Representation Won’t Save Us: Rihanna Finally Tells Us Why She did Superbowl Halftime
I was perturbed when I saw Rihanna would perform at Super Bowl LVII. The reason was just years earlier in 2019, she told US Vogue in solidarity with former San Francisco 49ers quarterback, Colin Kaepernick, “I just couldn’t be a sellout,” when asked why she refused to do the Halftime Show. “There’s things within that organization that I do not agree with at all, and I was not about to go and be of service to them in any way.”
I was a little baffled by her change of heart once the announcement was made. On one hand, her stance on the NFL read like she had a firm understanding of what the issues were and why resistance was necessary. On the other hand, she’s a capitalist billionaire; of course, her allegiances are to her wallet.
So that was the end of my befuddlement on the topic. However, as her big day neared, I couldn’t help but cringe at all the Savage Fenty, Fenty Beauty, and Fenty Skin marketing that went along with the countdown to the performance.
It's fairly common knowledge artists performing at half time are not paid to shake and shimmy across the stage on football’s biggest night. They are paid in exposure. The post-performance boost is a well-documented phenomena, according to “Forbes,” “The Super Bowl Halftime Show draws more than 100 million viewers per year, offering artists a huge platform to market their music.” Shakira and Jennifer Lopez—the first Latinas to headline the Super Bowl—enjoyed respective 267% and 187% streaming increases. After Beyoncé’s 2013 performance, her album sales went up 62%. Coldplay sold 95,000 albums the week after their 2016 performance.
The halftime show is lucrative for artists, and I understand capitalists are going to go wherever the money is.
On Sunday, after a seven-year absence Rihanna took to the stage and performed. The big news was that Riri was expecting her second baby, and the subsequent news was whether Rihanna’s performance had the sufficient amount of razzle dazzle. According to the same “Forbes” article, she saw a 390% boost in song sales and there’s no telling how much her three companies brought in leading up to the performance. All in all, it seems she had a successful night.
But I still couldn’t shake one thought: Why do all this when you were so publicly against the idea of it all just a few years back?
That question wasn’t answered until Wednesday, February 15, when “British Vouge” released their cover and feature story on Rihanna. Stunningly windswept with baby and partner, A$AP Rocky, in tow, it seemed to signal this Rihanna reign was not yet over.
As I read through the piece, I finally got the answer to the question I’d been wondering about.
She told “British Vogue”:
“There’s still a lot of mending to be done in my eyes,” she says now, “but it’s powerful to break those doors, and have representation at such a high, high level and a consistent level.” This last point is key for her. “Two Super Bowls back-to-back,” she says, referring to last year’s headliners, Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Eminem, Mary J. Blige and Kendrick Lamar, “you know, representing the urban community, globally. It is powerful. It sends a really strong message.” There’s another key difference this time as well. “Of course,” she says, becoming visibly moved by this thought, “raising a young Black man is one of the scariest responsibilities in life.” It’s made her re-evaluate everything. “You’re like, ‘What am I leaving my kids to? This is the planet they’re gonna be living on?’” She shakes her head. “All of those things really start to hit differently.”
I wanted to laugh, and I wanted to scream.
Of all the things she could have said, of all the honesty she could have chosen to share, she went the representing “the global urban community” and I’m-raising-a-Black-boy route.
If you are a Black person or person of color who believes representation is still the end all, be all of how we fight white supremacy then this explanation may be enough. You haven’t been paying attention though.
There are numerous examples of why Black people simply being in the room is not enough to banish anti-Blackness from it. Tyre Nichols’ brutal death is a hard example of that terrible truth. But when you start considering why Kaepernick has never been invited back to the NFL and why he was blackballed in the first place, how Jay-Z thought it was appropriate to tell Black people “I think we’ve moved past kneeling. I think it’s time to go on to actionable items,” and that his work with the organization would “amplify the league's social justice efforts,” her line of thinking falls apart.
As for her insights on raising a Black child in a violent world that sees Black children as threats, how exactly did she figure her performance would save him from the horrors of white supremacy? Having a billionaire mother will almost certainly protect him from certain things, but we all know no matter the amount of money you have, you are still Black and will be treated as such if you decline to go along and get along.
There’s nothing powerful about doing a halftime show while being Black. Dare I say it, but in the end, there wasn’t even that much power in being the first Black President.
Since the end of eight years under President Barack Obama, I have come to realize a very hard truth about representation. It will not save us. Sure, things got better on some fronts, but he always had to placate the white folks and never spoke too plainly without reprimand. Systems remained in place and continued to function as designed. Things only got much worse under his predecessor. So when I read comments like Rihanna’s it only serves to remind me that most of us are not fighting to dismantle the powers and systems that be, we’re simply working to make ourselves—and our families—a bit more comfortable within them.