How one short Rihanna tweet made Indian right wing Twitter work, work, work, work
Having given the Indian establishment apoplexy with a simple tweet asking why everyone isn’t talking about the farmers’ protests, is Rihanna sighing (mildly) at the ensuing absurdity?
There’s nothing ra ra about RiRi. I admire women who don’t find it necessary to be upbeat or cheerful. She barely even smiled even on the helium-high sets of The Graham Norton Show where everyone becomes a giggling maniac on a unicycle. I imagine Rihanna only smiles when she thinks about humanity’s sad inability to face up to mortality; not for her some upbeat social media post about the power of resistance or puppies. And now, having given India’s smug and violence-loving establishment apoplexy with a simple tweet on 2 February asking why everyone isn’t talking about the massive farmer protests, is she sighing (mildly) at the ensuing absurdity?
Back in the day, a friend attending the World Health Organisation’s Assembly in Geneva made note of the presence of the one delegate so mighty that he did not represent a nation, just himself — Bill Gates. I have been wanting to call that friend and say that our Ministry of External Affairs and our Home Minister have responded to the Nation of Rihanna with a pouty statement. (It’s somewhat funny to think that the MEA might have been confused by the fact that Rihanna’s massive fan following is called “the Navy”.)
Rihanna opened the door for a handful of well-known and extremely online women from outside India also talking about the brutal repression of farmers — Mia Khalifa, Greta Thunberg, Amanda Cerny. Within hours of Rihanna’s tweet there were attempts to troll her with accusations of being paid, being a slut, being irrelevant, being a hired gun of the Congress party, deserving to be a victim of domestic violence and so on. The same tricks were then turned on to the other celebrities as well, with the Delhi Police even citing Thunberg's tweets in a case filed today that includes "charges of sedition, an overseas 'conspiracy' and an attempt to 'promote enmity between groups'"; Thunberg said she was unfazed and would continue supporting the farmers’ protests. (The dude who asked vlogger Amanda Cerny what she knew about agriculture got such an anatomically accurate response via vegetable emojis that he must be all about the farm bill now.) Suhel Seth told Rihanna that she can never dance at an Indian wedding. I imagined Rihanna telling Seth (quoting lyrics that would translate well in Delhi): “Think I give a damn, boy don't you know who I am?”
The shattering and addictive repetition of phrases is a hallmark of Rihanna’s lyrics. Some folks hate it, of course. Programmer and former Apple employee Colin Morris used the Lempel-Ziv algorithm to analyse a dataset of 15,000 songs that had appeared on the Billboard Hot 100 charts in the years between 1958 and 2017. Rihanna won the title of the most repetitive artist of the dataset, and music nerds used this to complain. The rest of us, honorary or short service officers of her Navy, think of it more like a swirling Anish Kapoor pool to drown in, like her all-knowing eyes.
Scrolling through tweets from our nation’s Bollywood and sports celebrities — the same half sulky-half scoldy message urging everyone towards unity and to not pay attention to lies (meaning, the soft foreign hand of Fenty) — one saw the same hashtags and (occasionally, varied by a few) words. The text of these tweets was so repetitive that the Lempel-Ziv algorithm would have lost its Lempel-will-to-live. (Even the content of Seth’s tweet to Rihanna, which included the phrase “she has hit her toe with a hammer”, then appeared over and over again in the tweets of others berating the singer.) One could argue they are just putting in work, work, work, work, work, work but should complicity be so monotonous?
The cruelty and lack of empathy of the Indian right-wing establishment is one of their strengths. Being wedded to the government means you don’t need many. (“Me nuh care if him hurt, hurt, hurt, hurt, hurting.”)
But every now and then, lack of empathy and imagination results in pratfalls such as the response to Rihanna. Being unable to imagine what a woman wants (even less than that other right-wing mascot Mel Gibson), they have been reduced from — as the Animal Crackers joke goes — spitting cobra to drooling cobra. Obsessed as it is with international PR to the exclusion of all humane instincts, the government has been hit where it hurts. I wouldn’t go so far as to say we found love in a hopeless place, but the Samyukta Kisan Morcha has said cheerful things about international support from the bed of nails aka the Ghazipur border, a place full of hope.
The author is the co-founder of The Ladies Finger (TLF), a leading Indian online women's magazine
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