Rihanna and the pressure on Black artists to be political

RiRi is no ordinary billionaire, and the Super Bowl offered an unparalleled platform for visibility and integration

Published February 13, 2023 3:59PM (EST)

Rihanna performs onstage during the Apple Music Super Bowl LVII Halftime Show at State Farm Stadium on February 12, 2023 in Glendale, Arizona. (Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
Rihanna performs onstage during the Apple Music Super Bowl LVII Halftime Show at State Farm Stadium on February 12, 2023 in Glendale, Arizona. (Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

Robyn Rihanna Fenty is a singularity. Descending from the rafters on a glass stage, clad all in red against a backdrop of dancers dressed in white parkas, performing solo in spite of widespread internet speculation on Twitter and in the Vegas prop bet market about whom she might invite to collaborate and returning skyward  – the first Barbadian, the first billionaire and the first pregnant woman to perform the Super Bowl halftime show stood alone.

Rihanna is an exceptionally unusual billionaire.

Confronted with the practical expectations of stepping onto one of the most prominent stages after a long absence, and facing enormous political pressure as an Afro-Caribbean woman in the U.S. with a history of boldly progressive activism, Rihanna's performance walked a complicated line between professional, personal and activist goals, with layered politics of representation holding it all together.

The halftime show had been both hotly anticipated and rife with controversy. While the musician and fashion mogul has remained in the public eye through her work with her Fenty cosmetic and lingerie lines, as well as her single "Lift Me Up" on the "Wakanda Forever" soundtrack,  she hasn't appeared on stage since the 2016 release of "Anti," her first album for Jay-Z's Roc Nation label. The Feb. 12 performance marked the end of a seven-year hiatus. Rumors continue to fly online that it will be the first and highest profile stop in a world tour, and maybe even a launchpad for a new studio release.

At the same time, Rihanna's history with the NFL is complicated. In a now-famous 2019 interview with Abby Aguirre in Vogue – an article where she aligned herself with political progressives on issues ranging from gun rights to immigration reform – she unequivocally acknowledged that she rejected an opportunity to appear at Super Bowl LIII in Atlanta in support of Colin Kaepernick. "I couldn't dare do that," she told Aguirre. "For what? Who gains from that? Not my people. 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." Dropping in October 2019, hot on the heels of Jay-Z's widely critiqued summertime deal between Roc Nation and the NFL, Rihanna's political stand was applauded by liberals and progressives across the U.S. and around the world. 

Four years later, in her Apple Music-sponsored press conference with Nadeska Alexis, Rihanna shifted political gears as she explained why she had taken the job, speaking extensively about the importance of representation. Rihanna told Alexis, "That's a big part of why this is important for me to do this show: representation. Representing for immigrants. Representing for my country, Barbados. Representing for Black women everywhere. I think that's really important. That's key for people to see the possibilities." 

The tension between Rihanna's 2019 and 2023 positions – and the halftime show performance itself – reveals both the virtues and the limitations of the politics of representation, and calls into question the viability of a multi-billion-dollar platform like the Super Bowl as an engine for social change.

It's important to understand that Rihanna is an exceptionally unusual billionaire. While Rihanna currently has money in the bank, that wasn't always so. Whereas many of her white, male counterparts like Elon Musk launched their careers with enormous loans from family members, Rihanna is virtually entirely self-made. Her family wasn't poor, but nor were they wealthy, and their financial and emotional lives were severely impacted by her father's substance addictions and abusive behavior. But as much as these particular issues are specific to Rihanna's family, they are also structural. Like so many afro-diasporic people, Black Barbadians very seldom have access to generational wealth, which tends to be consolidated among the white colonial elites in that country, together with accounts associated with foreign investors taking advantage of the country's status as a relative tax haven while contributing minimally to local economies.

For Rihanna to have achieved what she has in spite of the enormity of these systemic obstacles is astounding, and absolutely worthy of celebration.

Rihanna also had an entirely different set of cards stacked against her as a musician. The music industry had already moved into an unsustainable revenue distribution model for musicians when Rihanna released her "Anti" in 2016, but since then it has only gotten worse. With organizations like Spotify paying out fractions of a cent per stream, and the costs of touring skyrocketing due to the pandemic, inflation and rising energy costs, it has become more and more difficult for artists in North America to make a living from their craft, even artists on Rihanna's scale.

Rihanna's prescient choice to shift gears with the 2017 establishment of her Fenty beauty and fashion companies was the entrepreneurial masterstroke that moved her from being merely wealthy to the world's youngest self-made billionaire. Needless to say, the 50/50 Fenty ownership split with Parisian fashion house LVMH has been more productive for her than the $0.003/stream she makes from Spotify. Indeed, at this point, her musical career is very much just one aspect of her broader personal brand, albeit a foundational one. For Rihanna to have achieved what she has in spite of the enormity of these systemic obstacles is astounding, and absolutely worthy of celebration.

The Super Bowl performance offered her an unparalleled opportunity for brand visibility and integration. Although she made far less money in her career as an artist than as a fashion mogul, her music was nevertheless at the center of the brand equity she leveraged to develop and grow the Fenty fashion empire. Her credibility and salability as a fashion icon coheres around her status as a bold musical visionary. Her personal and business profits from the Super Bowl appearance are a case in point: like all Super Bowl halftime show performers, she won't be paid an appearance fee by the NFL. But she has forged a partnership with halftime show lead sponsor Apple TV that will apparently pay her "millions" to co-develop a documentary film that will weave together elements of the rehearsal and performance process with her life story – perhaps in the model of Beyoncé's 2019 "Homecoming" for Netflix, based on her 2018 Coachella set. At the same time, Rihanna has developed new "Game Day" products for all of her Fenty brands, and even launched a new sportswear line for Savage x Fenty. The iconic moment at the opening of "All of the Lights" where she paused to touch up her makeup was merely a gesture towards the extensive work already done behind the scenes.

Want a daily wrap-up of all the news and commentary Salon has to offer? Subscribe to our morning newsletter, Crash Course.

At the same time, there is good reason to be circumspect about a billionaire using a huge media platform to make even a progressive political statement, especially where that statement doubles as a revenue-generating brand position. By focusing on representation – and the pursuant liberal assumption that if she can make it to the Super Bowl stage, anybody who looks like her can make it there – Rihanna and her team risk disguising the colossal hurdles she has had to overcome. The sheer improbability of her artistic and financial successes makes them both more remarkable and less replicable. With a performance that focused on representation without naming those challenges, Rihanna certainly enhanced her bottom line, put on an incredible show, and made her audience feel fantastic. Without question, all of these things matter immensely.

By focusing on representation ... Rihanna and her team risk disguising the colossal hurdles she has had to overcome.

But it's unclear what, if any, material impact these factors will have on the lives of the immigrants, Black women, Caribbean people and pregnant women whom she proposes to represent, especially relative to the likelihood that her appearance would enrich the bank accounts and brand equity of NFL owners who, as a group, are overwhelmingly committed to working against Rihanna's political positions. What does seeing someone who looks like you on a stage like that accomplish if their path is practically impossible for you or anyone else to reproduce? 

With the cross-brand integration opportunities she has mined from her halftime show appearance, alongside the renewed interest it will surely generate in her back catalogue – recently remastered for streaming using Apple's patented "spatial audio" – all in the face of enormous obstacles, Rihanna won the Super Bowl even before the Chiefs did. In an event that opened with a stirring performance of "Lift Every Voice," the Black national anthem, and featured two black quarterbacks for the first time in the championship game, Black excellence was on full, powerful display. Now that the show is over, we all have to commit to ensuring that Rihanna doesn't remain a singularity by dismantling the systems and structures of white supremacist capitalist patriarchy that have made her path so remarkable and so difficult to follow.

By Mark Laver

Saxophonist and ethnomusicologist Mark Laver is an Associate Professor of Music at Grinnell College, where he directs the jazz band and teaches classes on jazz and popular music. His first book, “Jazz Sells: Music, Marketing, and Meaning” (Routledge 2015), explores the use of jazz music in advertising, marketing, and branding.

MORE FROM Mark Laver

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Commentary Fenty Halftime Show Music Rihanna Sports Super Bowl