Perhaps Rihanna is a descendant of Nefertiti and this Vogue cover has some divine purpose. The truth is because of the genocide that was the slave trade, we’ll never know.
When I first saw Rihanna’s November cover for Vogue Arabia I found her eye makeup mesmerizing. It’s quite possible the makeup artist used her limited-edition Galaxy Eyeshadow palette but I won’t be able to find out until the queue for her products at Harvey Nichols in Knightsbridge goes down some. It’s been snaking round the building for weeks. I have been wearing intense, well blended blush on my temples since her look at this year’s Met Gala left me edgeless once again.
Her Fenty beauty line is an asteroid that has given us forty shades of foundation from the jump and intergalactic glitters that will have her stans gleaming from here to Pluto throughout the holiday season. Her impact on the beauty landscape has been seismic and to call her a cultural phenomenon would be an understatement. She is shifting tectonic plates EVERYWHERE!
The inspiration for the cover is Queen Nefertiti, an Egyptian Queen who heralded a religious revolution. Her image, most specifically her profile, has been worn as a pendant by Black women for decades. Growing up in the 90s, with Pan-Africanist parents, I was made aware constantly that the history being taught in our schools was mythological in parts. That enlightened humanity began with the lightly tanned Greeks was false.
In Saturday schools run by Black teachers our history was given back to us: The Zulus, The Great Kingdom of Zimbabwe, The Kingdom of Congo, The Mali Empire. They also told us the Egyptians were Black. They pointed out paintings with pharaohs and goddesses with Black skin and cornrows. Herodotus spoke of Egyptians having ‘black skin and wooly hair’. Erykah Badu wore ankhs and inspired a lot of us to investigate Egyptian spirituality further. Nas rapped about the sphinx’s nose being shot off because it was too evidently Black. From a young age, we were being told that the whitewashing of ancient Egyptian history was a great big swindle. Our capacity to be great mathematicians, philosophers, artists, writers and engineers was underscored with the reclamation of Egypt as part of African history.
Nefertiti was a reclamation of ancient femininity. Selected because of her fine-featured poise, which is still problematic as it’s not super disruptive to a Eurocentric depiction of womanhood. Nevertheless, to Black peoples in the West with Hotep uncles there has never been a question that she was Black.
Ancient Egypt is a battleground of cultural warfare. White supremacists really want its history for themselves — the most recently visible example in pop-culture being the flop that was the ‘Gods of Egypt’ casting the Nordic heartthrob Nikolaj Coster-Waldau and Scottish leading man Gerard Butler as Aryan Egyptian gods. One wonders how Hollywood would cast a film about the Nubian takeover of Egypt in 800 BC by King Puy in 800 BC.
The Huffington Post finding random people on Twitter in order to say ‘some people have a major problem’ with Rihanna’s Vogue cover is sheer laziness. Discussions about cultural appropriation are complicated enough without people trying to lob curve balls to derail the discourse. Western people tend to have a difficulty mounting nuanced discussions of colonial history, semiotics, power dynamics and cultural appropriation. Media that muddies the water is a low-key attempt to make Black Twitter seem like rabid reactionaries who won’t be satisfied until there is no art left.
Rihanna has been guilty of cultural appropriation in the past and this does deserve to be interrogated. Yet this time, instead of coming for someone who is expanding the representations of Black femininity in the media can we have another conversation? Colonization of the African diaspora had mental and physical components (see Frantz Fanon, Ngugi Wa Thiongo, Cheikh Anta Diop) — ancestors who were enslaved had their bodies whipped for speaking indigenous languages. Spiritual practices of Obeah and Voodoo and worshipping of Orishas could result in your death.
In pre-colonial Africa, we travelled and traded and those stories are now lost forever. Barbados was a slavery terminal where people from Benin, Northern Ghana, Biafra both settled and were re-exported to other parts of the Americas. Perhaps Rihanna’s ancestors prayed to the West and went on the Hajj. Perhaps she is descended from Nefertiti and this Vogue cover has some divine purpose. The truth is because of the genocide that was the slave trade we’ll never know. For goodness sake, let us have our history as we envisage it to be.