Super Bowl halftime show reflects the Black experience, but its efforts are performative

By Hadera McKay, Content Managing Editor

Barring Eminem—this year’s Super Bowl halftime show was an unequivocal celebration of the Black experience, from the tactful location of SoFi Stadium in the historically Black and Hispanic neighborhood Inglewood, California, to the rock of the halftime performance himself, revered N.W.A. member and producer Dr. Dre. Dr. Dre’s stomping grounds in Compton were just a 20 minute drive from the stadium as a nod to his influence on West Coast rap.

With the inclusion of esteemed West Coast artists Snoop Dogg from Long Beach, Kendrick Lamar also from Compton, and Anderson. Paak of Oxnard,—smiling at us from his trademark drum set during Eminem’s set—the performance felt like a localized celebration of the West Coast Black experience. It was a comprehensive examination of the many ways the West Coast has impacted Hip-Hop, and by extension, the Black experience. For me, it was a damn good day to be Black and an even better one to have roots in California. 

Mary J. Blige literally performed the essential Black cookout song—her most streamed song to date, “Family Affair.” Social media was then flooded with Black families dancing along to Blige’s performance in their living rooms

As with all major institutions that decide to center Blackness as a swift turn around from their institutionally and historically oppressive ways, we had to wonder, was this all a performance? Just another attempt by the NFL to erase their downright racist handling of former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s initial 2016 kneel during the “Star-Spangled Banner?” 

Just weeks before the star-studded performance, former Miami Dolphins coach Brian Flores sued the NFL as well as the Dolphins, Denver Broncos and New York Giants, alleging racist hiring practices and bribery. Flores said he was offered $100,000 for every lost game by Dolphins owner Stephen Ross, who hoped to secure a better draft position by weakening the team’s record. When he did not comply and recorded a relatively successful, 9-8 season,— prior to 2020, Miami hadn’t had a winning season since 2003— Flores was fired Jan. 10.

Flores, who interviewed for the head coach position with the Giants around the time he was fired from Miami, alleged in his 58-page lawsuit that New York only interviewed him to comply with the NFL’s Rooney Rule, which requires teams to interview people of color in their hiring processes. Clearly this rule is not working well, as the 32-team league had a single Black head coach as of Jan. 26. The NFL’s half-assed attempts at what always end up being performative activism (see: “End Racism” and “It Takes All Of Us” endzones) point toward ongoing discrimination among league administrators.

It’s both surprising and not surprising that the halftime show was a product of a partnership between NFL and Jay-Z’s entertainment company, Roc Nation, which developed during the protests encouraged by Kaepernick’s kneeling. It’s also no surprise that the Super Bowl’s location in Inglewood spawned important conversations about gentrification, which mirrors the increased presence and exploitative measures taken by white people in historic Black and Brown neighborhoods. 

The commerce and attention that comes with the Super Bowl, though good for the industrial health of the community, might compromise the preservation of the community for its Black and Brown members. 

The NFL shifted too easily from skirting the importance of hip-hop and Rapby refusing to center hip-hop artists at the halftime show, to assembling some of hip-hops most controversial figures on one of music’s biggest stages. 

Each performer nodded to a stadium full of corrupt corporate overlords and gentrifying attendees while simultaneously winking slyly to those watching at home— in that sense, the 12-minute show felt almost like an inside joke between rap’s greatest and everyone in their living rooms.

A racist establishment gave the mic to some of Hip-Hop’s greatest, putting the Black experience on one of music’s largest platforms for all the world to see. I’m sure the NFL knew what it was doing when it put these people on stage together, but part of me believes all this is going over their racist ass heads, and I’m going to let that part of me dream. 

Lamar’s choice to perform ‘Alright,’ a song used since its release in 2015 as a cry of unity at Black Lives Matter protesters, felt both triumphant and poignantly deliberate. Described by NPR in 2019 as “party and protest… the sound of Black life’s duality,” ‘Alright’ condemns police brutality while recognizing resilience in the Black community. It should be noted that during the line, “And we hate po-po, wanna kill us dead in the street for sure,” the word referencing the police was not audible. There is debate on whether that was censorship or deliberate on Lamar’s behalf. Nevertheless, it was the perfect way to greet long-awaiting fans after a three-year hiatus from performing and releasing music. 

(I must also note that a great opportunity was missed by putting Lamar and Blige on the same stage without performing ‘Now or Never.’)

The problem with the NFL’s approach is not just the tokenistic exploitation of Black talent for the monetary gain of a racist institution— that’s really the entire history of American football— but the use of this method to excuse those foundationally oppressive values. Can we really call the NFL’s anti-racism performance genuine when the “End Racism” message on the end zone competed with the increased ICE presence in historically Hispanic neighborhoods just outside this major event? It’s clear the league’s goal isn’t to end racism, but to performatively address whatever conflicts bolster its reputation. 

The better question is, can we enjoy something that is so obviously a capitalist coverup for a problem that goes much deeper than players kneeling at the National Anthem? 

My great grandparents built their family near the historic Black Crenshaw District, my grandmother went to her first Jackson 5 concert at the Inglewood Forum (a venue that stands in the shadows of the SoFi stadium). My family still owns homes in South Central Los Angeles and contributes to the community. 

The low riders, Chuck Taylors, and crisp pressed shirts and pants over white tees were all incredibly familiar and comforting to me—like hearing my cousins’ stories about their hardships and shenanigans. There was pleasure in being a hip-hop and rap lover, and watching legendary artists create an honest and hopeful mosaic of inherently Black music from producing, to rapping, to singing. There is a certain kind of hope that comes from watching Kendrick Lamar recite the lyrics I’ve been listening to my whole life. 

All of these things that I consider so central to my identity as a Black person gave me the ability to appreciate the performance for what it was, while also interrogating the fact that it came from a performative source, and continuing to demand accountability from that source.

Vivi Smilgius contributed to reporting.