Amina Taylor meets singer Rihanna

At 16, Rihanna auditioned in a hotel lobby and caught the ear of Jay-Z. She may just put Barbados on the music map, says Amina Taylor

If you're from the Caribbean and you're famous as a musician, chances are you're also a man. Despite the variety of music styles to come out of the region, its stars - from Jamaica's Bob Marley and Sean Paul to Mighty Sparrow (Trinidad), Kevin Lyttle (St Vincent) and Rupee (Barbados) - are linked by their XY chromosomes. But if female singers from the Caribbean are supposed to work the local music circuit only, no one has told Rihanna. A 17-year-old schoolgirl from St Michael's in Barbados, she has already had a British hit with her track Pon de Replay, which was only just kept off the top of the charts earlier this year by Oasis. A blend of infectious pop and Caribbean sensibilities, the single is one of the most successful debuts by a Bajan artist ever.

In fact, Rihanna's swift rise to international success has all the unbelievable flavour of a badly scripted, saccharine Disney movie. She was discovered at the age of 16 when a friend introduced her to New York producer Evan Rogers, who was vacationing in Barbados with his Bajan (or Barbadian) wife Jackie. Rogers liked the impromptu audition that Rihanna did for him in his hotel lobby so much that he introduced her to his musical partner, Carl Sturken. Together the two men had produced hits for Christina Aguilera and American Idol winner Kelly Clarkson. The duo invited Rihanna to their New York recording studios during school holidays and slowly they built up the 12 songs that would make it on to her demo. The demo was sent to Def Jam CEO and label head Shawn "Jay-Z" Carter - who immediately called Rihanna and her team in for a meeting.

When Rihanna recounts the ensuing series of events in her lilting Bajan twang, it's hard not to be astonished by how quickly things moved. "I left to go back to Barbados from New York on the Monday. The demo was sent in on Wednesday, Def Jam called back Thursday and the producers went over for a meeting so I had to come back on Friday evening. I was supposed to come back on my next school holiday in February but the guys over at Def Jam said, 'Why do you have to wait?' That's when I knew it was serious."

How serious this meeting was soon became very clear. In the room with rapper-turned-executive Jay-Z were two A&R people, one representative from Def Jam's marketing department, two producers, Rihanna's manager and her lawyer. Considering the teenager had never sung in public before, this was a baptism of fire. "For a while I was sure I was just sweating and everybody could see it. I was so terrified that my make-up would run because I could barely sleep the night before and had to get up extra early to get dressed. My throat was dry and I was trying so hard to act like this was normal for me."

She still remembers every detail of the meeting: she wore a blue boob tube, white trousers and white boots, and sang Pon de Replay, a ballad from her album called The Last Time, and Whitney Houston's For the Love of You.

"There was no music. Just me," she says. "Jay-Z was so cool. He was sitting on the couch and he went out of his way to make me feel comfortable. Everything was done in a very professional manner but he made me feel so at ease and able to do my best. He did not let me leave until three in the morning when I had signed with him. All our representatives checked over the contract and everyone was happy."

Rihanna says her ability to stay focused and behave more maturely than her years is due to the influence of her mother, who raised her alone with three younger brothers. "I know a lot for my age. My mom raised me to be a child and know my place but also to think like a woman. She never held back from me in terms of being too young to know certain things, so fortunately I am very mature for my age. In this business you have to work with the things that get thrown your way, the good, the bad and the ugly. I don't feel under any additional pressure being young. Starting early means I get a chance to grow as a person and as an artist. My family keeps my feet on the ground so I don't get too ahead of myself."

Rihanna is still so young that she has to study 15 hours every week to comply with child labour laws - but that youth hasn't shielded her from the backlash that invariably follows acclaim.

"I have been ready for the backstabbing my whole life. After I won the school talent and beauty pageant, I lost a lot of people who I thought were my friends. Even the person who I thought was my best friend stopped speaking to me, but the people who are real have stuck around. When I signed my recording deal, a few fake friends and I parted ways. I gained some who wanted to get close to me because of the deal, so they had to go as well.

"In Barbados we have this pride thing, people hate to give up compliments," she says. "It physically hurts them to say congratulations - they find it easier to be mean."

Dubbed the Bajan Beyoncé, Rihanna takes her role as her region's unofficial female ambassador seriously. On her debut album, Music of the Sun, she attemptes to fuse some of her own musical influences - reggae, soca and R&B - into an accessible format that brilliantly distils where the Caribbean is headed musically.

"It is such an honour to carry the torch for Barbados and the rest of the Caribbean. When I performed at the [MTV] Video Music Awards, so many people had the Barbados flag and people back home saw that and were just so touched. They had never seen a Bajan artist on the international stage like that before, which is amazing. Sometimes, when you have that kind of support, you feel like you could take on the world."

· If It's Lovin' That You Want, the next single from Music of the Sun, is out on Monday on Def Jam


Amina Taylor

The GuardianTramp

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