It would have been easier for a then nineteen-year-old Rihanna to continue down the Janet Jackson lane of razor-sharp, step-by-perfect-step choreography combined with a sultrier sex appeal, as her often compared R&B contemporaries Beyoncé and Ciara have done. And there’s no denying the impact Ms. Janet-If-You’re-Nasty has made on the earlier sprinkles of Rihanna’s career -- after all, Janet Jackson was one of the first torch bearers for black female empowerment in MTV era pop; an alternative on equal footing to Madonna. But Rihanna's ambitious pining for a Madonna-level success required laser focus and unconventional risk taking.
In order for one to accomplish being a Madonna, she has to be a Queen of Pop, matching the original’s sales and records. She has to understand the importance of evolving musically and aesthetically with each project -- and even those changes need to be clearly distinct, generate conversations about society’s latest taboos, and read as authentic. A Madonna has to assume the role of a commander standing at the frontlines for womanhood and the controversial complexities of human sexuality, despite the inevitable backlash to ensue. She has to be a trend-setter and muse for producers and songwriters, fashion designers and Hollywood directors alike. She has to be outspoken with her best intentions at heart, and every time she speaks everyone has to pay attention (even if they dislike what she says or don’t want to acknowledge it). Most importantly, a Madonna has to be a role model -- especially when nobody, even herself, would actually think to describe her as one.
This year, Katy Perry recognized Beyoncé as “our modern-day Michael Jackson.” If we’re analyzing careers of today’s pop stars based on the trajectory of previous generations, then Rihanna’s trailblazing in music, fashion, visual media, and philanthropy sets her as the Madge to Bey’s MJ. Modify Madonna’s name with “black,” and now we’re truly describing "a living, breathing legend" of Caribbean descent, who manages to be a trusted crusader for the black culture, ready to broadcast to the world the issues existing within the community. In the ten years since Good Girl Gone Bad’s release, Rihanna has done more than just fit that role, she’s surpassed it to establish her own iconicity.
Here's how Rihanna finessed her way into such a supremely influential role in today's music scene and pop culture.
The Black Madonna of Recorded Music
The beauty of Rihanna as the “Black Madonna of Music” is her ability to hop around genres, effortlessly waltzing from one scene to another. It's practically impossible to find a genre that RiRi hasn’t owned: EDM, pop, doo-wop soul, hip-hop, country, and hard rock, just to name a few. There’ve been countless times where black artists have been pigeonholed to the "urban" lanes of hip-hop and R&B, mainly because of those genres’ black-dominated roots. Rihanna has managed to be that scene’s leader (especially in this digital era) -- she didn’t earn the title of “Princess of Hip-Hop & R&B” for nothing -- while also defying categorizations and expectations with 14 Hot 100 No. 1’s (besting Madonna’s 12), 30 top ten hits (only eight behind the Material Girl’s record), and two summit-reaching LPs on the Billboard 200.
Her keen awareness for musical trends around the world -- including the dancehall of& her native Barbados -- has constantly shifted the shape of American music. For instance, Good Girlsuccessor, Rated R (2009) -- a potpourri of genres in itself -- features production from dubstep producers such as London’s Chase & Status. Rihanna’s dabbling with the bass heavy techno sounds of dubstep on “Wait Your Turn” and “Rockstar 101” ushered in a wave of dub-pop hits ;including Britney Spears’ “Hold It Against Me” (2011) and Taylor Swift’s “I Knew You Were Trouble” (2012).
Meanwhile, 2012’s Unapologetic aided the rise of Future-centric trap&B before Beyoncé was “Drunk In Love” (2013) or feeling “7/11” (2014). And with the infectious success of her No. 2 peaking debut single “Pon De Replay,” (2005) and multi-week No. 1s “Rude Boy” (2010) and “Work” (2016), Rihanna’s transformed into a "Dancehall Queen" -- with Drake, Sia, and Justin Bieber all owing a debt of gratitude for their own Caribbean-flavored Hot 100-toppers.
Like Madonna, Rihanna also exceeds at unapologetically pushing the envelope with her music’s lyrical and thematic content -- she’s a storyteller for those lacking a voice and an instructor for those a little curious. The upbeat spontaneity of Ri’s AOTY-nominated Loud (2010), as well as the candidness of its follow up Talk That Talk (2011) matches the sexual liberation exhibited on a pair of Madge's '92 releases, her controversial Sex book and the boundary-pushing Erotica album. Known for answering critics through song, the Bad Gal responded to Juicy J’s “Bandz A Make Her Dance” with “Pour It Up” (2012), making for one of the first instances where a stripper’s money-minded consciousness was delivered from a feminine point of view, in a world often afflicted with misogynistic framing and the male gaze.
This all led up to the empowering allure of her magnum opus Anti (2016), which worked as a glitchy love letter representing the heartbroken still capable of living their life to the fullest (with or without a significant other). The album’s lead single “Work” -- a song masterfully incorporating double-entendres while subtly delivering a “Chained To The Rhythm”-esque message about the monotony of society’s daily routines -- was frank in emphasizing Ri’s patois and dancehall club culture, to the dismay of the culturally ignorant.
The commercial progression of Anti -- the first LP to be released on Rihanna's imprint Westbury Road Entertainment -- is an interesting tale of its own. It's an album that critics struggled to grasp at first, NPR calling it a "cultural resistance." The record still managed to go platinum in less than two days thanks to a Samsung giveaway to her fans. And it provided five platinum singles -- one of them being a bonus track -- and two more top 10 hits. Yet despite these feats, Chance The Rapper felt compelled to tweet "Rihanna's Anti is underrated. Don't @ me.," after many felt the album was snubbed of an album of the year nomination at the 2017 Grammys. Instead, her viral flask drinking moments fittingly stole the show -- serving as a symbolic victory party for an album that fulfilled its wish of being timeless.
The Black Madonna of Music Videos
Having to push past the label of “quintessential island girl from the Barbados" dancing to riddims in front of her country's trident, Rihanna made her “black Madonna” claim when referring to her music videos’ aesthetics. The visual for “Umbrella” was the first to accomplish an edgy, sexier look for the singer -- her posing in silver body paint serving as an homage to Madonna’s look in 1992’s “Fever”. Nine years after “Umbrella” won the first of Ri’s two video of the year moonmen at the MTV VMAs, she’d be honored with the prestigious Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award. Tellingly, Madge was the first female to receive that honor 20 years prior, in 1986.
Both ladies’ videos are embellished by elaborate costume choices, provocative dance moves, and timely political messages. For Madonna, one of her most memorable looks is the cone bra in “Vogue,” which was subsequently reinvented multiple times in pop, Rihanna’s bejeweled pasty bra (paired with a denim g-string and curly blonde Marilyn Monroe wig) in “Pour It Up” being one of the more flattering imitations. Rihanna has spearheaded the popularization, and subsequent reclamation, of black culture phenomena in her videos, including twerking. In true Madonna fashion, Rihanna’s also managed to get banned in multiple countries for conjuring up latex and bondage in tabloid-engaging “S&M,” and courted enough controversy with the rape-avenging plot line of “Man Down” that Gabrielle Union was spurred to stand up in her defense.
Throughout her videography, Rihanna has proven her ability to transform with chameleonic results. Her pop-rock/glam looks offered in “Shut Up And Drive” completely contrast the fiery red Caribbean prowess of “What’s My Name,” which appears stark in comparison to the blonde Clockwork Orange stoner portrayed in “You Da One”. Over time, Rihanna’s upped the ante on her art form, offering short cinematic stunners for her other video of the year Moonman recipient, the Melina Matsoukas-directed “We Found Love” (highlighting a dark part of her past), and the NSFW murder-revenge of “Bitch Better Have My Money”. It’s no wonder Rihanna is the most viewed woman on YouTube, as 28 of her account's videos have all amassed over 100 million views each -- “Diamonds” being her most watched at over 1 billion (the Eminem-duet "Love The Way You Lie" and the Calvin Harris-orchestrated "This Is What You Came For" also surpassing the billion-count).
The Black Madonna of Fashion
From her jet black bob to a show-stopping Chinese Imperial robe-gown which took two years to design, to denim thigh high Manolo Blahnik boots attached to a belt -- as one of fashion's latest trailblazing clothing and jewelry designers, perfume and accessories moguls, and style mavens -- Rihanna has always amazed from head to toe with her daring fashion choices and creations, earning respect from the elite.
While Madonna has chopped her signature locks multiple times, she’s been dusted by her pupil, who's known for stepping out with a different colored hairdo practically every week. This in itself is symbolic of the importance hair has in the black community: When Rihanna accepted her Icon Award at the 2013 American Music Awards, her doobie wrap and bobby pin hairstyle caused an uproar, but signified a shift in perspective on a traditionally, heavily criticized look. Rihanna’s pro-black hair narrative was only strengthened with the promo photos and appearances for ANTi, including bantu knots and dreadlocks -- during an oversaturated period of white artists and celebrities sporting the styles, as they were accused of appropriating.
Whenever she steps on the red carpet or struts on the streets, Rihanna pauses the known universe with glamour and sporty authenticity. A powerful statement that Rihanna has made amidst her modeling of oversized garments and colorful gowns was her outfit choice for the 2014 CFDA ceremony: In the thick of the #FreeTheNipple campaign (Instagram's accidental ban of @badgalriri for her topless Lui magazine cover adding to the fight) and the emergence of #BlackGirlMagic (a movement celebrating black women), she opted to accept her Fashion Icon award in a Swarovski crystal Adam Selman gown, exposing her areolas and flaunting her flawless curves, an homage to the style of Josephine Baker.
With her creative director role for Puma and occasional collabs with acclaimed shoe designer Manolo Blahnik, Rihanna has brought swag to the sneakers', heels' and sandals' game. Jelly sliders from childhood, Fenty Puma sneakers with a satin bow, and the platformed Creepers are simply a taste of the footwear offered by the superstar. Her Savage collection for Blahnik consists of Fallon booties, a revamp of the designer’s Pop Culture staple the Manolo Blahnik Timbs, an essential heel for the rhythmic divas of the aughts. None of this is too far of a reach from her idol, who came out with her own Truth or Dare shoeline in 2012.
The Black Madonna of Visual and Social Media
As one of the most followed individuals on Twitter and Instagram, Rihanna has turned her social media platforms into a vision board for top execs in Hollywood. All it took was a viral photo and fantasized plotline of the star and Oscar-winner Lupita Nyong’o at a fashion show for Black Twitter to convince Ava DuVernay to direct, Issa Rae to screenwrite, and Netflix to order a film starring the two. This attests to the clout Rihanna’s developed as an actress -- her upcoming role in the all-female ensemble Ocean’s 8 alongside the likes Sandra Bullock, Cate Blanchett, and Anne Hathaway reminiscent of Madonna’s draw in female-centric films of the 80’s, like the cult-classic comedy Desperately Seeking Susan.
On her acting, Bates Motel executive producer Carlton Cuse said, “[Rihanna] has enormous charisma. I think it’s no accident that any number of singers have successfully transitioned into acting. Among my personal favorites are Barbra Streisand and Frank Sinatra.” The entertainer managed to add her @badgalriri charm to Marion Crane, transforming Janet Leigh’s iconic Psycho character into a modern-day badass and independent woman who actually managed to escape her fatal destiny.
But the most compelling visual media moment from the black Madonna is when she shared an Instagram pic of a young girl smiling next to a poster of Tip, an adventurous little girl Rihanna voiced over in 2015's animated film Home. She captioned the post “why we do this,” as the girl was proud to be standing next to a character that looked identical to her, a rare experience for most black children growing up on Hollywood films.
The Black Madonna of Philanthropy
Rihanna has always been reluctant to be seen as a role model -- granted, the hesitancy largely stemmed from critics judging the star’s personal life, including a controversial rekindled romance with Chris Brown. As the icon grew older and wiser, she’s given back. From her VIVA Mac Glam lipstick line helping to benefit the MAC Aids Fund to her annual Diamond Ball fundraiser for the Clara Lionel Foundation -- an organization named after her grandparents to support underprivileged communities in health, education and art -- Rihanna's charitable efforts hit close to Madonna's early AIDS research efforts and ties to organizations such as UNICEF.
As she received the Humanitarian of the Year Award at Harvard University, RiRI reflected "I would say to myself, 'When I grow up and I get rich, I'm gonna save kids all over the world.' I just didn't know I would be in a position to do that by the time I was a teenager," this year.
Rihanna finally admitting to being a role model while receiving honors at the 2016 Black Girls Rock!, bringing everything full circle. The moment felt like it belonged to a black Madonna, who's proven that she can defy odds like her idol. That night she expressed, "Tonight is so important to me because I think I can inspire a lot of young women to be themselves and that is half the battle... That is it. Just be yourself, it's the easiest thing to be. All girls rock. Black girls, we just on another level."
In other words, all black women are capable of being trailblazing rock stars, who manage to play by their own rules and cross over the borderline of societal barriers.