The Transnational Politics of The 2020 Super Bowl Halftime Show

Originally published on on February 7, 2020.

This Sunday’s Super Bowl halftime performance was, let’s face it, quite the show. Like many people watching, I have been a fan of both Jennifer Lopez and Shakira since my childhood and was excited to see them perform together for the first time. However, this performance cannot be understood as simple millennial nostalgia. It was many things to many people. It was JLo’s redemption after not getting the Oscar nomination for Hustlers and, for both her and Shakira, a summary of two impressive careers in music. It was a masterclass in entertainment led by two women of Latin American descent. It was an example of how to seamlessly incorporate elements of distinct traditions into a show meant for a mainstream audience mostly unfamiliar with what they were seeing. It gave us champeta on one of the biggest stages in the world. It gave us Bad Bunny and J Balvin showing a different side of reggaeton. It had what would become the most emblematic moment of the evening: Jennifer Lopez’s young daughter and other children signing from a metal cage in an urgent reminder of the horrors happening at the US-Mexico border, our image of the week. 

It was powerful.

It was also part of a territorial and demographic expansion of an institution rife with anti-black and anti-indigenous practices. 

The National Football League has in recent years begun a rapid and sustained effort to expand its brand to a larger Spanish-speaking audience. This is being done in two ways. First, the NFL has been courting the domestic Hispanic audience through initiatives such as Hispanic Heritage Month which features prominent Hispanic players attending community events across the US, all of which can be followed with the hashtag #feeltheorgullo (which translates to #feelthepride). The organisation has even developed a themed lotería —a traditional game of chance popular in Mexico and among Mexican-American communities— which feature the logos of the 32 league teams and their translated names. Second, this expansion is also targeted at a larger Mexican and Latin American market. The NFL has developed, with the help of many state governments in northern Mexico, a version of the game called tochito, designed to be played in high schools. In the case of the state of Sonora, a program supported by the League was implemented in all public schools in 2019 with a high school level league under development. This favours not only the growth of a fanbase for the NFL in the region, but also the creation of a new roster of potential future players. Furthermore, the NFL has been testing the market through partnerships with Televisa, the largest broadcaster in the Spanish-speaking world, which has organised games in Mexico City’s Azteca Stadium (also owned and operated by the aforementioned television network). A recent translation of the official league rules hint at a more structured and standardized approach to broadcasting and live commenting for the upcoming 2020-2021 games to be played at Azteca Stadium. The NFL has thus been strengthening its links to the Hispanic community and the larger Spanish-speaking world through government programs, community outreach, and local industry cooperation.

This is why the choice of these artists for the halftime show is worth discussing. It comes at a moment in the League’s history in which it seeks to expand its share of Spanish language sports market, while it simultaneously continues to support and propagate anti-black and anti-indigenous practices. 

To begin with the most obvious of these practices by the NFL, the organisation has been silent on the far too common use of indigenous stereotypes in team names and mascots. In fact, one of the teams in the final game aired last Sunday, the Kansas City Chiefs, has a fanbase which performs a racist chant before every match. 

Apart from this legacy of anti-indigenous racism, one of the most emblematic cases of racism by the NFL was its reaction to player Colin Kaepernick taking a knee during the national anthem. Since 2016 he has been the inspiration for a series of peaceful protests against police brutality towards Black Americans and structural racism. Once massive media attention was brought to the issue due to President Trump’s robust opposition, the NFL enacted a national anthem policy which indicated players must be standing during the ceremony. 

This attack on the silent protest movement and clear policing of Black and protesting bodies by the NFL prompted many prominent artists such as Rihanna and Cardi B to refuse to perform at the 2019 Super Bowl in Atlanta, Georgia, a majority black city. The entertainment  for that year was changed at the very last minute to Maroon 5. 

In this context, it was an interesting choice for the NFL to include such a strong message against the current administration through the imagery of children singing in cages. 

Why then, was the overtly political messages of the halftime show, in this case, given space by an organisation that has promptly and violently silenced others of the kind?

The first part of a possible answer is that this kind of political act is allowed because it is carried out within the authority and control of a governing body. If anything goes wrong, there are people held accountable. The act of “taking the knee” was organic, accessible, and allowed for imitation and repetition outside the initial space of performance. This makes the practice quite difficult to control, prevent, discourage, or eradicate. The Super Bowl halftime show was prepared in advance, rehearsed, reviewed, edited, and performed by people under contract. It was a message, a pointed one perhaps, but a sanctioned one nonetheless. 

Another element to consider is that this particular act was performed by non-Black bodies. Many of the cultural elements that both performers were applauded for having included were are rooted in Black cultures from Africa and Latin America. Although many of the invited performers were Black, the attention, the spotlight, was on two non-Black canonically beautiful women and two White latino rappers. As explained by Rutgers University Professor Zaire Z. Dinzey-Flores in their blog post, this conveniently separates the border issue from the police brutality issue by divorcing blackness from latinidad. Through the accessorization of Black bodies, culture, and knowledge throughout the performance, the halftime show is supporting a whitewashed narrative around the atrocities carried out at the border and stopping other social movements, such as Kaepernick’s, from joining in on a larger conversation on state violence and police brutality. It is as though both issues are not the result of state violence supported by what bell hooks calls the “imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy”. This simultaneously makes the message more palatable for a wider audience and, through the bodies that embody the message, presents a narrative of familiarity with a Spanish-speaking demographic. 

The third and final element I wish to consider are the different ways the idea of nation function both in Kaepernick’s protest and the halftime show caged children moment. In the former, the nation is suggested to be the cause of the issue at hand, and in the latter, it is presented as the solution. The protest movement that grew out of Kaepernick taking the knee was a comment on what would be the source of police brutality and anti-black racist practices: America, its government, and all institutions that support it (prisons, police, justice system, education system, etc). The proposal of taking the knee was that in order to move forward, those institutions need to dismantled and replaced, starting with the simple act of refusing to celebrate their most emblematic symbol, the American flag. In the case of the halftime show, once the children are shown in fluorescent cage-like structures, we are given a moment to make the connection between the setup and the atrocities happening at the border, and are immediately showered with national symbols. Although, to clarify, access to the country and inclusion in “American” society is what is being denied to these children and their families and insisting that, yes, Puerto Ricans are American and they are “Born in the USA” is great, but let’s not pretend that “America” or “Americanness” is not at the root cause of the issues at hand. These are institutions that are built on these practices and are being defended at the border and across the country through police services, ICE, and the like. 

While debates and conversations around the halftime show were centered mostly around the performers outfits, age, their inclusion of different elements of Latin American culture, or the supposed political messages displayed throughout, it is located at the crossroads of a large-scale NFL expansion into the Spanish-speaking world and a history of racism from the League. 

So then, was it a win for diversity as some are calling it? Perhaps. Was it a win for the NFL? I believe that’s more likely. 

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