When Rihanna’s single ‘Work’ from her new album ANTI dropped about 2 weeks ago, I was amazed by both the lyrical depth and danceability of the song. Imagine my surprise when Twitter and Facebook exploded with comments about the song being in ‘gibberish’. For the record, I am Jamaican so I understood every word of the song, not realizing that many listeners would actually find her lyrics unintelligible. Of course, there is a pretty established practice among black artists who have Caribbean roots using patois or creole in music geared toward an English-speaking audience. Nicki Minaj uses a version of Jamaican Patois in songs like ‘Trini Dem Gyal’ and her feature in Busta Rhymes’ #TWERKIT.
According to Merriam Webster, patois is defined as “a form of a language that is spoken only in a particular area and that is different from the main form of the same language”, while a creole can be considered a language that has developed from a pidgin (i.e. a simplified language used by non-native speakers) which children have adopted as their first language after birth. Creole languages are also accompanied by a fully developed vocabulary and system of grammar. What we call patois in the Caribbean can usually also be considered a creole, and the language of Jamaica in particular exists as both a patois and a creole.
Interestingly, neither Rihanna nor Nicki Minaj identify as Jamaican, but some might say that Jamaican patois is the most well-known and accessible patois of the English-speaking Caribbean, which is why they and other artists usually choose to use it rather than speaking in what would rightfully be Bajan or Trini patois. I was also struck by the amount of comments I saw condemning the song as meaningless. If I heard a song in a language that I don’t speak, would I immediately blame the song instead of my own lack of fluency in that language? Rihanna’s single actually talks about a person in a relationship who has realized the error of her ways in continuing to punish and blame her lover for past mistakes instead of embracing his presence in her life. She is begging for a second chance and promising not to mess things up a second time if she gets her wish. She is willing to “work, work, work, work” towards a better future for their relationship.
The elasticity and beauty of love songs in Caribbean patois is long established– artists like Beres Hammond and Gregory Isaacs are heavyweights in the genre who created careers off of sweet, honeyed lyrics describing make-ups and breakups alike. Rihanna has truly proven herself a visionary with her application of patois to the afro-futuristic rhythms of ‘Work’ and I can only hope that she has started a trend.