The year is 2005, and my big cousin has just picked me up from school. As usual, she’s playing a CD mix one of her DJ friends made—some Sean Paul, some Vybz Kartel, a little T-Pain. The next track starts—Come Mr. DJ, song pon de replay… “I think this is the Bajan girl that got signed to that American record company, you know,” she says excitedly. And as the song goes, she turns the music up.
As someone born and raised in Barbados, I often think about how surreal it is to have witnessed Robyn “Rihanna” Fenty’s meteoric rise in real time. I think it’s fair to say that as a country, we weren’t really sure what to expect. The story of how a young Bajan girl walked in a room, charmed big time record execs, and was jetted off to the U.S. to become a star has become part of the island’s mythology. And because it was something we’d never seen before, we could only hold our collective breaths; watch and wait.
Of course, there were skeptics. After all, things like that simply don’t happen to girls from a place like Barbados. An island half the size of New York City, with less than 300,000 people? And yet, with every number one hit, every clapback on Twitter, and every Met Gala moment, Rihanna continued to defy the odds and solidify her stardom.
I won’t go too much into her many accolades—self-made billionaire, megastar, philanthropist, visionary, fashion killer, and as of November 2021, Barbados’ 11th national hero, because we’ve all seen what she’s capable of. Her Halftime Show performance was destined to make history even before she stepped on stage, because that’s simply what she does.
To the world, she’s a mogul, an icon, and most importantly, a vibe. For us in Barbados, her impact is a little different. It’s quieter, more subtle but deeper than you could imagine. When the world saw her dancing through the streets in beads and feathers, we saw our beloved Crop Over festival finally being covered by every major media outlet. When J. Cole’s “Can’t Get Enough” music video dropped, the world bopped. But in Barbados? We saw our everyday rum shops and our beautiful beaches being played on BET. The world might have been there to witness the launch of Fenty Skin, but what we saw was the Bajan Cherry listed as an ingredient.
These things might seem small, and perhaps they are, but as a very small island, it meant the world. Because when you’re 21 miles long and 14 miles wide, you just aren’t used to seeing yourself represented so significantly. Rihanna’s impact certainly transcends borders, but it’s concentrated in a very special way in the Caribbean. After all, we are a region of nations not very far removed from the tragedy of slavery and the exploitation of colonialism. This means that in large part, we haven’t had much time to define ourselves, for ourselves, by ourselves. And in Barbados, through no fault of our own, it hasn’t always been easy to articulate exactly who we are.
When Rihanna steps on the world stage, it feels like a mirror, reflecting the best of us. Our tenacity, our warmth, our vibrance, our pace—because make no mistake, there will be no new album until Rihanna is good and ready, because there’s simply no rushing a Caribbean woman. When she showcases the potential of a very small region, one often overlooked and underestimated, it doesn’t just show the world what the Caribbean is capable of, it shows us as well.
I watched the Run This Town Haltime Show promo on the corner of 118th and Amsterdam in the middle of a New York winter. And last night, I watched Rihanna mesmerize audiences around the world with her performance at a bar in D.C. Each time I stood transfixed, watching that girl from Westbury Road do what she does best—make history (or perhaps histoRih). I felt the weight of my country; I know we were all collectively holding our breath and beaming with profound pride.
Rihanna is a moment that we might never experience again. And most beautifully, she’s never forgotten her roots. Rihanna has made it clear to us, and the rest of the world, that no matter how far she goes, she’s taking the Caribbean with her.
The truth is the Caribbean has the odds stacked against it; our size, our vulnerabilities, our fragmented histories have all made our progress challenging, to say the least. But Rihanna reminds us that we are more than the hand we’ve been dealt. And though her story is larger than just the collective of islands, it feels as though it has been written especially for us. And we carry it in our hearts, whether we realize it or not.
Ultimately, I think it’s not so much about what Rihanna has done, but about how she’s made us feel — Barbadians, Caribbean people, immigrants, Black women, those of us who could never find their makeup shade or seen ourselves represented on runways. And I believe it is precisely because she is from such a tiny place, that she constantly keeps herself oriented to those of us who have often been too small to be noticed.
The Big Game was just another chapter. After all, Rihanna has written her name on history’s page many times, with many more to come. Thankfully, she’s brought us all along for the ride. And so, to that little girl from the left side of an island with very big dreams, the hometown hero—thank you. You mean more to us than you could ever know.