Rihanna Works Her Multivocal Pop Persona: Morpho-syntactic and Accent Variation in Rihanna’s Singing Style
Based on an article in English Today
Pop music surpasses national and linguistic boundaries. It creates a marketplace of various linguistic resources that artists use in their music performances to create their pop personas. Performers are mobile, transnational linguistic agents. They do not only physically travel worldwide and spread their multivocality, but their products are distributed and consumed internationally via a multitude of media channels. They transport mobile standard and non-standard varieties into new spaces and make them accessible to a broad audience.
Rihanna is a globally successful artist with Caribbean roots who combines different musical styles (R’n’B, hip-hop, reggae, pop) and the performance codes associated with these genres (African American English, Jamaican Creole, Standard American English). Her single “Work” stirred up attention: it was praised for displaying her Barbadian heritage, others dismissed it as lyrical gibberish. Intrigued by this intensified media coverage, we became interested in how Rihanna works her multivocal pop persona in this single. We conducted a morpho-syntactic analysis of the lyrics and investigated the accent of Rihanna’s singing style in this song to discover how she combines different linguistic resources. Furthermore, we analyzed an accompanying music video to show how Rihanna visually represents her pop persona.
The morpho-syntactic analysis shows that Rihanna uses numerous features typical of Caribbean English Creoles: for example, the personal pronoun me and him in subject position (me na care if him hurt), copula absence and negator na (you na righteous), modal auxiliary hafi and quotative se (he se me hafi work). While almost all of these features are shared by most Caribbean English Creoles, including Bajan, which is the local vernacular of Rihanna’s home country Barbados, all of them are typical of Jamaican Creole. Jamaican Creole is the most well-known Caribbean Creole and has spread globally through reggae and dancehall. Moreover, some of the features, such as copula absence, are also typical of African American English. However, large parts of the lyrics, especially the second and third verse, are dominated by Standard English grammar.
The accent analysis corroborates that Rihanna combines diverse linguistic influences: her accent is marked by several features typical of Caribbean Englishes/Creoles (e.g. face monophthongs, TH-stopping) and particularly in the chorus she has a distinctly Bajan accent, marked by a high degree of nasalization, under-articulation of consonants, and rhoticity. Besides the Bajan chorus, all features are typical of Jamaican Creole. Some of these Caribbean features are shared with African American English but there are no exclusive accent features for this variety. However, the single “Work” also includes passages where Rihanna uses a Standard American English accent, particularly in the second and third verse.
This combination of different linguistic resources is not random but patterns with the mode of the performance: the Caribbean accent and morpho-syntactic features occur most consistently in the chorus and the first verse. Rihanna uses her Caribbean voice mainly when speaking/rapping. In contrast, her singing style in the last two verses it marked by Standard English morpho-syntax and a Standard American English accent.
The music video of “Work” demonstrates that the Caribbeanness of the music performance is reinforced through visual modalities in an exoticizing and commodifying way. It portrays a dancehall event, where Rihanna is staged as a dancehall queen, and employs an abundance of stereotypical Caribbean images (e.g. Caribbean beer brands, dancehall dance moves, or the pan-African colors red, green, and black).
Our multimodal analysis shows that Rihanna mixes different linguistic and cultural identities to underline and express her multivocal pop music persona in her single “Work”. She mainly combines Standard (American) English with Caribbean Englishes/Creoles but relies strongly on Jamaican Creole and Jamaican dancehall images to perform her Caribbeanness. African American English is another potential resource for Rihanna’s hybrid persona, but it is not saliently displayed in “Work”.
Through such multivocal performances as in “Work”, Rihanna is a global transporter of diverse varieties of English. This playful mix of features is not only a display of her multifaceted and multivocal identity, but it gives insight into language-ideological processes within the global dynamics of English. Pop culture provides rich data for investigations of global Englishes as different varieties of English meet and interact at a high density.
Link to video:
Link to annotated lyrics: