Flag on the play: performative activism


Super Bowl LVII was historic in more than one sense.

Somehow, it was the first time two Black quarterbacks went head-to-head, but it also marked Rihanna’s return to the stage after a years-long hiatus.

Despite celebrations of Black culture—including a performance of “America the Beautiful” by Babyface—the event itself, and the public’s mixed reaction to Rihanna’s halftime performance, showed there’s a long way to go before football is truly anti-racist.

It’s not surprising a society built on white supremacy is intolerant of Black motherhood and business savviness being put on display. We’re averse to Black women who assert themselves in spaces that have historically excluded them. 

It’s slightly hilarious Rihanna’s set opened with “B— Better Have My Money,” when the halftime show isn’t a paid gig. The singer donated her time, while pregnant, to represent her community. She deserves respect and admiration for performing on the stage of an organization that has repeatedly taken a non-progressive stance on Black people and social justice.

Let’s be clear: an organization like the NFL that punishes peaceful political statements more severely than domestic abuse doesn’t care about people. Black artists shouldn’t have to subject themselves to scrutiny for free so the NFL can pretend to be anti-racist.

After Colin Kaepernick refused to stand during the national anthem in 2016 and was essentially pushed out of the league as a result, Rihanna declined an invitation in solidarity with his protest. She decided to perform this year to highlight the importance of representation.

While inviting Black artists to perform is important, the NFL must also ensure leadership positions within the organization reflect the inclusive values they claim to hold.

It’s also no coincidence the NFL hands the Vince Lombardi trophy to the usually white owner of the team before the many Black players who earned it. This exemplifies the imbalances still inherent to the NFL as an organization: there is a visible lack of representation in leadership at all levels and an ever-present ownership dynamic amplified by the social issues at play.

The same rich, white people who own NFL teams donate to a party actively trying to erase Black history because it makes them uncomfortable. Last year at the halftime show, the NFL tried to tell the rappers it invited to scrub lyrics criticizing the police.

Censoring Black artists who criticize institutions founded on white supremacy contradicts the inclusive image the NFL has tried to cultivate in recent years. It’s utterly disrespectful to invite Black performers to tout your organization’s anti-racism, then tell them what they can and can’t say about their own experiences. 

The NFL will tokenize Black performers without doing the footwork to dismantle the racism built into the organization. While the league has been predominantly Black for a long time, executives have consistently fumbled meaningful opportunities to make the NFL anti-racist. 

Ultimately, while existing as a Black female artist shouldn’t be a political statement, it very much still is at the Super Bowl. There was some disappointment over a lack of special guest appearances—Fenty fetus excluded. However, anyone who thinks Rihanna herself isn’t enough probably would’ve complained no matter what she did.

How dare she not over-exert herself for our entertainment? How dare she promote herself and her brand? How dare she feel empowered instead of hiding her pregnant body away?

Nothing will ever be enough if we expect Black entertainers—singers and athletes alike—to exist to fulfill our every desire.

Journal Editorial Board

All final editorial decisions are made by the Editor(s)-in-Chief and/or the Managing Editor. Authors should not be contacted, targeted, or harassed under any circumstances. If you have any grievances with this article, please direct your comments to journal_editors@ams.queensu.ca.

When commenting, be considerate and respectful of writers and fellow commenters. Try to stay on topic. Spam and comments that are hateful or discriminatory will be deleted. Our full commenting policy can be read here.