Words by Eddie STATS Houghton
Everybody’s talm bout this new video for Rihanna’s “Man Down” which debuted on BET last night. Shot in Jamaica–an appropriate backdrop for the pulsing reggae riddim–the vid follows our star as she does the things popstars do in JA: drink coconut water, go to a dancehall session, frolic on the beach in white linen…and get raped? Although she has always been a strong proponent of dancehall culture, the inclusion of a graphic rape scene as a surprise twist at the end of the narrative treatment–a radical re-contextualization of the songs gun-heavy lyric–has already created a backlash in Jamaica, where the self-image of many on the island is still smarting from Drake’s casting of Mavado as a coke don in his video (helmed by the same director, Anthony Mandler) for “Find Your Love”–not to mention rough treatment of its citizens at the hands of immigration officials in Rihanna’s native Barbados. Ri-Ri herself has said through publicists and via twitter that the clip has “a strong message for girls like her,” which has itself created more controversy since it invites comparison to her real-life drama with singer Chris Brown.
Personally speaking, I am generally in favor of anything-goes in music and video content but I have to admit I found this particular plot twist disappointing for a very different reason: it simply doesn’t fit the lyric (I didn’t mean to lay him down / But it’s too late to turn back now…) which stands alone as both a classic badgal ballad in a Johnny Cash style and a very different kind of message song. In fact, taken as they’re written, the words are a powerful indictment not of rape but of the out-of-control proliferation of guns that plagues Jamaica (and large parts of the rest of the world), suggesting that any chance encounter can become deadly in such an environment: When she fits right down in my shoe / what you expect me to do / if you play me for a fool / I will lose my cool / and reach for my firearm. But as the global media have proven time and time again, Jamaica’s problems lend themselves much more easily to the morality play of sexual politics than to a deeper structural analysis. Watch the video below, and judge for yourself.