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Don’t Envy Rihanna’s Billion Dollar Empire. Celebrate It!

Rihanna’s rise from a poor immigrant from Barbados to global star to billionaire entrepreneur reveals the enduring power and reality of the American Dream

By guest author Jon Miltimore
August 11, 2021

Forbes this week reported that Rihanna is now a billionaire—and then some.

Forbes estimates the pop-singer and entrepreneur’s wealth to be $1.7 billion, making her the richest female musician on the planet and the second richest female entertainer (behind Oprah). But few likely realize that the vast majority of Rihanna’s wealth has not come from her entertainment career.

“The bulk of her fortune (an estimated $1.4 billion) comes from the value of Fenty Beauty, of which Forbes can now confirm she owns 50%,” Forbes reports. “Much of the rest lies in her stake in her lingerie company, Savage x Fenty, worth an estimated $270 million, and her earnings from her career as a chart-topping musician and actress.”

It’s fair to say that Rihanna, 33, is a living example of the American Dream. And it’s worth examining how she arrived here.

‘If That Girl Can Sing’

Robyn Rihanna Fenty was born on February 20, 1988, in a tiny parish in Barbados—St. Michaels. The daughter of an accountant and warehouse manager, Rihanna was raised in a three-bedroom bungalow along with her two half-brothers and two half-sisters.

Life was hard in Barbados, a relatively poor country (GDP per capita is less than a third of that of the US). Rihanna suffered from persistent migraines and sold clothes on the street with her father, an abusive man who struggled with addictions to alcohol and crack cocaine.

“I always said to myself, ‘I’m never going to date somebody like my dad, never,'” Rihanna told Dianne Sawyer in a 2009 interview. (Rihanna, it should be noted, made this statement while discussing her abusive relationship with singer Chris Brown.)

By the time Rihanna was 14 her parents were divorced. But by then she had developed a passion for reggae, and she’d soon create a small musical group with a pair of classmates. That would lead to her big break.

In the summer of 2003, Rihanna and her group were invited to audition in front of Evan Rogers, an American songwriter and producer who was on vacation in Barbados with his wife. Rogers’s wife, it turns out, was friends with the mother of one of Rihanna’s friends, so a performance was arranged at Rogers’s hotel suite.

Rogers said he remembers the moment he first encountered Rihanna’s charisma.

“The minute Rihanna walked into the room, it was like the other two girls didn’t exist,” Rogers would say. “I said to myself, ‘If that girl can sing,’ then—holy sh*t!”

Rogers was so impressed with Rihanna, who was just 15 at the time, that he spoke to her mother and arranged to have her come to Connecticut and cut a four-song demo. Rihanna would end up staying with the Rogers family.

“When I left Barbados, I didn’t look back,” Rihanna would later say. “I wanted to do what I had to do, even if it meant moving to America.”

By December 2004, Rihanna had recorded the Caribbean jam “Pon de Replay.” The demo eventually reached Def Jam Recordings and landed on the desk of rapper Jay-Z, the label’s president. He invited Rihanna to New York City and had her flown in, despite the fact he initially felt the song was “too big” for her.

Jay-Z’s opinion quickly changed when he saw Rihanna perform.

“It took me two minutes to see she was a star,” Jay-Z later said.

Jay-Z signed Rihanna on the spot—literally. Rihanna waited in Jay-Z’s office until 3 a.m. as attorneys were brought in to ink the future star to a six-album contract with Def Jam.

Rihanna had signed her dream contract, and by 2006 she was rolling out her second studio album—A Girl like Me—and four singles, including the hit “SOS” which landed on top of the Billboard Hot 100 chart, where it stayed for three consecutive weeks. Her third album was released the following year and hit #2 in the US and Australia and topped the charts in Brazil, Canada, Ireland and the UK.

In May 2007, Rihanna dropped her third studio album (fourth overall)—Good Girl Gone Bad— which to date has sold more than 9 million copies. Soon Rihanna was dropping singles with Eminem, including the megahit “Love the Way You Lie,” which sold more than 12 million copies in the US alone (and became Eminem’s best selling single ever).

From No-Name Singer to Billionaire

The rest, as they say, is history.

Rihanna was a star, complete with blockbuster movie roles—some bad (Battleship), some good (Home). Other opportunities followed, including Super Bowl halftime show offers (which she declined) and business ventures. These ventures included the aforementioned Fenty Beauty, a cosmetics brand Rihanna launched in 2017, as well as Savage x Fenty, a lingerie company in which Rihanna reportedly holds a $270 million stake.

When news broke of Rihanna’s vast wealth, people naturally reacted in different ways. Some reacted with disdain and disgust.

“Stop glorifying billionaires please,” wrote one user who shared a viral tweet decrying wealth hoarding.

“If a monkey hoarded more bananas than it could eat, while most of the monkeys starved, scientists would study that monkey to figure out what the heck was wrong with it. When humans do it, we put them on the cover of Forbes.”

This is the way not to respond. Such views are rooted in ignorance and envy, the source of many modern ills.

The idea of billionaires hoarding mountains of wealth is a popular notion, but a deeply flawed one. Moreover, humans’ ability to create wealth, trade, store value, and establish property rights is precisely what sets us apart from the animal kingdom.

Fortunately, many more people offered congratulations and praise for Rihanna. Some even noted the beauty in the idea that this poor immigrant from Barbados was creating jobs and wealth for others.

This is the proper reaction to Rihanna’s remarkable story.

America: The Land of Opportunity

Rihanna’s rise from a no-name singer to global star to billionaire entrepreneur is extraordinary, but it’s just one of the countless rags to riches tales in American history. These stories, it should be noted, involve people of every race, color, creed, and gender.

Sarah Breedlove, AKA Madam C.J. Walker, was an African-American born in Louisiana two years after the end of slavery. Widowed at the age of 16, she lost most of her hair. So she decided to launch a hair care business. It turned into an empire, and she became a millionaire.

Samuel B. Fuller was so poor he dropped out of school in the sixth grade. His mother died when he was still a teen, leaving Fuller responsible for his six siblings. Using a $25 loan, he started a soap business—which eventually transformed into a corporate empire and made Fuller one of the richest men in the world.

Inventor Jan Ernst Matzeliger, whose mother was a slave, became the “Henry Ford of Shoes” after revolutionizing the production process. Don King, perhaps the most successful boxing promoter in history, rose to riches after spending four years in prison for stomping one of his former bookmaking employees to death. The aforementioned Oprah story is just as powerful (if less gruesome).

The common thread in these stories is that each involves a remarkable entrepreneur who possessed an extraordinary talent for creating value for others. In doing so, they enriched the lives of others and made themselves rich in the process.

There are countless similar stories. And they remind us that America was—and still very much is—a land of unbridled opportunity.

This isn’t to deny America’s complicated history of racial and gender inequality, or its sins of slavery and Jim Crow. It’s only to say these sins do not define America, and they mustn’t be allowed to obfuscate the truth that America’s capitalist system has been a source of so much prosperity for so many.

We hear a lot today that America is an oppressive place, a land twisted by systemic racism and sexism. Because of this, we’re told, the nation must be corrected, and power must be given to those who will correct it.

But ask yourself this: where else in the world could a poor girl from Barbados who sold clothes in the streets rise to such heights? Where else could the daughter of an abusive crack addict immigrate and become the second richest entertainer in the world before her 34th birthday?

This piece originally appeared on FEE.org under the title Don’t Envy Rihanna’s Billion Dollar Empire. Celebrate It