It’s been almost seven years since Rihanna released her last album, and almost every day since then, her fans have been asking for more. In the intervening years, the singer has built a fashion and beauty empire, landing her on Forbes’ list of billionaires, but she hasn’t released any new music. That could change soon, though, especially after the nine-time Grammy winner unnerved the pop culture universe with a single Instagram post.
Over the weekend, the Roc Nation megastar announced that he would be making a comeback to music in the biggest way: at halftime at the Super Bowl. After she turned down previous requests to perform, this is Rihanna’s first direct connection to the NFL since 2016. While fans have begun discussing which songs she should perform and which guests should join her, others are wondering if this is proof that Jay -Z was straight: We are beyond kneeling.
Roc Nation’s testy history with the NFL is well documented. In the summer of 2018, Jay-Z rapped, “I once said no to the Super Bowl: You need me, I don’t need you. Every night we’re in the end zone. Tell the NFL we’re in the stadiums, too.” It wasn’t the first time the self-proclaimed “Marcy Projects hall prowler” turned Roc Nation frontman had criticized the NFL on a national stage. He once wore a Colin Kaepernick T-shirt on Saturday Night Live and reportedly talked Travis Scott out of performing at Super Bowl LIII in Atlanta.
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However, in an abrupt change of course, Jay-Z announced that Roc Nation would partner with the NFL in 2019. It wasn’t the first time he’d been accused of changing course with little to no warning (in 2012, he came under fire). for ceasing to support the Occupy Wall Street movement, despite selling “Occupy all street” t-shirts). After announcing the partnership with the NFL, Jay-Z faced intense criticism from many who believed he had turned his back on Kaepernick, the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback, and the fight against racism and racist police violence. which the field marshal was protesting. Jay-Z commented on these concerns during the partnership press conference.
“I think we forgot that Colin’s whole thing was calling attention to social injustice, correct? So in that case, this is a success; this is next,” he told reporters. “Because protesting has two parts. You go out and protest, and then the company or individual says, ‘I hear you. What do we do next?’ So for me, it was like action, actionable item, what are we going to do with that? Everyone heard and we hear what you say, and everyone knows that I agree with what you say. Then, what are we going to do? So we should, millions of millions of people, and we all get stuck in [is] Colin doesn’t have a job. I think we’re past kneeling. I think it’s time to act.”
Jay-Z is no stranger to action. When the Grammys ignored DMX’s unprecedented rookie year, he boycotted the awards. And when Frédéric Rouzaud, managing director of Louis Roederer, maker of Cristal champagne, made racist comments about hip-hop’s affinity with his champagne, Jay-Z pulled the bubbly from his 40/40 Club and stopped drinking it for good. complete. (He would go on to launch his own brand of champagne, Ace of Spades.) Given how outspoken he had been in previous issues, Jay-Z seemed surprised by the backlash to his “we’ve stopped kneeling” comment. He addressed the criticism of Jay Electronica’s “Flux Capacitor” and asked rhetorically, “Why would I sell out? / I’m already rich, it doesn’t make sense / I’ve got more money than Goodell, a whole NFL bank.”
Despite Jay-Z’s insistence that he didn’t need the NFL, Roc Nation’s association seemed to give the league a cover for criticizing Kaepernick, while also making it cool to perform in the Super Bowl again. Which brings me back to Rihanna.
In 2014, Rihanna criticized the league for removing “Run This Town” from a Thursday Night Football broadcast shortly after the Ray Rice domestic violence scandal dominated public conversation. Rihanna, a survivor of domestic violence, believed that she was being unfairly punished. She then she’s what she told Vogue in 2019 about turning down the Super Bowl once before out of solidarity with Kaepernick.
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“I couldn’t dare to do that. So that? Who wins with that? Not my people,” she said then. His statement in Vogue was published approximately two months after the partnership between Roc Nation and the NFL was announced. “He just couldn’t be a sellout. It couldn’t be an enabler. There are things within that organization that I don’t agree with at all, and I wasn’t willing to go and serve them in any way.”
There’s the quid of the question. There is no doubt that Rihanna has the catalog to master acting. There’s no doubt that she has a Rolodex of high-profile guests willing to stop by if she makes the call. And there’s no doubt that her Super Bowl performance will be a must-see show.
Yet for all the hype that comes with Rihanna’s return to one of music’s biggest stages, where does she leave the past? Was Jay-Z, in a way, right all along? Have we all gone from kneeling?
“There was a time when it seemed like collectively a lot of blacks were standing with [Colin Kaepernick] by refusing to watch games,” said Shanita Hubbard, author of the forthcoming book Ride or Die: A Feminist Manifesto for the Well-Being of Black Women. “You’d have to look at the data to see how ratings and public support have changed in recent years, but anecdotally it looks like the proverbial picket line has been removed… For me, this moment isn’t about examining his relationship with the League. . It is an opportunity to collectively examine our relationship with our artists and discover the role we want them to play in activism.”
From a social justice perspective, Roc Nation’s association with the NFL appears to have done little to fight for racial justice. From the start, he was criticized for what seemed like hollow promises. If any real work has been done on connecting through the league’s Inspire Change program outside of contributions, then very little has been posted. In fact, Jay-Z’s philanthropic efforts seem to come more alone than in conjunction with the league. Like all major American sports leagues, the NFL continues to deal with a long list of moral, ethical, and/or legal transgressions. The lawsuit by former Miami Dolphins coach Brian Flores highlights the treatment and lack of black coaches in the NFL. The sexual misconduct scandals involving Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson and Washington Commanders owner Daniel Snyder are looming over the league. Simply put, the NFL is the same league with the same kinds of high-profile scandals that Rihanna previously denounced. The only difference between now and then is Jay-Z’s stamp of approval.
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If one looks at it from an entertainment standpoint, how Jay-Z and Roc Nation should have positioned the deal all along, then maybe the partnership worked. In the three years since the Roc Nation-NFL partnership was established, stars like Jennifer Lopez, The Weeknd and Dr. Dre have graced the stage, all of them more entertaining than Adam Levine and Maroon 5 in 2019, the latest halftime show. show before the arrival of Roc Nation.
So, with three years of hindsight, an award-winning performance, and the return of one of the world’s biggest pop stars, was Jay-Z right? Was the “kneel” comment more of a mission statement about his role in the league than a slight against Kaepernick?
“When people protested the NFL, it seems like the clear request was that they hire Kaepernick, not give us more hip-hop artists at the halftime show,” Hubbard said. “I think [Jay-Z] he was right in wanting the NFL to produce a specific action, but he was wrong in his approach. He could have contacted Kaep and allowed him to maintain leadership on what such action should be, and harness the power of him to support the athlete whose career was stolen by the NFL.”
In 2019, the proverbial “picket line” was still in play, and it was clear that Jay-Z’s reasoning was motivated by financial and economic power in a league that draws nearly all the attention to its product. Similarly, Rihanna’s initial refusal to perform at the Super Bowl was also clear. But now?
“I think she should give her pivot an answer as well,” Hubbard said. “Without that, we’re just speculating.”
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The Kaepernick battle was legally over for several years. In 2019, he and his former 49ers teammate Eric Reid reached a settlement with the NFL. The cultural disconnect the league experienced for years appears to have passed, and ratings have skyrocketed as the league continues to expand streaming packages and sports betting. This continued growth makes it the perfect time for Rihanna’s reintroduction into the NFL, which she seemed like she would never work with again.
Between next February’s performance and her latest album, ANTI, Rihanna’s life has changed dramatically. She is now one of the world’s youngest billionaires, thanks to her Fenty beauty empire. She is now a mother herself and welcomed a baby boy in May with her partner, A$AP Rocky. She is no longer the woman who discovered “love in a hopeless place.”
How such significant life changes impact his art will be answered soon enough, I hope. However, regardless of which team she wins that Sunday, Rihanna could very well walk away with something far more valuable than a Lombardi Trophy. There is anticipation. And then there is the rave that accompanies the return of one of the world’s biggest pop stars.
There remains significant cultural prestige in the Super Bowl halftime show. With Rihanna headlining, that ups the ante tremendously. However, Rihanna on the biggest stage in music and sports comes with a complex story that will only deepen with the performance and whatever statement she chooses to make.
Justin Tinsley is a senior culture writer for Andscape. He firmly believes that “Cash Money Records taking eggs for ’99 and 2000” is the most shocking statement of his generation.