In recent years, Rihanna has done a lot. She successfully built a fashion empire, became a mother and landed a spot on the Forbes list of billionaires. Amazingly, however, she hasn’t released a studio album or performed live in over five years. After so much time off the grid in the music world, her announcement that she would be headlining the Super Bowl LVII halftime show sent her fan base into a frenzy. But amid the excitement surrounding Rihanna’s return to the stage, we need to take a closer look at the event she’s playing and what it means for the black community in America.
At a 2016 NFL preseason game, the world watched with wide eyes as San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick sat on the bench while the rest of the stadium stood up. the National anthem. It marked the start of a nationwide protest that would last for years: Athletes in all sports and competing at all levels took a knee during the anthem to protest the treatment of black Americans in the United States. With police brutality and the killings of black Americans rampant, Kaepernick said that “[he is] not gonna stand up to show flag pride for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. Due to growing volatility and criticism from the NFL, Kaepernick opted to leave the 49ers and seek a place on a new team. But despite his great credentials, Kaepernick was never offered another NFL contract.
News of Kaepernick’s situation came to a head in the months leading up to Super Bowl LIII. After many tribulations, Maroon 5 is said to have headlined the controversial halftime show. Immediately, a change.org petition calling on the band to drop the halftime show garnered over 100,000 signatures. Maroon 5, desperate for an artist of color to join them on stage, reached out to “more than half a dozen stars”, including Andre 3000, Mary J. Blige, Usher, Lauryn Hill and Nicki Minaj. But, as reported Variety, everyone said no. Cardi B, the most obvious choice (due to her collaboration with Maroon 5), declined the offer, saying she stood with Kaepernick. Other celebrities have also sided with Kaepernick. Comedian Amy Schumer, who has frequented Super Bowl commercials in the past, noted that she would decline to appear in Super Bowl LIII commercials and said, “I think it would be cool if [Maroon 5] retired from the Super Bowl. I know opposing the NFL is… very difficult, but don’t you want to be proud of the way you live?
Most notably, Rihanna was the first guest act to perform at Super Bowl LIII and the first to decline. When asked if she had turned down Kapernick’s offer of support, Rihanna replied, “Absolutely. I couldn’t dare to do that. For what reason? Who benefits? Not my people. I just couldn’t. I couldn’t be an enabler. Rihanna’s rejection of the NFL set the stage for several artists to support Kaepernick and also dissociate themselves from the NFL.
Rihanna’s disapproval of the NFL is also reflected in her label, Roc Nation. Founded by Grammy-winning rapper and activist Jay-Z, Roc Nation has a checkered history with the NFL. Jay-Z himself rapped: “I said no to the Super Bowl: you need me, I don’t need you. Every night we in the end zone. Tell the NFL we’re in the stadiums too,” in his hit song “APESHIT” featuring Beyoncé. Jay-Z also claims to have dissuaded Travis Scott from performing in the LIII halftime show and wore a Kaepernick jersey on a saturday night live appearance.
Given this recent history, it’s hard to understand why Rihanna is so eager to headline the same event she so vehemently refused years earlier. Sadly, Rihanna’s decision to star on this year’s halftime show is a stabbing reminder of America’s choice to be “out with the knees” (as Jay-Z put it) and put the Black Lives Matter movement on the back burner.
The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, a bill to reform racial bias and the use of force in policing, is stalled in the US Congress. Despite the attention generated by Floyd’s death in 2020, new data indicates that the number of black people killed by police has actually increased over the past two years. In the wake of Black History Month, it seems the Black Lives Matter movement was just a slowly dying trend. Nothing has changed.
After the chaos of Super Bowl LIII ended, Roc Nation has since changed its tune and partnered with the NFL in 2019. This agreement states that “Roc Nation will advise on the selection of artists for major NFL performances such as the Super Bowl”. Now, Rihanna’s first performance as a Super Bowl headliner comes full circle. Roc Nation and Rihanna’s endorsement of the NFL is a hypocritical, lucrative ploy that undermines the whole reason Kaepernick knelt in the first place.
So while we may be thrilled to witness Rihanna’s big comeback, we must never forget Kaepernick’s courage to speak out. He sacrificed his job to make sure we heard about America’s racial injustice issues, but did we really listen?