A celebration of hip-hop on the Super Bowl halftime show points to a complicated relationship with inclusivity for the NFL.
The Rams might have defeated the Bengals, but last night’s Super Bowl LVI halftime show is overshadowing the game for a myriad of reasons. The mid-game performance was the first halftime show to exclusively celebrate hip-hop artists, with a showcase of musicians discovered or produced by the legendary Dr. Dre. Snoop Dogg, Mary J. Blige, 50 Cent, Eminem, and Kendrick Lamar medlied songs mostly from the early aughts, giving the show peak millennial nostalgia. But amidst the revelry were two significant moments that belie the NFL’s false promises of inclusivity; Eminem took a knee during his performance of “Lose Yourself,” and part of Kendrick’s lyric “and we hate po-po, wanna kill us dead in the streets fo’ sho’” was censored on his performance of “Alright.” Today, the NFL is making confounding statements that not only contradict their long-running history of promoting police and military propaganda, but also just make it sound like they’re lying altogether.
Puck reported ahead of the game on Sunday that the halftime show was causing a behind-the-scenes divide before artists even took the stage. Dr. Dre reportedly put up the majority of the $7 million that the performance cost himself (continuing the annual practice of the NFL not paying Super Bowl halftime show performers), while also buying an extra box suite for friends to watch from, but he apparently received pushback on the show’s cultural message — which the NFL is now denying.
An unnamed source close to the incident told Puck’s Eriq Gardner that Dre was being “disgustingly censored,” especially when it came to references to police violence. Allegedly during rehearsals, the NFL organizers took issue with a line from his 1999 song “Still D.R.E.,” in which he claims he’s “still not loving police.” While Dre still rapped that lyric, there was one other glaring omission. Kendrick performed his 2015 Black Lives Matter rallying cry “Alright,” and on the infamous line, "And we hate po-po / Wanna kill us dead in the street fo sho,” the word “po-po” was left out. Because of the way the performance was shot, it’s hard to tell if Lamar just didn’t rap the line, or if it was cut out by the telecast. Regardless, po-po is not a curse word — and its exclusion would speak to a much bigger issue of what the NFL stands for.
The NFL famously blackballed former San Francisco 49ers star Colin Kaepernick for protesting police brutality by sitting, and then taking a knee, during the national anthem in 2016 — a personal decision that lasted through the season, but created a movement with ripple effects that would last years later. Athletes who kneel during the anthem now are seen as doing so in solidarity with Kaepernick and with a similar stance against racial discrimination, and artists like Rihanna and Cardi B have refused to play the Super Bowl halftime show as well. So it was a clear nod last night when Eminem ended his segment by dramatically kneeling. Eminem has supported Kaepernick lyrically as well, in a freestyle at the BET Awards and in his 2017 song “Untouchable”: "Somebody has to be the sacrificial lamb / So they call it a Kaepernick tantrum / if you don't stand for the national anthem / We raise it, you better praise it.”
The NFL, a notoriously patriotic institution, doesn’t want anyone to think it didn’t support Eminem taking a knee, though. In a statement to Insider, a representative asserted, “We watched every rehearsal this week and these elements were included...As you know, no player, coach or personnel member has been sanctioned for taking a knee so there would be no reason for us to tell a performer he or she could not for whatever reason." While the NFL can say that on a technicality no one has been “sanctioned” for taking a knee, to ignore the ramifications to Kaepernick in their statement feels like a categorical denial of their long-running history of backing the blue and the military. (Representatives for Eminem and Kendrick Lamar did not respond for comment at the time this story was published.)
The NFL receives millions of dollars from the government in exchange for its splashy shows of support for the military and police industrial complex. It may seem normal now, but it wasn’t until 2009 that athletes were “encouraged” to stand for the anthem in actual NFL policy, per Vice. Think Progress also reported that it was in 2015 that the NFL was found by a Congressional report to be receiving millions from the Department of Defense for “flyovers, flag unfurlings, emotional color guard ceremonies, enlistment campaigns, and — interestingly enough — national anthem performances.”
The NFL understands its immense influence, and its billionaire gatekeepers wield it knowingly. Saying they were completely okay with Eminem kneeling in solidarity with Kaepernick feels both untrue and misleading. It would appear that the NFL wants to have their propaganda payoff cake and eat it too. A rousing performance of the National Anthem by rising Black country star Mickey Guyton can’t hide the fact that the anthem has become weaponized. Following that by trying to benefit from the imposed cool factor of hip-hop at this year’s halftime show just feels nefarious. The sloppy way censorship was doled out as well also speaks to a schism within the sport of which kinds of fans they are trying to court, and which ones they feel fine ostracizing. Some of the best of hip-hop were proudly on display on Sunday, and that’s a form of progress on its own; but the NFL clearly doesn’t know what to do with what hip-hop has historically protested and stands for, and fumbled the handling of its biggest show.