In a tiny village on the outskirts of the capital Bridgetown, a quaint domicile shelters a little girl from the tropical sun while she lays in bed dreaming. This little girl with dreams bigger than anyone can fathom runs around the house and her neighbourhood with a hairbrush as her microphone singing Whitney Houston’s songs. Fast forward – It’s approximately 15 years later, and now little girls, not only from her community and island home but from around the world, hold hair brushes in hand pretending to be her. Robyn Rihanna Fenty, Rihanna, is a global icon dominating the entertainment, cosmetic and fashion scenes. Her name is now a multibillion-dollar brand, and her rise to fame and fortune reads like a fairy tale, and as with all fairy tales, we have to start at the beginning.
Once upon a time… on February 20, 1988, on the Caribbean island of Barbados, Robyn Rihanna Fenty, was born. The eldest of three children, she grew up like any other girl from the island, running around, playing and hanging out with her two brothers at the beach. The small, close-knit neighbourhood where she grew kept her safe and allowed her to blossom under the influence of her mother (an accountant) and to a much lesser extent her father (a warehouse supervisor).
School life for Rihanna in Barbados was a good one. Charles F Broome Memorial Primary school is where she got her initial education then she went on to attend one of the most prestigious schools on the island, Combermere. Interestingly, while going to school at Combermere, she was an army cadet. The cadet program is a military program for kids in school. It was also while attending this school that her musical aspirations were materialising. In 2003 Rihanna, along with two other girls, formed a trio with ambitions to ‘make it big’ in the entertainment industry. As fate would have it, the trio landed an informal audition with American music producer, Evan Rogers while he was vacationing in Barbados. It was at that audition that the now-famous quote was coined. ” The minute Rihanna walked into the room; it was like the other two girls didn’t exist”. Clearly, Rogers was impressed by Rihanna, which led to her travelling to record a series of demos. Over the next year, Rihanna travelled back and forth between the US and Barbados recording demos and sending them off to record labels.
At age sixteen Rihanna and her mother made a decision, a challenging one for a mother of a teenage girl but for Rihanna it was easy. She emigrated to the United States of America and moved in with Rogers and his wife. Rihanna is quoted as saying, “I wanted to do what I had to do, even if it meant moving to America”. That bold move to leave everything including friends, family, and the place she called home to pursue her dreams, paid off in January of 2005. Rogers, dedicated to making Rihanna the star he believed her to be, was able to secure an audition with Jay Z who was the newly appointed president of Def Jam Records. As the story goes, Rihanna sang for the Hip Hop legend and music mogul L.A Reid. She performed the demo version of ‘Pon De Replay’ along with two other songs. Both gentlemen were wowed not only by her vocal ability but by her commanding presence and dedication. So impressed was Reid that he told Jay – Z not to let her leave until “a deal was done” – They finished at 3 am, 12 hrs later.
After that legendary meeting, the name Rihanna was about to be on everyone’s lips. She transitioned from the unknown island girl from Barbados to the girl everyone wanted to know about.
In August 2005, seven months after signing for Def Jam, her debut album was released – Music of the Sun. Prior to its release the single ‘Pon De Replay’ debuted and was an instant success, reaching number 2 on the Billboard singles chart, while the album peaked at number 10 on the album charts. With one hit song and an album in the bag, Rihanna and her team continued to work, and her second album ‘Girl Like Me’ was released. The second was even better than the first and two major hit singles, ‘Unfaithful’ and ‘SOS’. ‘SOS’ subsequently became her first number one record and Rihanna had arrived! From there she released one album each year until 2016. Along the way, she became the 1st Barbadian to win a Grammy award with her mega-hit ‘Umbrella’ in 2008. By the end of 2016, she was one of the music industry’s most successful artists and a global icon, selling more than 250 million records worldwide. Smashing records and winning awards and making history.
● 9 Grammy Awards, 33 Nominations
● 12 Billboard Music Awards
● 13 American Music Awards
● 8 People’s Choice Awards
● 2013 American Music ‘Icon Award’
● Michael Jackson Vanguard Award
● 7 MTV Awards
● Guinness World Record for most digital sales- over 58 million
● NAACP President’s Award
● The only artist to have scored five #1 songs in a calendar year on the Dance Club Songs Chart.
● 31 Top 10 Hits on the Billboard Hot 100
● World’s Richest Female Musician with a Net Worth of $600 Million by 2020
● Appointed Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of Barbados
● In 2017 the location of her original residence was renamed Rihanna Drive.
● First Black Woman to Head a LVMH Fashion House
● Harvard University- Humanitarian of the Year, 2017
“If we have been blessed with talents, wealth, knowledge, time, and the like, it is expected that it benefits others” The biblical words taken from the book of Luke aptly describe Rihanna’s philanthropic mission. In 2012 Rihanna launched her charity, The Clara Lionel Foundation. Named in honour of her grandparents Clara and Lionel Braithwaite, the foundation’s mission is to provide access to proper education and development of health, arts, and culture, as well as to contribute to emergency response programs around the world. It also involves global advocacy with the goal of improving the quality of life for younger people. The Foundation has grown tremendously since then, donating millions of dollars to various causes including the establishment of the Clara Braithwaite Center for Oncology and Nuclear Medicine at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Barbados. Also of note in her charitable endeavours is the Diamond Ball, an annual charitable event which attracts the who is who in the entertainment arena. In 2019 the Ball raised over five million dollars to support the work of her Clara Lionel Foundation.
It is difficult to fathom that in the span of just a few years, Rihanna has not only accomplished and given so much, but her impact on the musical and entertainment landscape is almost legendary. However, it goes beyond those two realms. Her dominance in the cosmetic and fashion industry has redefined beauty and the promotion of diversity. Her brand, Fenty and her name Rihanna represent a social revolution that being different is ok. She has not released an album since 2016, yet her iconic dominance is unmatched and demonstrates the power she holds and the depth of her legacy.
Nevertheless, Rihanna, the star, the beauty mogul, the wealthiest female musician in the world, is still the darling of her home country of Barbados. Home to her is a special place, and the Barbadian people have a special place in their hearts for her. No price tag can be placed on the global exposure Rihanna has afforded Barbados. The island has benefitted from tremendous exposure almost simultaneously with the rise of her stardom. Already a hot pot for the rich and famous it has notably become even more so, especially during the island’s summer festival, Crop Over. Naturally, Rihanna tries to make it a must to return adorned in her costume to be a part of the festivities.
At 31 years old to say the sky’s the limit for Rihanna is not enough. She has accomplished so much and impacted so many lives in such a short period of time, yet it seems like she has so much left to accomplish. Her story is one of hope and one that demonstrates dreams do come through. The little girl from Barbados who played in her neighbourhood of Westbury now has the street where she annoyed neighbours singing Whitney and Madonna’s songs named after her. It reads like a fairy tale, and the story is still to be continued…