Rihanna Turns the Super Bowl into a Racism Test

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Rihanna, 09/13/2018 © JStone / Shutterstock

October 23, 2018 12:40 EDT

Rihanna’s refusal to perform at the Super Bowl will engender resentment from those who equate patriotism with cultural conservatism.

With her fearless preparedness to challenge what she believes is racism, Rihanna appears to make a strong case: She uses her celebrity status and the cultural authority it brings. She remains popular with music, film and TV audiences, and often elicits agreement for her pragmatism. At no point does she reduce the importance or prominence of her ethnicity, nor dilute her fierce commitment to social equality. She is a woman to be reckoned with.

Or is she just an idealist who is committing professional suicide?

In September, word circulated that the band Maroon 5 was to play at the National Football League’s annual Super Bowl halftime show. This is the 12-minute spot that reaches a colossal television audience and functions as arguably the most potent promotional exposure imaginable. Artists crave invitations. In October, Entertainment Tonight and Us Weekly reported that the band’s invitation — which was accepted with gusto — came only after the singer Rihanna had turned down hers.

The organizers were also snubbed, it seems, by the singer Pink. Rihanna is a black woman from Barbados, Pink is a white American. While the reason for Pink’s declination isn’t known, Rihanna’s rebuff is a deliberate provocation: When NFL player Colin Kaepernick began kneeling in silent protest against racism and police violence during the playing of the USA’s national anthem before football games, he started a trend among athletes, black and white, and forced figures prominent in sports and entertainment to support or condemn him. It was a straight choice — there were no in-betweens.

Rihanna has a new album due and is shortly to go on tour, so a spot on the Super Bowl show would have been perfect to showcase a few tunes in front of over 100 million TV viewers. As a measure of how valuable an appearance is, artists are not paid a penny. Most would probably pay for the exposure. Compare Beyoncé who, two years ago, snatched the invitation and used her set at halftime to promote her album Lemonade.

Perhaps more significantly, Beyoncé announced to the world that she was a proud black woman by dressing herself and her dance troupe in outfits inspired by the Black Panthers, the militant political movement of the mid-1960s that fought for African American rights. It was, for many, a surprisingly defiant performance from a woman who had, in 2011, appeared in Los Angeles at the Grammys looking almost as pale as Gwyneth Paltrow, having earlier, in an interview with Jonathan Van Meter for Vogue, claimed: “I’m universal . . . no one’s paying attention to what race I am. I’ve kind of proven myself. I’m past that.” The hitherto colorless, race-transcendent diva became black. But, mostly, halftime shows are anodyne affairs with the likes of Lady Gaga, Justin Timberlake or Coldplay selling their wares.

Different Set of Principles

Rihanna seems to live by a different set of principles. Her politics are coded into her music, clothes and her words. Unlike Beyoncé, she appears as a living, breathing, flawed human being, rather than the head of an industry for whom everything is scripted. In 2015, she told The New York Times that “everyone’s cool with a young black woman singing, dancing, partying and looking hot, but that when it comes time to negotiate, to broker a deal, she is suddenly made aware of her blackness.” She said the prospect of defying the stereotype “excited” her.

That same year, she jumped to the defense of Rachel Dolezal, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People chapter president who was widely criticized for being a white woman masquerading as black. “She kind of flipped on society a little bit,” Rihanna told Vanity Fair. “I think she legit changed people’s perspective a bit and woke people up.”

Dolezal, though regarded by many, including her parents, as white, angered blacks and whites alike when she announced that she identified herself as a black woman. Blackness was not a biological trait, but a cultural disposition. This sounded like a surreal anomaly to many. Not to Rihanna.

Now, Rihanna is likely to have to flex her celebrity muscles. In refusing the Super Bowl gig, she is, effectively, reminding America — and perhaps the world — of an apothegm attributed to the black leader Eldridge Cleaver: If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem. Cleaver’s point was blunt but powerful: The demarcation lines in the struggle for what was then called racial equality had been drawn and, if you weren’t standing on one side in the 1960s, you were on the other. There were no neutral zones. Rihanna hasn’t said anything quite as unequivocal. But intentionally or not, she’s wandered across that line and has made it clear that if Maroon 5 or any other artist consents to appear on the Super Bowl bill, they’ll be on the opposite side to her. In this sense, Rihanna’s actions are no less poignant, forceful and persuasive than Cleaver’s words — nor Kaepernick’s behavior, for that matter.

Drawing lines like this is not so unfamiliar. In September 2017, Beyoncé’s husband Jay-Z reportedly turned down a similar invitation to play on the Super Bowl show, again in support of Kaepernick. His gesture didn’t gain much traction, and Justin Timberlake headlined the show. Jay-Z’s tune “Apeshit” seemed to confirm this: “I said no to the Super Bowl/You need me/I don’t need you.”

Chanel designer Karl Lagerfeld narrowly avoided having Chanel products boycotted after he announced he was “fed up” with the #MeToo movement in an interview with French magazine Numéro.

Woody Allen, who is accused of sexually abusing his adopted daughter, Dylan Farrow, when she was seven years old, is unlikely to find actors, male or female, rushing to work with him. There’s no formal boycott, but several actors who have appeared in Allen’s films in the past have echoed the thoughts of Colin Firth: “I would not work with him again.”

Still a Factor

It could be argued that Rihanna’s popularity is strong enough to withstand any possible censure. But race, as we know, has for long been and remains America’s most bedeviling social problem, and Rihanna’s decision is bound to provide the raw material for rumination when the offers for the Super Bowl job go out. Amy Schumer, the white comic actor, has preemptively ruled herself out of any commercial offers connected with next year’s Super Bowl. Maroon 5, the members of which are all white, may find itself increasingly isolated and even under pressure to pull out.

Could all this backfire on Rihanna? Doubtful. She will, however, engender resentment from those who equate patriotism with cultural conservatism. I mean by this that many Americans look at the race question as if it’s solely a historical phenomenon. It’s as much part of history as Wounded Knee, Japanese internment camps and the Ku Klux Klan, many will argue, while resolutely refusing to consider the possibility that racism is still a factor in society.

Those who oppose Rihanna’s and, for that matter, Kaepernick’s behavior will either defend themselves against accusations of racism or boast their antiracist credentials. They say kneeling in front of the “Stars and Stripes” is not protest — it’s perfidy. Those who support her — and these will emerge in droves in days and weeks to come — will simply point out that some 54 years after America’s Civil Rights Act outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin, the union remains obdurately disunited. What some see as the solution, others see as the problem.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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