Feature On the eve of performing at the Grammys, Rihanna's world was turned upside down when she was assaulted by her then boyfriend, Chris Brown. But with a new album, the Barbadian diva is back on top form and ready to wow Abu Dhabi audiences.
Rihanna's good year gone bad
On the eve of performing at the Grammys, Rihanna's world was turned upside down when she was assaulted by her then boyfriend, Chris Brown. But with a new album, the Barbadian diva tells Michael Odell she is back on top form and ready to wow Abu Dhabi audiences.
When Rihanna steps off the plane in Abu Dhabi for her New Year's Eve show at the Emirates Palace hotel, she is confident the event is going to be more than a euphoric knees-up marking the passing of another year. It is, she says, going to be a "rebirth". "Back in February, I was one day away from a very important occasion. A very important and happy day for me. The Grammy Awards is an amazing milestone in any performer's life, and believe me, I was nervous and excited. To go from that to- what happened. It was not something I could ever have foreseen. But that's something I've really come to terms with this year: you cannot always control life's events." Rihanna is speaking from a Los Angeles sound stage where she is in final rehearsals for her first television performances in support of her new album Rated R. Sound technicians, catering bods and costumiers bustle around her. She estimates there are as many as 30 people servicing her needs at any time, although it's the fashion techs she enjoys working with most. "I have amazing designers working for me. Sometimes the things they produce and ask me to wear just take my breath away." She giggles. "I mean, you have to have confidence to go out there in some of these pieces." No kidding. A few days later she would appear at the American Music Awards wearing an outfit that looks like it has been strategically eaten by moths working to a highly suggestive agenda: a white, figure-hugging creation that somehow exposes her whole body through little slits. The 21-year-old is very much the modern pop/r&b diva: her look and her fashion style are talked about just as much as her songs. Well, until this year, that is, when the focus has been as much on her private life as her music. On February 8, the day before the Grammy Awards, Rihanna and her then boyfriend, singer Chris Brown, were sitting in a rented Lamborghini on a Los Angeles street. An argument turned violent after Rihanna allegedly confronted Brown about a text message he had received from another woman. Brown punched her in the face and bit her and then tried to force her from his car. Despite Rihanna's attempts to keep the incident out of the press, two female police officers leaked the mug shot of the battered and bruised singer to the gossip website, TMZ. Her crowning Grammy appearance was cancelled. Brown was eventually sentenced to six months of community service, five years' probation and a year of domestic violence counselling. "I am determined for my life not to become about that incident," Rihanna says. "But, yes, there's no denying this year started out pretty difficult. I didn't see that coming at all. I've been strong. I've moved on." But despite the boldness of the statement, things have not been quite so simple. The month after the incident, she began recording the follow-up album to 2007's multi-platinum Good Girl Gone Bad. For some critics, the Brown incident has been subsumed into the songs on Rated R a little too thoughtlessly. For example, it was something of a surprise to see her being shot and run over in the video to the album's first single Russian Roulette. The song's lyrics, too, seemed to suggest a woman facing the threat of violence. "I think people are maybe misinterpreting the words and the imagery of that song," she says, sounding genuinely bemused. "The song is more about the fact that love is a risky game in terms of risking your feelings. You never know how it is going to turn out. It is not supposed to suggest someone literally getting hurt. Ne-Yo wrote that after sitting down and talking to me about my year and my experiences, and I think he is a genius. He found the imagery to show what it feels like to feel vulnerable in love. To take the risk of being in love and open to love. But it's not about getting shot, no." She is similarly defensive about a new tattoo on the side of her body depicting a gun. Granted, it has nothing to do with her ex-boyfriend, but it still seems an odd choice of body art for anyone to choose. "It doesn't mean I'm into guns," she says testily. "I think people read too much into these things. I just happen to have a good tattoo guy who comes up with neat ideas." But few will doubt that Stupid In Love, another new track, addresses the ugly events of February and the end of a relationship she has described as her first big love. "My new nickname is you idiot... I still love you but I just can't do this," she sings. But any deeper questions about the state of her emotions are answered by the tattoo that runs down the side of her right index finger. It reads simply "Shhhhhhhhh". Rihanna is adamant that she did not want Rated R to be about the end of her relationship with Brown. In fact, she says she went out of her way to avoid the subject. "There was a whole bunch of ballads which I kicked to the kerb for that very reason - about seven or eight ballads which would have been great songs but got everyone thinking 'Oh, she's heartbroken'. I know people would expect me to come off all broken up by events, but that's just not how I want to be. Ballads, no. Uplifting music, yes. I'm not in denial about any of the bad stuff but I don't want it to take over my life or become what my music is about." If Rihanna sounds like a tough young cookie, it's because she has put the work in. But she is not the city-hardened urbanite who in a time of adversity is drawing on her in-bred street smarts. You do not have to speak to her for long before picking up the cute Barbadian accent of the girlish ingénue. She is certainly no hard-nut diva in the mould of, say, Mary J Blige at the same age. "I grew up in a small community and America was a big influence, but it was at a distance; the music and the films. But I have changed myself since arriving in America. I am more how I imagined I would be now." She was born Robyn Rihanna Fenty in St Michael, Barbados, the oldest of three children (she has two brothers). The way she talks about her island and her home town makes you want to immediately pack your bags and relocate: sunshine, open, warm and friendly people, healthy, natural food. There is nothing better she says than a day with friends on the beach and then returning home for cou-cou and fish, the national dish. She sighs when describing the delights of home and it is clear she misses it. It's little wonder she is the country's Ambassador For Culture and Youth and displays the puff-chested pride in her country of a diligent girl guide. But it wasn't always as easy and idyllic as she describes. Her father Ronald was addicted to crack cocaine. Sometimes he was violent towards her mother Monica and he has continued to be an unreliable presence in her life. What is hardest to digest when you look at the avant-garde Grace Jones-stylings of her image on the cover of Rated R is her time in the army cadets. She joined at the age of 11 and loved every minute of it. With her friend Sonita, she learnt how to march and salute and fire a rifle (also in the cadets with her was another friend, Shontelle, who went on to have a minor international hit with the single T-shirt.) Talking about it today, she seems slightly coy, as though extolling the virtues of a career in the army sounds slightly at odds with the image of the streetwise r&b moll and fashion diva she has carefully cultivated since. "It was a great place to learn skills and discipline," she says. "Also, it kept you fit. They didn't let up on the physical side. The exercise was pretty harsh at times, especially if you talked when you shouldn't. I was always talking with my friend and so I did more press-ups than anyone. But I also learnt drill and how to socialise with other people." But by her early teens, she had already grown into the willowy beauty we know today. In 2004 she won the local Combermere beauty pageant, but by the time she was 15, her interest in singing began to take priority. Her family knew Evan Rogers, a record producer based in Connecticut, and when he was on holiday with his wife in Barbados, he asked Rihanna and her friends to audition for him. "Some people think that stars are made. Rihanna stepped forward and I just felt she was captivating. She had it all," he said at the time. Rogers took her under his wing, but it was a difficult time for Rihanna, and the beginning of the end of her innocent island life. "He wanted to take me to America, which was very exciting, of course. But I was, and I still am, very close to my friends and I felt it for them very badly. At that age, it's a nightmare. Your friend gets chosen but not you. I felt that hurt for them." She commuted back and forth to Connecticut to see Rogers and they began to write songs. By 2004 she was waiting in reception at the Def Jam offices for her 10-minute meeting with the rap mogul, Jay-Z. "I couldn't stop shaking. It was terrible. It wasn't just the fact that I was auditioning for this major guy, it was that I was in New York at a label that is world famous. In Barbados, American culture is everywhere. Of course, there is reggae from Jamaica, too - that is a huge influence - but you cannot escape the influence of American culture, especially the music, on teenagers, and I just felt that it was all going to be decided in that one moment." It was. Rihanna was signed. But it took a while for her to find her niche. Despite an early hit with Pon De Replay in 2005, her first two albums were nondescript affairs, positioning her as a club ditz with blonde hair. But 2007's Good Girl Gone Bad changed all that. Many critics have assumed the sudden revamp with the emphasis on vamp must have been the idea of the Machiavellian record company turning the teenage island girl into a sex symbol. But Rihanna says it was her idea to morph into the short-haired r&b star of the Umbrella video. "The haircut and the clothes- it was all my idea. I just thought, 'Let me take control of my look'. Prior to that, they thought they knew how best to handle my image and my sound and it was frustrating. I know I am a young girl from what is a small place and not so cosmopolitan, but the women I listened to as a girl were the strong divas - Mariah, Whitney - women who had a presence in the flesh as well as in music and I saw myself as part of that." Rated R certainly provides a mouthpiece for the modern vamp. But there is an appealing idealism to her still. It can be nauseating to hear any major star talk about charity work. But Rihanna sounds genuinely engaged when she speaks of her commitment to her charity, Believe, which she set up in 2006. The organisation helps terminally ill children enjoy something of the life they have left. "I suppose I think of helping young girls because I still feel like one of them in some ways. Young girls need someone to support them when they are struggling. I know that from experience. I take it seriously when I think that young girls are watching me and listening to what I say. I know I did in my youth." And her responsibilities as a role model now extend to her choice of boyfriend. It's worth remembering that after the Chris Brown assault, the pair were briefly reconciled. But something changed Rihanna's mind. "I don't want a young girl to get killed. It didn't feel right," she said after they had finally split. (the reaction among American teenagers to the incident wasn't as clear-cut as one might expect. In a Boston Health Commission survey of 200 teenagers, 46 per cent said they believed the violence was Rihanna's fault.) While Brown has been left to do a round of sometimes grotesque penance (he appeared on YouTube wearing a pendant that read "Ooops"), Rihanna plans to begin her new year in Abu Dhabi and continue where she left off. " I am a different person than I was a year ago. Coming to America was one huge stepping stone when I was 16. The things I have experienced this year were another stage in growing up." 2009 will be hard to forget, but in her own idiosyncratic way Rihanna is trying to make the best of things. A brand new tattoo written back-to-front on her collar bone so that she can read it in the bathroom mirror each morning says: 'Never a failure, always a lesson'. Tickets for Rihanna's New Year's Eve show at Emirates Palace can be bought through www.boxofficeme.com, www.timeouttickets.com, www.ticketingboxoffice.com, and at Virgin Megastore outlets.'