Rihanna’s a sellout, and I’m disappointed

OPINION: The singer and entrepreneur once declined to perform at the Super Bowl out of solidarity with Colin Kaepernick, who was blackballed by the NFL for protesting police brutality — and police killings have only gotten worse. So why perform now?

Rihanna performs during Apple Music Super Bowl LVII Halftime Show at State Farm Stadium on February 12, 2023 in Glendale, Arizona. (Photo by Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for Roc Nation)

Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.

Rihanna hit the stage Sunday with all the glory given to a superstar of her level. She was gorgeous, in a red puffer coat that was possibly an homage to the late André Leon Talley, and she showed off her second baby bump while running through a roster of hits like “Bitch Better Have My Money” and “We Found Love.” The problem is, during that show, she sold out her previous support for the Colin Kaepernick-led NFL protests against police brutality a month after another gang of cops killed yet another Black man, Tyre Nichols. 

Here’s what the pop star told Vogue in October 2019 about declining to perform at the Super Bowl:

“I couldn’t dare do that. For what? Who gains from that? Not my people. I just couldn’t be a sellout. I couldn’t be an enabler. There’s 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.”

At the time, Kaepernick had been blackballed by the NFL for kneeling during the national anthem to protest police brutality.

Then, in November 2022, during a Savage x Fenty fashion show press conference, she told the Associated Press when asked why now was a good time to take to the Super Bowl stage:

“It was one of those things that, if I’m gonna leave my baby, I’m going to leave my baby for something special,” she said diplomatically. “I was willing to do it. It was now or never for me.”

At a press conference last Thursday she spoke about representation, saying, “Representing for immigrants. Representing for my country, Barbados. Representing for Black women everywhere,” she said. “I think that’s really important. That’s key for people to see the possibilities. And I’m honored to be here.”

This is an interesting statement since she’s not the first Black performer to take the Super Bowl stage — from Michael Jackson to Beyoncé, there have been plenty. Honestly, I want to know why Rihanna thought Black people weren’t important enough to protest for now. What changed between October 2019 and November 2022?

Certainly not policing. In 2020, George Floyd was killed on camera, as police calmly stood by his dying body in Minnesota. Breonna Taylor was killed by police who burst into her apartment in Louisville, Kentucky. Rayshard Brooks was shot to death by police while sitting in his car in a Wendy’s parking lot. This year, Keenan Anderson was tased to death in Los Angeles in January, followed by Nichols a week later in Memphis, Tenn., and the bodycam footage of his beating had a countdown like a snuff film.

It’s been grim, and the death march has only gotten louder since Rihanna’s 2019 protest. According to the Washington Post, cops killed 1,048 Americans in 2021 and 1,096 in 2022, the most on record, and these are only the deaths media have reported. Black and brown people are still killed at a much higher rate than white people. So again, why end this well-earned protest now? 

Well, capitalism. 

There’s new Fenty makeup and Savage x Fenty clothes to sell and brick-and-mortar stores to promote. No new album yet — sorry fans! — but Rihanna did launch a new beauty product on Sunday. She dropped a limited-edition clothing collection specifically for the Super Bowl to commemorate her return to the stage after a long absence, buoyed by the birth of her son with A$AP Rocky. But that’s not why she said she was performing, and that’s what’s bugging me. Her quoted reasons feel dishonest, as well as formulaic, especially the bit about performing for representation.

In 2019, I was proud of the Bajan singer and business mogul when she didn’t perform because she didn’t want “to be of service to” a group of wealthy, mostly white men who run a sports league where nearly 70% of players are Black. Remember when Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said he didn’t want his players to kneel or they’d be punished, aligning with then-President Trump, who offered that maybe footballing protesters should be deported. Remember the NFL’s poster boy Tom Brady siding with Trump and lightly admitting that he too was a fascist and a racist by propping his red MAGA hat in his locker. 

This is the NFL, who would rather give Black people a singing spot than let a player say what he thinks is right in the name of basic humanity — because that’s what Kaepernick was fighting for, the right for Black people to just live. Think for a moment what could happen if we all — players, coaches, fans, performers and advertisers — had stepped away from the NFL until Kaepernick was reinstated and allowed to live out his dream of playing football, something he loved but I imagine unintentionally sacrificed because he had a logical opinion. We’ll never know because Black people keep performing for and supporting an organization that told us to basically shut up and cheer while some of us are still being slaughtered by police.

Rihanna didn’t do the performance for me, a Black woman, and representation will not save us. I’d rather she say the protest against police violence wasn’t loud enough for her to forgo the spotlight of Super Bowl halftime stage and the 28.5 million viewers it provided. From her Fenty lines to her music — and soon another child — Rihanna has things to do and bills to pay. But if you’re going to sell us out with fizzy pop fun and gingerly exacted choreography, at least be honest about it. 

Hillary Crosley Coker is a New York-based journalist, editor and producer with over 20 years covering entertainment, news, politics and culture. You can find her at @HillaryCrosley on Twitter until The Man ruins it for good. She loves black tea, her Black family, sarcastic jokes and British television — she knows that last one is problematic, but even her conditioning has been conditioned.

Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.