Popular recording artist, Rihanna, sent the media into a feeding frenzy when she was brutally beaten by her pop star boyfriend, Chris Brown, on February 8, 2009. Though convicted of two felonies and facing up to four years in prison, Rihanna forgave Chris, and the high profile couple has reunited. What was the media’s reaction? Even more frenzy. Public concerns are high for the message Rihanna is sending to today’s youth about domestic abuse and violence towards women. But I wonder, is it really any of our business what she does?
I will answer this question through the lens of the woman blues singer. The woman’s blues tradition, emerging in America in the 1920s, was highly emotional and personal. Often provocative and explicit, the genre addressed women’s sexual desires and emotional experiences with love and heart break. With the abolition of slavery, African American women gained a sense of autonomy over their bodies and sexuality. They were no longer owned by a master and could sexually engage with whom ever they chose. Women blues singers used the medium to express this new found control over their bodies.
Many women artists of the 1920s sang of physically abusive relationships with their lovers. Blues music was a way for women to break the silence about domestic abuse, bringing what was commonly perceived as a private matter into the public domain. Through the music, female victims saw abuse as a shared and social condition. Bessie Smith’s “Outside of That” tells a brutal tale of woman’s troubled and physically abusive relationship with her partner. The physical acts described in the lyrics perpetuate the concept that domestic abuse is an issue that should be publicly addressed by society.
Not all blues songs about abuse condemn the male oppressor. “Tain’t Nobody’s Bizness If I Do”, a song performed by both Billie Holiday and Bessie Smith, is about a woman who wants to live her life on her own terms. She has no care for what others believe and constantly claims her independence throughout the song. The final verse addresses the woman’s decision to not report her partner to the police after he abuses her, exclaiming it is no one’s business what she does with her life. The song can be viewed as oppressive to women. However, if viewed in a feminist framework, the lyrics can be read as a form of self assertion and female independence.
Rihanna’s decision to reunite with her abusive boyfriend continues to strike controversy. With teenage girls emulating her changing hair styles and fashion trends, it is clear that she is a role model. Many are worried that she will give young women the wrong impression about domestic violence, perpetuating the cycle of abuse. Being a super star has made her personal business, the world’s business. There is a price you pay when you are a mega-star – your privacy. I suggest she follows the lead of the great Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday; drop the man and use the incident to create a compelling track for her next album.