her Barbadian origins and championed the rights of immigrants.
“For me, it’s a prideful word,” she once said at a launch for her fashion label, Fenty. “To know that you can come from humble beginnings and just take over whatever you want to, dominate at whatever you put your mind to. The world becomes your oyster, and there’s no limit. Wherever I go, except for Barbados, I’m an immigrant. I think people forget that a lot of times.”
In 2018, she responded to a White House immigration announcement with a picture of herself and her employees holding up Fenty T-shirt printed with the word “IMMIGRANT”, which she then wore for the Fourth of July celebrations. That November, when one Instagram commenter questioned whether she was a US citizen, she responded: “Nah I’m an immigrant tryna get yo country together.”
Rihanna’s opposition to Trump is clearly grounded in this experience. During her interview with Vogue, she whipped out her phone and played a video of Trump’s immigration chief Ken Cuccinelli defending his policies by claiming that the famous words inscribed on the Statue of Liberty – “give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses” – had referred to “people coming from Europe”, a comment many observers interpreted as racist.
“Think about this. What does America stand for? A bunch of immigrants,” Rihanna told the reporter. “The fact that his defense was talking about Europeans coming into America? I mean, not only were you immigrants, you were the worst kind. You came in and murdered the real Americans.”
Asked what she would say to young immigrants living under Trump, she said: “What do you say? What can you say? It’s gonna get better? I almost feel sick to my stomach. I don’t even believe this is happening in real life. In front of my eyes. In front of the world. It’s not even hidden. This is blatant.”
Unsurprisingly, Rihanna is also proud of where she came from. She regularly marks Barbados’s Independence Day on social media with messages such as “love you Barbados – best place in the world to be” and “blessed to be from Paradise!”
Much of her philanthropy has likewise focused on Barbados and the Caribbean, including the US territory of Puerto Rico. Through a charity called the Clara Lionel Foundation (named after her parents Clara and Lionel Braithwaite), Rihanna has funded a cancer centre in Barbados as well as numerous education, hurricane relief, and climate resilience programmes.
A business empire that upended the beauty industry
So far we’ve talked mostly about Rihanna’s involvement in conventional politics: parties, presidents, elections and national governments. But in many ways, her most significant political impact has been in the make-up industry, affecting how millions of women go about their everyday lives.
Rihanna launched Fenty Beauty in 2017, at the age of 29, reportedly after working with her team for more than two years to perfect its debut products. At the time, make-up brands typically offered around a dozen shades of foundation, leaving many women of colour perpetually frustrated in their search for products that actually matched their skin tone.
Fenty opened with 40 shades, and the reaction was explosive.
“To say that Fenty completely changed the beauty industry is no exaggeration,” wrote veteran beauty journalist Funmi Fetto in 2020.
“Even as a beauty editor, for so long the only person of colour at press launches, I remember the burn of shame I would feel at foundation launches where there were no shades for me… this was the landscape for many years.”
Lighter-skinned people also benefited, including a Black woman with albinism who said it was the first time she had ever been able to find a foundation that suited her.
“Some are finding their shade of foundation for the first time, getting emotional at the counter,” Rihanna told TIME magazine. “That’s something I will never get over.”
Other companies were forced to follow suit, making 40 shades the standard –a phenomenon since dubbed “the Fenty effect”. In a world where women are still under significant pressure to meet conventional beauty norms, such as at work and in job interviews, that is no small change.
According to Forbes, Fenty Beauty – as well as 30 per cent stake in her lingerie line, Savage X Fenty – has put Rihanna’s net worth at around $1.4 billion as of January 2023, placing her above Jay-Z as one of the richest musicians in the world.
Johnny Depp appears in Savage x Fenty show
Still, her commercial empire has not been free from controversy. In November 2022, following Johnny Depp’s successful defamation lawsuit against his ex-wife Amber Heard over accusations of domestic abuse, the singer cast the actor in the annual runway show for her lingerie brand Savage X Fenty, drawing confusion and criticism from pundits.
A Virginia jury agreed that Heard had defamed the Pirates of the Caribbean and Fantastic Beasts star by describing herself as a victim of abuse in a 2018 op-ed, having previously accused him of domestic violence two years earlier.
Yet many feminists disagreed with the verdict, arguing that it was part of a reactionary backlash against the Me Too movement. Though Depp won his case in the US, a British judge had earlier ruled that 12 out of 14 alleged incidents of domestic violence had indeed occurred, and that an article calling Depp a “wife beater” was “substantially true”.
It’s not clear how involved Rihanna was in this decision or what drove it, although Depp thanked her personally on Twitter afterwards. A source told TMZ that she and her team “invited” Depp to participate in the show and were “excited to make it happen”.
Savage X Fenty did not respond to a request for comment from The Independent.
The criticism echoes a previous furore over Rihanna’s decision in 2012 to collaborate with her former boyfriend Chris Brown, after he pled guilty to beating her while they were in a relationship in 2009.
She later told Esquire that “the amount of negative attention” had “caught [her] a little off-guard”, saying that she saw the partnership as “just music” and “completely professional”.
The Ocean’s 8 and Battleship star has likewise not yet given a rationale for her decision to work with the NFL again in 2023.
The Independent has contacted Rihanna’s representatives for comment.
‘There’s a million Rihannas out there getting treated like dirt’
These apparent inconsistencies aside, Rihanna’s comments on crises around the world suggest an internationalist political standpoint, rooted in her own status as a Black Caribbean emigrant to the US and the UK whose talents catapulted her to a very rare level of wealth and influence.
She has used her platform to draw attention to India’s censorship of the internet as it tried to crack down on massive farmers’ protests against agricultural deregulation in early 2021. She also expressed solidarity with the people of Myanmar after its military retook control of the government in a coup that same year.
In 2020, she backed widespread protests against police brutality in Nigeria, which eventually forced the country’s government to disband its infamous Special Anti-Robbery Squad. “I can’t bear to see this torture and brutalisation that is continuing to affect nations across our planet!” Rihanna said on Twitter. “It’s such a betrayal [of] the citizens – the very people put in place to protect [us] are the ones we are most afraid of being murdered by!”
Repeatedly, when asked in more detail about what drives her opinions, the star has positioned herself as just one member of marginalised groups such as women, people of colour, and the African diaspora, saying she feels called to action by a fundamental sense of sameness.
Asked in 2019 if living in London made her feel distant from US politics, she told Vogue: “I don’t feel outside the fray. When I see something happen to any woman, a woman of any minority, kids, black men being murdered in the streets – I can’t remove myself from that.”
And, at the Fenty fashion launch where she said people often “forget” that she is an immigrant, she concluded: “I think they see Rihanna the brand. But it’s important for people to remember – if you love me, everyone out here is just like me. A million Rihannas out there, getting treated like dirt.”
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