Was Jay-Z right? Rihanna’s Super Bowl performance proves many are ‘past kneeling’

Pop megastar will headline the show in 2023

Nearly seven years have passed since Rihanna dropped 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’ billionaires list — but she hasn’t released any new music. That might change soon, however, especially after the nine-time Grammy winner sent the pop culture universe into a tizzy with a single Instagram post.

Over the weekend, the Roc Nation megastar announced she was returning to music in the grandest of fashions: halftime at the Super Bowl. After she turned down previous requests to perform, this is Rihanna’s first direct connection with the NFL since 2016. While fans have started discussing which songs she should perform and which guests should join her, others are wondering if this is proof that Jay-Z was right: We’re past kneeling.

Roc Nation’s once testy history with the NFL is well documented. In the summer of 2018, Jay-Z rapped, “Once I said no to the Super Bowl: You need me, I don’t need you. Every night we in the end zone. Tell the NFL we in stadiums, too.” It wasn’t the first time the self-proclaimed “Marcy Projects hallway loiterer”-turned-Roc Nation head criticized the NFL on a national stage. He once sported a Colin Kaepernick jersey on Saturday Night Live, and reportedly talked Travis Scott out of performing at Super Bowl LIII in Atlanta.

In an abrupt change of course, however, Jay-Z announced Roc Nation was partnering with the NFL in 2019. It wasn’t the first time he had been accused of reversing course with little to no warning (in 2012, he came under fire for no longer supporting the Occupy Wall Street movement, despite selling “Occupy all streets” T-shirts). After announcing the NFL partnership, Jay-Z faced intense criticism from many who believed he had turned his back on Kaepernick, former quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, and the fight against racism and racist police violence the quarterback was protesting. Jay-Z commented on these concerns during the news conference about the partnership.

“I think that we forget that Colin’s whole thing was to bring attention to social injustice, correct? So, in that case, this is a success; this is the next thing,” he told reporters. “ ’Cause there’s two parts of protesting. You go outside and you protest, and then the company or the 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 it? Everyone heard and we hear what you’re saying, and everybody knows I agree with what you’re saying. So what are we going to do? So we should, millions of millions of people, and all we get stuck on [is] Colin not having a job. I think we’re past kneeling. I think it’s time for action.”

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 for his champagne, Jay-Z pulled the bubbly from his 40/40 Club, and stopped drinking it altogether. (He would go on to launch his own champagne brand, Ace of Spades). Given how outspoken he’d been on previous issues, Jay-Z seemed surprised over the backlash to his “we’ve moved past kneeling” comment. He addressed the criticisms on Jay Electronica’s “Flux Capacitor,” rhetorically asking, “Why would I sell out?/ I’m already rich, don’t make no sense/ Got more money than Goodell, a whole NFL bench.”

Despite Jay-Z’s insistence that he didn’t need the NFL, Roc Nation’s partnership seemed to give the league cover for blackballing Kaepernick, while also making it cool to perform at the Super Bowl again. Which brings me back to Rihanna.

In 2014, Rihanna blasted 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 domestic violence survivor, believed she was being punished unfairly. Then there’s what she told Vogue in 2019 about turning down the Super Bowl once before out of solidarity with Kaepernick.

“I couldn’t dare do that. For what? Who gains from that? Not my people,” she said then. Her statements in Vogue were published roughly two months after the Roc Nation and NFL partnership was announced. “I just couldn’t be a sellout. I couldn’t be an enabler. There are things within that organization that I do not agree with at all, and I was not about to go and be of service to them in any way.”

Therein lies the crux of the issue. There’s no doubt Rihanna has the catalog to dominate the performance. There’s no doubt she has a Rolodex of high-profile guests willing to pull up if she makes the call. And there’s no doubt her Super Bowl performance will be a must-see extravaganza. 

Yet, as much hoopla that comes with Rihanna’s return to one the biggest stages in music, where does it leave the past? Was Jay-Z, in a way, right all along? Are we all past kneeling?

“There was a time where it looked like collectively a lot of Black people were standing with [Colin Kaepernick] by refusing to watch games,” said Shanita Hubbard, author of the forthcoming Ride or Die: A Feminist Manifesto for the Well-Being of Black Women. “We’d have to look at the data to see how the ratings and public support have shifted in the last few years, but anecdotally it appears that the proverbial picket line is removed … For me, this moment is not about examining her relationship with the league. It’s an opportunity to collectively examine our relationship with our artists and figure out the role we want them to play in activism.”

From a social justice perspective, Roc Nation’s partnership with the NFL appears to have done little to fight for racial justice. From the beginning, it came under fire for what felt like hollow promises. If actual work has been done on the connection through the league’s Inspire Change program outside of contributions, then very little has been publicized. In fact, Jay-Z’s philanthropic endeavors seem to come more on his own than in tandem with the league. Like every major American sports league, the NFL continues to deal with a long list of moral, ethical and/or legal transgressions. Former Miami Dolphins coach Brian Flores’ lawsuit highlights the treatment and lack of Black coaches in the NFL. The sexual misconduct scandals of Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson and Washington Commanders owner Daniel Snyder loom over the league. Simply put, the NFL is the same league with the same types of high-profile scandals Rihanna previously denounced. The only difference between now and then is Jay-Z’s stamp of approval.

If one looks at it from an entertainment point of view — how Jay-Z and Roc Nation should’ve positioned the agreement all along — then maybe the partnership has worked. In the three years since the Roc Nation-NFL partnership has been in place, stars such as 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 last halftime show before Roc Nation’s arrival.

So, with three years of hindsight, an award-winning performance, and the return of one of the biggest pop stars in the world, was Jay-Z right? Was the “kneeling” 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 ask was for them to hire Kaepernick, not give us more hip-hop artists in the halftime show,” Hubbard said. “I think [Jay-Z] was right in wanting the NFL to produce a specific action but wrong in his approach. He could’ve contacted Kaep, and allowed him to maintain the lead on what said action should be, and leveraged his power to support the athlete whose career was stolen by the NFL.”

Back in 2019, the proverbial “picket line” was still very much in play, and it was clear Jay-Z’s reasoning was motivated by financial and economic power in a league that commands almost undivided attention to its product. Similarly, Rihanna’s initial refusal to perform at the Super Bowl was also clear. But now?

“I think she should also provide an answer for her pivot,” Hubbard said. “Without it, we’re all just speculating.”

Kaepernick’s battle has been legally over for several years. In 2019, he and fellow former 49ers teammate Eric Reid settled with the NFL. The cultural disconnection the league experienced for years seems to have passed, with ratings skyrocketing as the league continues to expand broadcast packages and sports betting. This continued growth makes it the perfect time for Rihanna’s reintroduction to the NFL, which it seemed like she’d never work with again.

Between next February’s performance and her last album, ANTI, Rihanna’s life has changed dramatically. She is now one of the youngest billionaires in the world, thanks to her Fenty beauty empire. She’s a mother now, too, welcoming a baby boy in May with her partner, A$AP Rocky. She’s no longer the woman who discovered “love in a hopeless place.”

How such significant life changes impact her art will be answered soon enough — I hope. Yet, regardless of which team wins that Sunday, Rihanna could well walk away with something far more valuable than a Lombardi Trophy. There’s anticipation. And then there’s the delirium that comes with the return of one of the world’s biggest pop stars.

There remains a significant cultural cachet in the Super Bowl halftime show. With Rihanna as the headliner, that ups the ante tremendously. Nevertheless, Rihanna on music and sports’ biggest stage comes with a complex history that’ll become even more profound with the performance and whatever statement she chooses to make.

Justin Tinsley is a senior culture writer for Andscape. He firmly believes “Cash Money Records takin’ ova for da ’99 and da 2000” is the single most impactful statement of his generation.