Pop stars are not known for being punctilious particularly when it comes to press interviews, so I was not surprised when Rihanna’s assistant announced that her boss was going to be late to our rendezvous, ostensibly because she was not feeling well. Most likely though, she was finessing her make up.
After a two-hour wait in a large room overlooking central park at New York’s Mandarin Oriental hotel, another announcement heralds Rihanna’s imminent arrival: “She is in the elevator.” Indeed, within minutes, the superstar, dressed in white and smiling demurely, marches into the room, flanked by her assistants.
Only 26, yet Rihanna is considered one of the most successful pop musicians in the world, selling over 150 million records. Many of her songs rank among the world’s best-selling singles of all time, becoming the youngest artist to rank number one with 13 singles on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. Her work has also garnered her 7 Grammys, 8 American music awards, 11 music Billboard awards and two Brit awards. In 2012, Forbes ranked her the fourth most powerful celebrity of the year, with earnings of $53 million in the previous year. The same year, Time named her one of the Most Influential People in the World.
With such immense power comes responsibility. Something she learned last Summer when she tweeted #FreePalestine during the conflict between Israel and Gaza. The tweet attracted hundreds of reactions in the 8 minutes before she removed it, fearing a backlash, and substituted it with “I pray for peace in Israel and Palestine.”I don’t like politics,” she embarrassingly tells me when I ask her to comment on the incident. “I don’t want to get into that,” she giggles.
Fair enough, Rihanna is here to talk about her new animation movie, Home, in which she voices the lead girl, Tip, who forms friendship with an Alien, Oh (Jim Parsons) who invades earth with his people, the Boovs, after their planet was threatened by a mortal enemy. Rihanna also contributed several songs and the music score for the movie. “I loved Tip and I adore her personality. She’s very brave, very fearless, very determined, but very sassy. I feel that I identify with a lot of those traits, especially the sass,” Rihanna laughs.
This the second time, Rihanna has starred in a Hollywood movie. Her first attempt was two years ago in Peter Berg’s “Battleship,” which was excoriated by the critics and didn’t do well in the box office. But that didn’t diminish Rihanna’s passion for acting, though she admits that she prefers working on animation.
Of course, Rihanna’s first passion was music and singing, which she has practiced since the age of 7, when she was growing up in Barbados, where she was born to an Afro-Guyanese mother and an Irish father, who split up when their daughter was 14 due to the father’s drug abuse. At 16, Rihanna was able to turn her passion into a profession when she met producer Ivan Rogers, who was on a vacation in Barbados in December 2003. Impressed by the young girl’s singing, Rogers took her to New York to record demo tapes to be sent to record labels. The first to respond to the tapes was Jay-Z, who invited her to an audition, which resulted in Rihanna signing a six-album record deal with his company Def Jam in February 2005. Immediately thereafter, the young musician relocated to New York.
“I believed it so much that it happened,” she enthuses. “It was so far from reality and so far from even being possible but then didn’t seem far, but only now in hindsight, I look back and that was a really really big dream for a little girl from a really small island.” This little girl used to obsessively watch videos and read magazines and listen to reggae and hip-hop and the music of her icons such as Mariah, Celine, Whitney, Destiny’s Child. “But I just wanted to sing,” she enthuses. “I wanted to make music that could be heard all over the world, ‘cause these women are from all spectrums of the globes so I just believed that it could happen to me.”
Rihanna didn’t wait long for her wish to become a reality. Her first single “Pon de Replay,” which she released in May 2005, charted successfully worldwide, peaking in the top five in fifteen countries, including a number two in the US Billboard Hot 100 chart and the UK Singles Chart. Her ensuing albums continued to lead in the charts around the world, but it was the release of the critically-acclaimed “Good Girl Gone Bad,” in 2007 that catapulted her to the pinnacle of her profession, when the lead single “Umbrella” topped the charts in thirteen countries and remained number one in the UK to ten consecutive weeks, with sales of over 6.6 million copies.
“When I first moved to America, I was very, very ambitious and still am,” Rihanna smiles. “My drive has always been fueled by my passion for what I do. I love being creative. So whatever outlet I can find that I love and I can be creative in, I just kind of hone in on. Whether it’s designing or music or now animation. And as the years went on, my ambition was also joined by rebellion.”
No doubt that this young artist’s ambitions are limitless, evinced by the phenomenal success of her music. Her achievements have been compared to those of music giants such as the Beatles and Michael Jackson. Yet, Rihanna dismisses the idea of having reached the top of her profession. “What is the top?” She asks sneeringly. “If you ever feel that you are on top, you only have down to go and I don’t ever want to feel comfortable enough to say that.”
Indeed, Rihanna toils unceasingly whether in making music or fashion design or acting. But her immersion in her work comes at a personal cost. In spite of an overwhelming sense of loneliness that pervades her soul when she is on tours, she doesn’t have the urge to settle down with a man to keep her company and share the joys and burdens of life with her; instead she spends her free time at home on her couch watching TV. “I don’t have a lot of time to offer for a man right now so I don’t even know. It’s not even fair to pull anybody into this right now, so he would have to be willing to tolerate my schedule, if he’s man enough to do that,” she laughs, insisting that the reported romance Leonardo DiCaprio is nothing but a false rumour. “Stay off the blogs and the tabloids; they will screw you every time.”
Yet, in spite of her preoccupation with her work and international stardom, Rihanna hasn’t forgotten her humble roots and impoverished country, Barbados, visiting her friends and family regularly and donating millions of dollars to local charities and other projects. “From school life to my home and my culture, makes me who I am, and that’s that foundation that has been built for sixteen years before I moved to America, so no matter what, I always try to stay close to that and never lose that,” Rihanna enthuses.