Rihanna is actually her middle name. (It comes from the Arabic for "sweet basil.") Her real name is Robyn, and that's what most of her friends and family still call her. "I get kind of numb to hearing Rihanna, Rihanna, Rihanna," she says. "When I hear Robyn, I pay attention."
She was born on February 20th, 1988, in Bridgetown, Barbados. Her dad, Ronald Fenty, ran a garment warehouse; her mom, Monica Braithwaite, was an accountant. She was a cute kid, with braids to her waist, who spent her free time going to the beach and working the cash register at her aunt's boutique. Her best subjects were math and chemistry, and her worst was PE.
When it came to boys, she was a late bloomer. "My first kiss was in high school, and it was the worst thing ever. He pretty much dumped his entire saliva glands into my mouth. It traumatized me. I didn't kiss for, like, ever." She had more fun going to clubs and dancing with the girls. They would order Passoã and orange juice and dance until three in the morning.
"She was always strong and independent," says her mom. "The other babies" — meaning her two little brothers — "were more mushy-mushy, huggy-huggy. But she wasn't shy about confronting things."
When she was about 15, Rihanna won her school's beauty pageant, and a talent show with a performance of Mariah Carey's "Hero." She always knew she wanted to be a pop star. She used to go around singing Whitney Houston and "A Whole New World" into her hairbrush; the neighbors called her Robyn Red Breast because she sang so much. At 16, she caught the attention of Evan Rogers, an American record producer vacationing in Barbados with his wife. He helped her record a demo — which included what would become "Pon de Replay" — and started shopping it to labels.
The demo made its way to an A&R exec at Def Jam named Jay Brown, who had recently come aboard with new label president Jay-Z. "I played it for Jay," Brown recalls, "and Jay was like, 'That's a big song.' His thing is, you've got to be bigger than the song, otherwise the song dictates to you."
As it turned out, that wouldn't be a problem. Rihanna flew up to New York to audition later that week and sang two songs a cappella, in a white outfit she'd stayed up all night picking out. "She was obviously nervous," says Jay-Z. "Now she has a big personality, but I didn't get that in the meeting. What I did get was her eyes, this determination. She was fierce — like Kobe Bryant. I knew she was a star."
L.A. Reid, then chairman and CEO of Island Def Jam, saw the same thing. "We see pretty all the time," he says. "Pretty's a dime a dozen. But those eyes said, 'I'm going to make it. You're gonna be onboard or not. But this train is leaving the station.'"
Rihanna likes to joke that Jay Brown and Jay-Z are her "dads," showering her with encouragement, advice (not all of it solicited) and sweet birthday presents — including most recently, an original Damien Hirst. Her relationship with her actual father, meanwhile, is a bit more complicated.
Rihanna says she owes her dad a lot. "He taught me how to fish, how to swim, how to run, how to ride. He really toughened me up." But he also toughened her up in less productive ways. For most of her childhood, he drank heavily and was a drug addict. One time, when she was nine, she walked in on him smoking crack. He had a temper, and she says she saw him beat her mom.
"I could tell when a conversation was getting too intense, when it was going to get physical," she says over dinner one night. "And Fridays would be scary because he would come home drunk. He'd get paid, and half of it would go toward alcohol. He'd walk in the door, and it was all eyes on him."
Was he ever abusive toward you?
"No. Well — he hit me once." She was seven; they were at the beach. It was time to leave, but she kept wanting 10 more minutes. Finally, he'd had enough. "He slapped me so hard," she says. "I ran home with his handprint on me. I couldn't believe it. My mother saw my face, how traumatized I was. You know how, when you know you did something wrong, and you deserve to get beat? This was out of nowhere."
Eventually her dad lost his job, and family tensions increased. Rihanna became a loner — she wouldn't talk, wouldn't even cry. "She had always been a straight-A student, but she started to struggle," her mom recalls. "She would suffer from these terrible headaches. She had to get CT scans." The doctors thought she might have a tumor. But when her parents finally separated, the headaches went away.
In recent years, her father made a living selling clothes out of the back of his car. Their relationship is intact — he has said that he cleaned up years ago — but frayed. A few days earlier, he sent her a text that was just prices of things — furniture for his new house that he wanted her to buy. "It's fine," she says. "I'll give my father anything. It's not something that's hard for me to help him with. It's just, like — damn, Dad. Hi."
Rihanna says that if it weren't for singing she might have been a psychologist, and she certainly has a deep sense of empathy. "I actually feel really bad for my father," she says. "He was abused too — he got beat up by his stepdad when he was young. He has resentment toward women, because he felt like his mom never protected him, and unfortunately, my mother was the victim of that. I'm not giving him excuses. Right is right and wrong is wrong. I still blame him. But I understand the source."
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