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Does Cardi B even need the Super Bowl halftime show to rule Super Bowl week?

From viral videos to a hot Pepsi ad to her own Atlanta concerts, the rapper is changing the game

The Super Bowl halftime show has been a badge of honor and a cash cow for popular musicians ever since Michael Jackson (currently the subject of a controversial documentary) took the stage in 1993 at the intermission of the Buffalo Bills vs. Dallas Cowboys championship game and stood in silence for 70 seconds while the crowd went wild. His performance included renditions of songs such as “Billie Jean” and “Heal The World” and was one of the most watched TV events ever, with roughly 133 million people tuning in. Cardi B was 3 months old. Now she’s on the verge of redefining how celebrities impact Super Bowl weekend.

In the years since Jackson’s performance, the Super Bowl halftime show has been a chance for artists to showcase themselves and their hits and get a bump in sales and streams — even though they’re not directly paid for the performances (all set design costs are covered). Everyone from Beyoncé to Prince to Madonna has rocked the halftime stage, because who would dare say no to such a big look?

Cardi B said no. A year ago, when it was seemingly a long shot that she’d be considered to perform anyway, she told TMZ that she’d do the show “when [NFL teams] hire Colin Kaepernick.” She joined the ranks of Amy Schumer and Jay-Z, who have gone on record as not supporting the NFL in solidarity with Kap. (Rihanna has reportedly passed for the same reason.) And not only did she say no, Belcalis Almánzar is reinventing what it means to be the musical star of the Super Bowl without ever having to take the halftime show stage. By the time Monday morning arrives, it’ll be Cardi B — not Maroon 5, Travis Scott or Big Boi — whom everyone is talking about. And that’s thanks to a woman who is playing by her own rules.

The Bronx, New York’s own Cardi B, who is also nominated for five Grammys and is slated to perform at that show seven days after the Super Bowl, has attacked 2019 with the laser focus of LeBron James returning to the court after a week of working out in Miami with Dwyane Wade. She is intent on being even more of a household name, and she’s using Super Bowl week as her main stage.

Just look at what Cardi B has done leading up to this week. She ended 2018 with her “Money” video. That clip is tattooed with underreported feminist imagery of breastfeeding her child — while rapping. She provided a twerking masterpiece with the City Girls’Twerk” video on the same day she went viral for her concise, impactful commentary on the catastrophic government shutdown.

All of these moments kept her front and center in mainstream news.

And Cardi B isn’t letting up during Super Bowl week. On Sunday she became the first woman to perform at Las Vegas’ Adult Video News Awards (while posting some widely shared Instagram pictures in her look for the night). On Saturday she’ll be headlining the Bud Light Super Bowl Music Fest with Bruno Mars, leaving no question that she’s the person who deserves the 100 million eyes locked on her at halftime.

But she will be front and center during the game: Cardi B will be part of a Pepsi commercial along with Steve Carell and Lil Jon. It’s a commercial in which she shares equal billing with Carell despite being in only about five seconds of the 30-second ad. The commercial has already been released online, and it looks to be a surefire hit.

Then there’s the shadow she casts over the halftime show itself. Cardi B has already stated that she’s not performing in solidarity with Colin Kaepernick, who has not played an NFL game since the end of the 2016 season, a move that many believe is in retaliation for his protests against police brutality and the criminal justice system during the national anthem.

So as Maroon 5 performs Billboard No. 1 hit “Girls Like You” — which features Cardi doing a guest verse, but without Cardi B — her decision not to perform will be loud, and she’ll still get the streaming bump from fans who search for the song after the halftime show anyway. And even if Cardi B does an about-face and jumps out there to perform the song, which is unlikely, it’ll be another opportunity for her to steal the show, and the weekend.

Mainstream society’s stereotypes of women of color, of rappers, former strippers, former reality stars and every other box Cardi B checks make it easy to overlook the fact that she is highly intelligent and a marketing genius. In one highly intentional move after another, she has stolen every non-sports headline leading up to the Super Bowl, including “Cardi B offers to deliver rebuttal to President Donald Trump’s State of the Union address” and “Cardi B’s Daughter Kulture’s Versace Onesie Is More Baller Than Your Entire Wardrobe.”

The week is about her. Without a single red bottom touching the stage in the Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Cardi B is flipping the importance of the halftime show on its head and showing that she can be the talk of the week on her own terms. It’s a feat that will be imitated during Super Bowl weeks for years to come. Traditionally, the Super Bowl halftime show is a can’t-miss vehicle for performers. Cardi B is proving that notion wrong. She doesn’t need the halftime show, and her absence is going to make the show look inadequate by comparison.

This Super Bowl halftime show is already in uncharted territory with artists proudly proclaiming that they are turning it down. And you can bet that other stars are going to follow the Cardi B example of using the event to raise their stock without directly engaging with the NFL. This should make the NFL and the advertisers that look to the halftime show for its massive ratings slightly nervous. As for Cardi B, there’s no time for nerves. Just seven days after the big game, she’s got her eyes on stealing the show at the Grammys.

David Dennis Jr. is a senior writer at Andscape and an American Mosaic Journalism Prize recipient. His book, The Movement Made Us, will be released in 2022. David is a graduate of Davidson College.