The Super Bowl halftime show was an electric display of talent, ingenuity, and a throwback to the songs of my generation’s upbringing. It centered hip-hop for the first time, a long-time coming for the nearly 60-percent Black league, whose plurality of fans are also Black. The performances were as impressive as the stars are famous: Snoop Dogg, Dr. Dre, Kendrick Lamar, Mary J. Blige, and Eminem wowed the audience with thunderous renditions of their top-40 songs. It was nostalgic, yet powerful. Comforting, yet impressive. And for 36-year-olds like me, familiar and reassuring.
To celebrate the art of hip-hop on the world’s most-watched music stage for the first is a feat unto itself. Dre remarked, “It’s crazy that it took all of this time for us to be recognized.” The famed producer opened the show by mixing the music on a board reminding us of his prowess as a legendary producer, he got on stage and performed with Snoop “The Next Episode,” before Snoop gave us Tupac’s “California Love.” 50 Cent emerged upside-down from the ceiling of a club offering up “In Da Club,” a mega-hit that Dre produced. The inimitable Mary J. Blige, majestic as ever, graced the stage as the only woman performer (and singer), gave us “Family Affair,” a flawless performance of “No More Drama,” as if she was a choir singer. The singular Kendrick Lamar’s flow and style dazzled. And of course, Eminem entertained more than the game itself did with his thunderous performance of “Lose Yourself.” The show itself, set in on a stage featuring Compton’s neighborhood establishments showcased a specificity against the mass consumer event of the Super Bowl. It showed us how disruptive hip-hop can be to how things normally are. It was a tremendous spectacle, equal parts convicting and comforting.
These artists are worth being centered in the United States for many reasons, not least of which is that hip-hop has been central to American music for the last twenty years, at least. The notion that this is the first time the NFL has centered hip-hop on its stage is indicative of the league’s racism. And so some have speculated that this was a sort of make-up call for the league’s storied racial prejudice. Colin Kaepernick’s protest against police brutality, in which he kneeled during the national anthem, sparked outrage across the league and nation. (Kaepernick couldn’t get signed after his protest either.) And recently, Brian Flores, a Black coach, filed a lawsuit against the NFL’s discriminatory hiring practices. Faced with these racist dilemmas, the NFL showcased nostalgia-inspiring hip-hop on its stage for the first time. But I must now that the league can barely do two things at once, consistently embroiled in sexual assault, it still propped up Dre—a known serial sexual assaulted—to make it appear woke.
The artists themselves brought their own subversive energy—and they may have achieved their goals, as they collected conservative critics. Charlie Kirk called it “sexual anarchy,” Nick Adams (a Trumpist author) described the artists as “hoodlums.” Eliciting these criticisms is part of what hip-hop is about. Audacious in its presence, it resists cultural hegemony, as it centers Black expression, and heralds irreverence especially propped against the endlessly patriotic and militaristic NFL. But more than the symbolism of the genre, the lyrical content of the songs followed suit. Despite the NFL’s protestations, Dre still rapped the line “Still not loving police,” while Eminem kneeled in honor of Kaepernick’s protest (an NFL-sanctioned kneel, mind you). The centering of Black music brought some Blackness to the NFL’s decided whiteness, but the question that is leftover is if such a display was meaningful enough to be noted.
Critics have noted these examples as I have, but as a viewer, especially at my age, I was happy to hear the familiar songs, to bob my head along to songs we used to blare out of our windows. It felt personal. It felt warm. It felt like something we haven’t felt in a long time. It felt like, for a moment, things were back to normal. The blast from the past is a reminder to us that life used to be different, more innocent than it is today. But as fun as that tour into our past felt, I still wondered whether the real message that needed to be said was less about comfort in our pandemic grief, and more about prophecy against the racism that plagues the country and the league.
To be sure, it is hard to celebrate the halftime show without feeling a little guilt, or cynicism. It’s hard to consume the NFL at all, considering all of its ethical blunders, not least of which the latest racist ones. It’s hard to see this half-time show as tokenizing opportunism, instead of a moment of correction and prophecy. And maybe it isn’t just one of any of these things. Maybe we can hold the complexity of the moment, enjoy what we can while longing for more. Maybe it’s OK to receive some comfort that soothes our pain while feeling the discomfort of having so much more to do. Maybe we can see the goodness for what it is, instead of just critiquing it as a performance. Maybe we shouldn’t reduce this to a forced expression of Black History Month, but celebrate the artists who gained this achievement. Maybe our cynicism doesn’t need to write the story, but maybe our idealism doesn’t need to eclipse the fact that racism is still rampant in football and in the country.
Maybe this is a call to check all of us who are quick to criticize the NFL’s centering of hip-hop as too-little, too-late. For those of us who long for a more assertive protest – even as we watch from our couches. Pushback counts and we should continue to express it but hold the good too. Celebrate the instance. Lose yourself in the music, the moment.
I hope that we can hold both as people, in general. That just because self-work isn’t done, that doesn’t preclude us from celebrating the good that we’ve accomplished so far. I hope we can hold that even if our desires for more are still there. It is a moment to receive some comfort, some nostalgia, while also noting that the past (and the present) aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. It’s a reminder that our future may not be idyllic either.
When it comes to combatting forces like racism, personally and systemically, every win counts. Every yard gained is one closer to the goal. Some days you might be sacked and lose a few yards, but we keep moving forward. We keep celebrating the big runs we make, even if we don’t score. We keep yearning against the forces of death and evil, even when the downfield trot seems impossible. We don’t despair at how far we have to go and give up. We allow our small victories, the moments where Dre defies the NFL’s rules, or even when football gives Eminem an approved protest (after all, protests are often permitted by the very cities that they are targeted against), to fuel us. And the best part is, we can fight with the familiar songs of our past in our ears.