How Rihanna is Making ‘Single’ Cool Again for Black Women

When Rihanna dropped the double feature music video for her new single “Work” featuring Drake, one of our awesome columnists wrote a great piece about how the video was a prime example of Rihanna’s embodiment of female autonomy. Rihanna used this video as an opportunity to operate beyond a masculine gaze and literally “work” her body for her own pleasure and joy. It’s something that Rihanna does effortlessly and often. It’s why I “love/adore/volunteer my edges” to her, to use Jacqui’s own words. But I want to be even more specific about one of the ways I see Rihanna giving life and snatching wigs in the name of Black female sexuality: her unapologetic singleness.

There have been very meaningful conversations about the way Beyoncé’s public adherence to heteronormative sexuality not only contributes to her overall popularity, but gives her the “permission” to incorporate sexuality into her music and performances. In other words, we’re more comfortable with Beyoncé’s riddles about pink being the flavor or her sitting this “aaaaaasssss on ya” when we know that her husband is the recipient of those affections. By privately dating, then marrying, then having a baby with Jay-Z, Beyoncé followed the scripts of respectability that are consistently used to police Black women’s sexuality. Nicki Minaj was in a long term relationship with a man, Safaree, before she rebounded began dating rapper Meek Mill. While she remains unmarried, Minaj has made it clear that marriage is an important goal for her. Minaj and Bey have publicly aligned their womanhood with perpetual partnership, something that sets them from the youngest member of the “Holy Trinity”, Bad Gal Rih Rih.

I don’t think that marriage, or an interest in it, invalidates anyone’s ability to be feminist or challenge sexism. But context is important. Assumptions that single women are constantly looking for relationships or are otherwise tragic lonely creatures are pretty pervasive in a culture that consistently prioritizes romantic and sexual relationships over pretty much all other kinds. But for Black women, “single” has become it’s own beast of a bad word; and it is precisely because Black women’s sexualities are so heavily policed, especially within our own communities. “That’s why your ass is single” is one of the most hurtful things you can say to Black girls and women who find themselves single despite believing the messages that they aren’t fully woman or human unless they have a partner. We’re called hoes for expressing even a slither of sexuality that falls outside the realm of marriage, or at least, romantic love. It’s made painfully clear that outside of a relationship, sexuality should be a part of Black women that is shut down and put on hiatus.  We are either wifey’s and girlfriends or we are thots. Rihanna’s work as a Black woman who takes up space outside of the “path to marriage” narrative matters.

Rihanna has been single ever since her public split with Chris Brown. She has certainly been linked to several other suitors spanning the gamut of celebrity status: Travis Scott, Leonardo Dicaprio, Drake, several athletes, and she even dipped a toe back into the Chris Brown waters for a bit. Rihanna’s “dating” history infuses reality into what is only implied in her songs, videos, and performances: I am single and I am still connected to my sexuality. I would argue that in some ways it’s Rihanna’s status as a “single and dating” Black woman that contribute to her reputation as a rebel (and sometimes a thot, but she – unlike most Black girls – has the material and social capital to neutralize the impact of these accusations). An attractive Black woman on a multi-year hiatus from romantic relationships must be rebelling, after all. But one of the things that Rihanna’s last body of work, ANTI, does is illuminate the complex, but commonplace, practices and scenarios that single Black women learn to navigate – one of which is constantly having to challenge the notion that they are only interested in “happily ever after”.  For example, in “Needed Me” she says to a lover scorned by her detachment: “Didn’t they tell you that I was a savage? Fuck your white horse and a carriage. But you never could imagine.” 

I found myself belting out so many ‘YAAAAAASS’s while listening to the album that I was surprised. But the truth is I hadn’t even realized how pertinent these ideas were in my own life until, after years of being single, my partner and I made our relationship official a couple of months ago. I realized how much safer and relaxed I felt in conversations about sexuality. I found myself at ease, not having to explain myself or my politics as thoroughly. All of a sudden, whatever I had to say was “good enough” because I’m someone’s girlfriend. So I have to thank Rihanna for modeling what single and unbothered can look like for Black girls.

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Feministing's resident "sexpert", Sesali is a published writer and professional shit talker. She is a queer Black girl, fat girl, and trainer. She was the former Training Director at the United States Student Association and later a member of the Youth Organizing team at Planned Parenthood Federation of America. She received her bachelors in Women's and Gender Studies from Depaul University in 2012 and is currently pursuing a master's in Women's, Gender, and Sexuality studies at Georgia State University in Atlanta. A self identified "trap" feminist, and trained with a reproductive justice background, her interests include the intersections of feminism and: pop culture, youth culture, social media, hip hop, girlhood, sexuality, race, gender, and Beyonce. Sesali joined the team in 2010 as one of the winners of our So You Think You Can Blog contest.

is Feministing's resident sexpert and cynic.

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