Rihanna’s Super Bowl halftime show was a lot of things, obviously. Her first public show in seven years. The most-watched pregnancy announcement in world history. Well-received overall, but not without its detractors.
And, of course, it was the end of the multi-platinum artist’s years-long holdout from music’s biggest stage over the NFL’s treatment of Colin Kaepernick.
Rihanna made headlines in 2019 when it was reported she had turned the league down because of Kaepernick. She later confirmed her stance in an interview with Vogue, taking a high-profile torch to the league:
I ask Rihanna if we can discuss politics. “How deep you wanna get?” she says. “However deep you’re willing to go,” I say. She signals that I may proceed, and I ask if it’s true that she turned down the Super Bowl halftime show in solidarity with Colin Kaepernick. “Absolutely,” she says. “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.”
Rihanna wasn’t alone in doing so, as Jay-Z was believed to have turned the NFL down for similar reasons up until he signed a partnership with the league and started working as a producer for the halftime show.
So what happened to make Rihanna go from “I was not about to go and be of service to them in any way” to posting a big football on her social media in September?
It’s hard to imagine Jay-Z, who gave Rihanna her start on his Def Jam record label, didn’t play a role in Rihanna’s decision, but the singer went into detail in an interview with British Vogue published Wednesday. Simply put, she said she believed the impact of a singer like her performing the halftime show outweighed the impact of her holdout, and couldn’t deny she was intrigued by the challenge:
So what changed? “There’s still a lot of mending to be done in my eyes,” she says now, “but it’s powerful to break those doors, and have representation at such a high, high level and a consistent level.” This last point is key for her. “Two Super Bowls back-to-back,” she says, referring to last year’s headliners, Dr Dre, Snoop Dogg, Eminem, Mary J Blige and Kendrick Lamar, “you know, representing the urban community, globally. It is powerful. It sends a really strong message.” There’s another key difference this time as well. “Of course,” she says, becoming visibly moved by this thought, “raising a young Black man is one of the scariest responsibilities in life.” It’s made her re-evaluate everything. “You’re like, ‘What am I leaving my kids to? This is the planet they’re gonna be living on?’” She shakes her head. “All of those things really start to hit differently.”
On top of the responsibility, she felt emboldened by motherhood too. “It’s this knowing that you can do anything,” she explains, “even things that seem the craziest, like, ‘I’m going to say yes to the Super Bowl in the middle of postpartum?’” She still can’t believe she agreed. “What the heck am I thinking? But you’re geeked on a challenge like that because you know what your body just did. You feel this sense of ‘Nothing is impossible.’” Not that the nerves aren’t jangling; of course, she had no clue when she accepted that she would be pregnant again by the time of the performance. “It was almost like an out-of-body experience,” she says of the day it was announced. “I have not been on stage in seven years,” she says. “Seven years! From zero to Super Bowl? That’s mental.”
Rihanna also reportedly said she was approached a few weeks before she was announced as the performer, but she actually missed the deadline to accept the gig. Given her star power and the impact of her saying “yes,” you can see why the NFL didn’t make it a hard deadline.
The end result was a show defined by Rihanna’s bulging catalog of No. 1 hits, a vertigo-inducing set of rising platforms and a small army of dancers (“So. Many. Dancers.” as Rihanna put it to Vogue). Rihanna also broke tradition by not bringing out a single guest star, as the “surprise guest” she hinted at before the Super Bowl turned out to be baby No. 2 with her partner ASAP Rocky.