We are two days post Rihanna’s Superbowl performance and there have been a barrage of critiques and think pieces about the event. I have read several reviews, (re)watched the performance, and watched her Apple Music Half Time Press Conference moderated by Nadeska (https://youtu.be/kPKvslHF2ps). There are many points of view and a range of analysis based on everything from her pregnancy, the choreography, costume (homage to late fashion editor and stylist Andre Leon Talley), her virtuosity by being suspended in the air on platforms (while pregnant), the assault on Black motherhood and womanhood, the unlimited expectations of Black women, her playlist selection, the fact that she was unpaid, and the marketing for Fenty. The list goes on and on. I think one of the statements that was a constant was why are we spending “so much energy” discussing this performance? For their/your edification, there is a whole field of study/inquiry and a profession that critiques and analyzes culture, performance, etc. We are in fact cultural critics and analysts. And…it is important.
To be clear, in my discussion of Rihanna’s performance, I’m not “tearing anyone down” with my analysis. I’m a cultural critic, particularly one who analyzes performance ESPECIALLY OF CARIBBEAN WOMEN. To be even clearer, when you live your life in the spotlight as an entertainer, discussions about your craft are not only a requirement, it is also expected. To be super clear, it is important to note that one can be critiqued and it not be considered an attack on the person, their artistry, Black womanhood; allah dat.
My disappointment on Sunday’s presentation comes from a selfish place. I anticipated analyzing Rihanna’s performance and connecting it to my dissertation research on erotic performance (within a Black female dancehall context). Her performance was important (to me) due to my efforts to theorize movement from a Black feminist and Caribbean performance framework. That said, I have constructed my own definition of erotic performance building off Audre Lorde’s (1984) erotic as power and also the work of more contemporary scholars Jaffari Allen (2011), Lynden Gill (2018), and Sabia McCory-Torres (2017), McCoy-Torres specifically addresses this within dancehall performance. I am looking at 9 elements (read the upcoming dissertation!!); very few of these elements were displayed in Rihanna’s individual performance in comparison to her previous performances. So, this is not a critique of motherhood nor is it a comparison of her to any other female performers. It is in fact, for me, a comparison of her to her other performances. And as Caribbean person, woman, performer I was disappointed. Listen, I get it. She was 6 months pregnant and was suspended in the air; she was probably dealing with fatigue, exhaustion, and physical limitations, etc., and she showed up and did her best. That is wonderful, but there were a few things missing for me and that included seeing her iconic BAD Gyal styling and Caribbean, Dancehall, and Carnival culture. There was a hip wine here and there, I saw the dancers “pepper seed” and “butterfly”. In my opinion, the performance was lacking the dancehall vibe which is the Caribbean representation I thought she was speaking of in her pre performance interview and what she is most noted for. I felt that it wasn’t slack, dutty, wicked or EROTIC. There were some dancehall elements, the batty was jumpin’ at times, there were some body rolls, some of the dancers did the infamous head top stand and Rihanna did “tap her pun#@y.”
Now, Ms. Fenty ain’t really a performer in the traditional sense but she always gave us screw face, mi nah rump and mi no skin teet vibes and the aesthetic of the cool which dance historian Dr. Gottschild defines as “…hot/engaged with cool/detached…Cool however, is manifested in contrast with hot…” (Gottschild 2002, 7). The aesthetic of the cool is “emblematic in the full spectrum of Africanist aesthetic characteristics” (7) and most certainly is a performed identity in dancehall culture. I didn’t see or feel it. This was her BIG return to the stage after 6 years (her own admission). ALL EYES WERE ON HER, globally. Particularly, from the Caribbean massive. We was watchin’!
I read the challenges that her production team navigated which included “maximizing her body of work in 13 minutes”, Rihanna’s pregnancy, managing the 200 plus performers, “Protecting that grass from the massive weight of Rihanna’s stage, and thus from altering that Gmax rating, [this] required delicate choreography. For one, Rodgers says, the stages for this year’s show could only be about half the size they have been in previous years. There was also the matter of getting them on and off the field swiftly. The crews had about 7.5 minutes to set up this year’s performance and about six to take it down. ‘That’s the science you have to inject into an artist’s world,’ Rodgers says” (Watercuter 2023). So, I get it. I am not minimizing the effort that went into this performance; I am analyzing particular elements of the performance.
I read some comments suggesting that a Carnival theme would have been appropriate. I say yes and no. Yes, this is a fantastic concept but what about the execution and criticism/critique of the Black performers WININ up and gettin’ on bad? I am positive that a negative critique would be shared by both white and Black folk operating in the politics of respectability; this would only detract from the AMAZING experience and celebration of African Diaspora culture and creativity. Some white and Black “Christian” conservatives would be clutching their pearls. What would they wear? How would the performance maintain its authenticity on this platform? I can hear the hypersexual (mis)readings and the politics of the Black body debates, inclusive of the demonization of Black culture now! Plus, dey didn’t want di people dem to trample di grass and ting, so that wasn’t gonna work anyway!
There were many spectacular elements that night. In terms of choreography, the visuals, the large group choreography, and formations were great. It was clean, dynamic, and engaging. The dancers were fiyah! Their ferocious energy carried us through the 13 minutes. Rihanna’s musical selection was good, she stated these choices were simply trial and error. Congratulations to the creative team—designer Willo Perron, choreographer Parris Goebel, and production manager Joseph Lloyd.
The Caribbean massive will always big up RiRi. WE LOVE HER…PERIODT! I’ll wait for the next performance to see who and what part of herself she presents because Black women are nuanced and have nuanced experiences and that is OK.
Allen, Jafari S. 2011. Venceremos? The Erotics of Black Self-Making in Cuba. Durham: Duke University Press.
Extratv. (2023, February 9). Watch Rihanna’s Super Bowl LVII Halftime Press Conference. https://youtu.be/kPKvslHF2ps
Gill, Lyndon K. 2018. Erotic Islands: Art and Activism in the Queer Caribbean. Durham: Duke University Press.
Gottschild, Brenda D. 2002. “Crossroads, Continuities, and Contradictions: The Afro-Euro-
Caribbean Triangle.” In Caribbean Dance from Abakuá to Zouk: How Movement Shapes
Identity, ed. by Susanna Sloat, 3-10. Gainesville: University Press of Florida.
Lorde, Audre. 1984. “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power.” In Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. New York: Random House.
McCoy-Torres, Sabia. 2017. “Love Dem Bad: Embodied Experience, Self-Adoration, and Eroticism in Dancehall.” Transforming Anthropology, 25(2): 185-200.
Watercuter, Angela. 2023. “Wired.” https://www.wired.com/story/super-bowl-rihanna-halftime-tech-flying/?utm_source=facebook&utm_social-type=owned&mbid=social_facebook&utm_medium=social&utm_brand=wired&fbclid=IwAR12n0CsGM94vkWOp-dbSjvrc6EwgsdgXBupz5YUYT_Pjg-viCwYSqLzTzg&mibextid=Zxz2cZ
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Image 2: Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
Image 3: Polygon
Image 4: Ross D. Franklin