Sister Nancy. You've probably heard her song, "Bam Bam", during that cute Reebok commercial, or, if you grew up in a West Indian house, heard it at many BBQs. But while you're swaying to the iconic phrase "what a bam bam" over and over again, you're most likely not thinking about the short sermon Sister Nancy is sharing. Sister Nancy is talking about being a woman in a male dominated space. She is talking ambition, independence and expression in the best way possible — over a beat that makes you want to slow whine.
I remember rolling my hips to women like Sister Nancy and Lady Saw, and remembering years later that those lyrics encouraged me to be confident, take ownership of my body and not pay attention to everyone with an opinion.
Simply put, these artists shared with women listeners, like myself, how to be a “bad gyal”, a term used in the West Indian community. And no, this just isn’t Rihanna’s screen name. So now when you see Rihanna serving us face after face and donning a purple Kanekalon ponytail, you are actually seeing a version of womanism personified.
But how does one define a “bad gyal"?
Bad gyal: an adjective or noun referring to a woman who embodies confidence and sexual freedom, and challenges how society thinks a woman should act. She is marked by individuality and is often known to dress well.
And yes, "by the book" feminists may drag me to no end, but womanism is about women of color. And yes, that means this isn’t about all women. This is about the complex and multi-layered experience of black women, like Rihanna, who are trailblazers of the radical idea that black women’s liberation is as unique as the individual.
That means that a bad gyal isn’t shy about who she is, and lives unapologetically. Similar to her predecessors, the bajan popstar, Rihanna Robyn Fenty, pays homage to the rough, and slick lyrics of Caribbean female artists and, of course, all of the attitude.
Whether it is shamelessly celebrating her culture at Crop Over (a festival celebrating Caribbean culture, with roots reaching back to the colonial period), rolling joints, baring all while being honored as a style icon or twirling her ponytail as she accepted an award at Harvard for her humanitarian work, Rihanna makes it clear that she is not here for any of your judgment. At the Black Girl’s Rock awards ceremony last year, she even joked about being called a “role model”, because, as she explained, being herself is the only thing she knows how to do.
Never mind the labels.
Being a bad gyal womanist also doesn't mean boldly declaring your political views or explicitly stating you’re a feminist, just to be down for the cause. In her popular single, “Work,” Rihanna flaunts her style and whining skills to a dancehall rhythm, but probing deeper, the catchy lyrics and dance beats hold surprisingly more weight.
In a genre once dominated by men, RiRi mirrors the women who paved the way for female voices in dancehall music. It wouldn’t be fair to reference a Rihanna without women in dancehall like Lady Saw, who became known as the female voice of the genre. Saw said to The Believer Magazine, “I became known as someone who spoke for women, who was always defending them.” While Rihanna isn't necessarily “defending” women with her lyrics, she is empowering them by example. That is the epitome of a bad gyal womanist: We don’t get to define her, label her and we’re left guessing at what she will do next.
This year, she also posted stylish pictures at the Women’s March in DC, cat claws and all. Again, we never really have to question if she’s about empowerment, but we damn sure don’t get to tell her what that means.
Be unafraid to get vulnerable.
A bad gyal is also complex. Rihanna is the same woman who sings about cocking her gun in “Man Down”, but also becomes vulnerable when talking about her love for her family, and the broken relationship with ex-lover (and longtime friend), Chris Brown. What Rihanna showed us during the turbulent time in her life with Brown, was that it was ok to be vulnerable. We heard songs from her like “Stay”, “Photographs” and even “Higher”, telling us that love can make you look a fool sometimes, but that it's OK.
Own your mistakes.
I don’t condone Brown’s actions or the idea that domestic violence in “certain” instances is acceptable, but Rihanna’s decision to revisit their relationship and even record a song with Chris Brown, speaks to this controversial identity. A bad gyal makes mistakes, but they’re her own to grow from. While many of us criticized Rihanna, and even tried to make her an example to other women, again, she made her choice.
Your sexuality is yours, use it!
Rihanna told us in “Needed Me” that she was a savage. But were we listening?
I mean, have we not seen Drake completely embarrass himself over her? Have we not witnessed whole love triangles crumble with Rihanna rising from the dust in Manolo Blahnik boots and a new tune? Savage indeed.
Sex appeal is what bad gyals like Rihanna thrive on. Again, traditional feminists may not agree, or they might even say that this is another blanket stereotype used to promote static images that disempower black women. However, a bad gyal lives in her truth, and that is where her power lies. Rihanna always gives her fans the carefree, sexual lyrics we all expect, but aside from her image, her sexuality is like her super power. If we are giving props to women like Kim Kardashian, Rihanna is long overdue because she has also used her sexuality to become an icon. While people speculate and try to shame her, they are ignoring a basic lesson in womanism: women are sexual beings and that should be acknowledged and celebrated, not policed.
So when you hear a Rihanna song, you’re not just indulging or living in the moment on the dance floor, you're also celebrating another woman being her true self. Even if you aren’t a bad gyal like RiRi, with every album, award show and post on Instagram, she is demonstrating how you too can embrace who you are and own it. And according to Rihanna, “that’s half the battle.”