inside the rihanna navy: her most extreme super-fans speak out
An exploration of one of the most passionate fandoms in pop history.
Photography Eric Chakeen
Emily Graily, a student from California, saved up her money for two years to score VIP tickets to Rihanna's "Anti" tour. When the only VIP front row tickets left were for the Hartford, Connecticut show, she traveled across the country, with a painstakingly handmade replica of the Giambattista Valli hot pink pouf of a dress the singer wore to the 2015 Grammys. And a mask, with the doodle that has been Rihanna's internet-iconic Instagram avatar since forever. The costume got her backstage to meet RiRi, and it was only one of many Rihanna outfits that she remakes by hand and posts to her Instagram account.
Emily is one of several Rihanna fans I've talked to this year, loyal sailors in the Rihanna Navy. Owen Lauer, a 19-year-old who works at a car dealership in Pennsylvania, has Roy Nachum's "Anti" cover art tattooed on his arm. Sebastian Napolitano of Queens has come to actual blows with a member of the Beyoncé Beyhive.
Rihanna's record sales rival The Beatles' at this point. And in some ways, her fan base is just as fierce, if not fiercer, than the weeping and fainting adolescents who worshipped the Fab Four. Or, over 200 years earlier, the devotees of pianist Franz Liszt who experienced a kind of madness at his concerts: Lisztomania. The Rihanna Navy has taken fandom to a new level because it is turbo-charged by social media, with hundreds of fan accounts on Twitter, Tumblr, and Instagram spreading love, vitriol, inanities, and creativity. When i-D released its Rihanna cover in January 2015, there were countless fan art homages within hours.
The origin of the Navy term is disputed. Some say it came about after she starred in the 2012 movie Battleship, others claim it developed in a fan forum as a riff on the lyrics of "G4L" ("We're an army / better yet, a navy / better yet, crazy). Regardless, it works. "The Navy fights for the country, we fight for Rihanna," says Eric Nathaniel Best, who works in retail sales and, like Rihanna, is from the Barbados.
But what is it about this 28-year-old woman that inspires young people to tattoo her face on their bodies, to defend her rabidly on Twitter, and to spend their hard-earned money on thousands of dollars worth of Rihanna perfume, clothing, and pillows? She's a supernova to be sure, but there are other deeply talented, genetically blessed entertainers that don't have an army behind them (Joanna Newsom fans don't wait outside her hotel for hours in the snow, to my knowledge).
According to the fans I spoke to, Rihanna is special because she is always, unabashedly herself. She came from a poor family in the Caribbean, like many of them (watching her father struggle with addiction in Bridgetown, Barbados). And then went on to became one of the most fearless, confident stars that ever lived. She wears what she likes, she does what she wants, she sings what she feels. Ask a Rihanna fan why they love her (as I did, many times), and they'll respond: "She doesn't give a fuck." And if you're a young, creative person trying to figure out his place in the world, that is riveting.
"She's not trying to be anybody's role model," says Emily Graily. That's definitely part of the Rihanna story. One of her best-selling sweatshirts even has the words "Role Model" crossed out. But the irony is that RiRi's insouciance has made her the ultimate role model for thousands of young people around the world. Her fan base is strong in pretty much every country. Rihanna Daily, one of the biggest fan sites, is run internationally by a Brazilian and a Pole. Many people learn English to be able to understand her music. But it's arguably in America, her adoptive home, where she's had the biggest impact on young people's lives.
Aaron Fagama, a tall, elegant young man from the Ivory Coast who currently lives in a homeless shelter near Times Square, is motivated by Rihanna's commitment to work (work, work, work, work). He loves "the fact that she came from nothing, she wasn't born into a rich family. I remember she used to always say in interviews that Beyoncé was one of her biggest influences. But now, she's just as big as Beyoncé. If that's not inspiring, I don't know what is." A barista and aspiring model, Aaron first met Rihanna at her perfume event at Macy's. And since then, he says, "she just makes me want to move forward."
She motivates others similarly. Sebastian from Queens says, "Honestly, if it wasn't for her, I wouldn't have gotten through a lot of the things I went through in terms of coming out as gay. Also just getting through certain situations I had dealing with family problems. She never directly coached me through it obviously, but her music gave me an attitude that translated into real life." Helping her fans come out is one of Rihanna's specialties.
Owen, the Pennsylvania boy with the Rihanna tattoo, says, "Whenever I've had any hardships she's gotten me through them with her music, or whenever I've needed a little extra push I remembered that a girl from the islands that came from nothing is now on top of the world."
Rihanna's own issues have proven her resilience to her fans. Bad boyfriend Chris Brown comes up a lot, although he's history; they've been broken up for three years. "She's a person with flaws," says Nkacy Douglas, a Guyanese-American personal trainer. "She can mess up but people still back her up after all the stuff that she's been through."
A lot of that "stuff" is her journey from the hardscrabble islands to an American dreamland. In a shaky immigration climate, for many of her foreign-born followers Rihanna's appeal is deeply linked to her background. "The fact that she did come from an immigrant family and that she made it in the United States, and then globally, that's why it's really inspiring for me to be determined to make it," says Aaron. Rebekka Smith, whose family is from Jamaica, calls Fenty's Barbadian heritage a "major factor" of her devotion. Plus, as Rebekka says, "she's so humble about it, she still goes back to Barbados to visit her family and she doesn't leave them out."
Rihanna --whose net worth is hovering in the $200 million dollar range--knows who is buying the concert tickets, albums, and merchandise that keep her sailing on yachts around the world. When "Work" hit #1 on the Billboard 100 for the eighth week in a row, she Instagrammed: "God stays blowing my mind and Navy, you amaze me!" (+ anchor emoji). She sent pizza and towels to Mancunians waiting in the rain for a concert this year. Almost every fan I talked to reported her politician-like gift for remembering their names, and making them feel special. She follows many of them on Twitter and Instagram. It's a badge of honor in the Navy to add "Rihanna follows" to your bio.
For a lot of these fans -- many of whom feel like outsiders for being queer, from elsewhere, or just unique -- the community they find in the Rihanna Navy is what they live for. Sheleah Harris, a twenty-five year-old telemarketer from Newark, says, "I have social anxiety so it's hard for me to make friends, and then these people just accepted me. The closest people I have in my life are through Rihanna." Many of them meet through Twitter and then connect at concerts, going out to eat at restaurants that they know she likes, like Da Silvano. "I don't know if it's the music or it's just her, but we all click and that's something that you don't find very often," says Rebekka Smith.
These kids feel it's their job, their duty, to worship Rihanna, and to vehemently defend her on social media. I find myself wondering how the fans themselves would feel if there was an army of supporters behind them. "Honestly I would feel a little bit creeped out!," laughs Rebekka. "I can just imagine how overwhelming it would be. But also I know that she can feel the support." It's a calling, and it helps the Navy maybe more than it helps Rihanna herself. "She just helps us through our day," says Sebastian.
Text Rory Satran
Photography Eric Chakeen