Black Excellence

The Super Bowl Only Has Cultural Relevance Because of Black People

This year’s Super Bowl Halftime Show features not one, not two, but five different hip-hop artists as the headlining acts: Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Eminem, Kendrick Lamar, and Mary J. Blige.

It’s not the first time hip-hop entertainers or even rappers have been part of the halftime festivities, but outside of the Black Eyed Peas in 2010, it’s the first time hip-hop acts are the sole, main attraction for what has become one of the world’s biggest performances — but it hasn’t always been that way.

The reasons the Halftime Show is as huge as it is now, undoubtedly, is due to Black people. While it’s certainly important to recognize that for Black History Month, that’s not why that statement needs to be said. Just like much of the NFL and American culture, it was largely Black people that pioneered the Super Bowl as the ultimate home for the best of entertainment — and it has been Black contributors on every level that have kept it that way, without receiving much of the due credit and recognition for it.

A look at the history of the Halftime Show proves it exists due both to Black entertainers on the screen and Black audiences at home.

First, as I’ve written about before, there’s a lot of historical context that is not often talked about when it comes to the show. The Super Bowl, which came into existence after the merger of the NFL and the American Football League (AFL) in 1966, did not initially have any halftime entertainment beyond local marching bands, which was standard for sporting events at the time. In fact, the honor for most appearances at a Super Bowl Halftime Show goes not to any pop star, but the Grambling State University band, with six.

In the 1980s, the sport became popular and the NFL cemented itself as the premier professional league for American football — largely thanks to Black players who made the AFL a serious competitor to the largely-segregated NFL in the 1960s, and Black stars after such as Jim Brown, Willie Brown, O.J. Simpson and others. That’s when the NFL began taking measures to improve the quality of entertainment displayed at the Super Bowl.

In 1982, Diana Ross sang the national anthem at Super Bowl XVI (16) in her native Detroit. The halftime show that year was put on by the non-profit Up With People, featuring a Motown-themed show. While likely not solely because of Ross and Up with People, 85 million would tune in to the game — astronomical numbers for the sport at the time. Their presence raised the bar for future performances at the Super Bowl, and established the popularity of the entertainment beyond the on-the-field product and commercials.

After Ross, many other stars lined up to do the national anthem — Barry Manilow, Neil Diamond, and Barry Manilow would take turns within the decade. Still, the pre-game tradition wasn’t consistent, and reverted back to marching bands and trumpet players during that time. Meanwhile, the rotating theme and sponsoring organizations taking on the Halftime Show were largely hit-or-miss, even by the low standards of that time. The Super Bowl XXIII (23) show in 1989 largely featured 3-D technology and an Elvis impersonator, which puts me to sleep just typing about it. It was unsurprisingly panned.

The constant fumbling that the NFL and the networks broadcasting the Super Bowl had just trying to keep their audiences entertained soon caught the attention of the competing networks, who began to establish serious counter-programming to challenge the game. Since the Super Bowl’s broadcasting rights rotated between NBC and CBS back then, and eventually ABC beginning in 1985, there weren’t many broadcast channels with an effective strategy on how to challenge the Super Bowl’s still-large audience share for at least three hours on a weekend evening. Then, a newer network without any NFL broadcasting rights at the time, Fox, came into play.

Starting with Super Bowl XXV (25) in 1991 and Super Bowl XXVI (26) in 1992 changed everything. A number of happenstances gave the Super Bowl its first, and thus far most, vulnerable moment in modern history at Super Bowl XXV. This was the first Super Bowl being broadcasted outside of North America, and Whitney Houston was booked to sing the national anthem beforehand.

While Houston’s vocal prowess was certainly known at the time, no one expected for her to blow the classic song out of the water, and transform it into an opportunity for harmonic excellence. It’s not only considered one of the best performances of the national anthem ever, but transformed how the song was sung forever. While this sounds like a good thing — and it certainly was for Houston, who would become rightfully considered one of the musical greats thereafter — the NFL was not prepared for a performance of this caliber.

Houston’s label, Arista Records, was able to take the performance’s recording and turn into a charting single. It’s not only sold millions, but was certified platinum and included in greatest hits compilations for Houston, whose label retained the rights to the song. (It’s worth noting that Houston sang the song live, but the version played during the broadcast and subsequently released was prerecorded, as is common for large-scale outdoor events. While it was a momentary controversy at the time, the recorded’s still-unquestionable excellence has outlasted it.)

At the same time of the game, the country was amidst a foreign affairs crisis, and a series of events would lead to the Gulf War (also known as Operation Desert Storm) commencing right as the game was being played. Several sponsors had already pulled out planned commercials or promotions due to the timing of everything, and FCC concerns led to cancellation of a large-scale Pepsi contest gimmick.

The halftime show, put on by the Walt Disney Company, was actually primed to be an innovative show in its own right: it featured a heavily popular music act, the New Kids on the Block, which was unheard of at the time. At the same time, it also literally included a bunch of kids — about 3,000 — on the field while a magic card trick took place. Yes, a magic trick — it wasn’t the first time, either. But, most of the show wasn’t shown live, and many never saw it at all, because coverage was preempted at ABC in favor for live coverage of Operation Desert Storm commencing — because it’s still America, where nothing better than war or conflict sells. I mean, that’s the Super Bowl’s appeal, too, right?

The show was shown by some local channels after the game, but others opted to carry the network’s scheduled post-game follow up, the premiere of the Dennis Quaid sitcom Davis Rules, which didn’t even last more than that season at the network.

The next year, at Super Bowl XXVI, the kids over at Fox thought that the best way to steal audiences over from the Super Bowl was not to run counterprogramming throughout the entire game, but a live show exactly when the halftime show was slated to begin, just as the Gulf War had done the year before. The network, largely comprised of Black shows at the time, chose the sketch show In Living Color for the task. And oh, did it: the Keenen Ivory Wayans-created show featuring Damon Wayans, Jim Carrey, David Alan Grier, and even Jennifer Lopez and Jamie Foxx in featured roles, got more eyeballs than that year’s halftime show, a “Winter Magic” themed tribute to the Winter Olympics that featured Gloria Estefan and Olympic figure skaters.

After two straight years of threats being posed to their status as the mammoth TV event, the NFL had to act. So for the next halftime show, the booked the penultimate live act available at that time: Michael Jackson.

Prior to Jackson, the halftime show focused on themes chosen by a constantly-changing list of corporations producing or sponsoring. The King of Pop proved that wasn’t the winning formula: just like with the national anthem and pre-game festivities, there needed to be serious showmanship and entertainment to keep viewers tuned in.

Michael Jackson’s show — if you have somehow never seen it — wasn’t technologically impressive by today’s standards, but he paved the way for the 15-minute hits medley and shock-value moves that would become standard in the years to come. It remains arguably one of his most famous performances.

In the years to come, the NFL would use what Houston and Jackson taught them, and used it to begin consistently booking top talent to attract viewers beyond the sports and commercials — and retain the rights to them, while still refusing to pay for acts to perform. (Jackson only agreed to do the show after the NFL donated $100,000 to his Heal the World charity.) They would also enter into a “gentleman’s agreements” not to air original programs as counter-programming to compete with the Super Bowl, and now all four major broadcast networks rotate the game every few years. (This year, NBC has it after swapping with CBS as to not conflict with the ongoing Olympics.)

But despite that, many of the shows in the nearly 30 halftime shows featured Black headlining acts, who in turn provided the infamous moments that have given the Halftime Show its storied, spectacular lore: Diana Ross flew away from the stage in a helicopter at Super Bowl XXX (30) in 1996, Prince created a phallic projection at Super Bowl XLI (41) in 2007, and of course, the infamous “Nipplegate” debacle in 2004, when Janet Jackson headlined Super Bowl XXXVIII (38) alongside Justin Timberlake, Jessica Simpson, P. Diddy, Nelly, and Kid Rock. Beyoncé bought out her Destiny’s Child bandmates and put on such a spectacular show that the lights literally went out.

Most of the guest acts that have stolen the show in its history have, too, been Black entertainers, such as Cee-Lo Green and Nicki Minaj, who appeared alongside headliner Madonna in Super Bowl XLVI (46) in 2012. Even when there’s a non-Black headliner, Black entertainers became important parts of the show — Lenny Kravitz and Missy Elliot guest appeared in Katy Perry’s Super Bowl XLIX (49) halftime in 2015, which is still the most-watched edition of the Halftime Show ever, is a good example. Facing accusations of racism and prejudice against Black artists after choosing Maroon 5 to headline the Super Bowl LIII (53) Halftime in 2019 in Atlanta, the band included Travis Scott and Big Boi in their show.

Later that same year, the NFL entered into a deal with Roc Nation, helmed by Jay-Z, to produce future Super Bowl Halftime Shows and associated entertainment. While the deal has plenty of issues, it exists because the NFL recognizes that it is Black musicians that even got them this much success, and they will need them to maintain it.

The National Anthem and pre-game duties remains a magnet for both established or budding singers as well, signalling Houston’s ongoing influence. Luther Vandross, Beyoncé, Mariah Carey, Gladys Knight, Jennifer Hudson, Jordin Sparks, and Alicia Keys have all led millions through the patriotic tune.

No matter how you cut it, there’s no way you can recognize the best performers in Super Bowl history — in the game of football, but otherwise as well — without recognizing most of them are Black: Houston, Jackson, Prince, Beyoncé, Ross — and even Janet, whether anyone likes it or not — changed entertainment with their performances.

This year, four Black artists will get an opportunity to do the same at halftime. Based on the buzz around the show, the performers are hoping for it. So too will Mickey Guyton, a Black country singer who will sing the national anthem; Jhené Aiko, who is singing “America the Beautiful”; and Mary Mary, who will sing the Black national anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing” get a similar opportunity.

Point is, while the NFL has issues with diversity across the board, and entertainers are still treated differently based on their race, you can thank Black entertainers for pioneering the Super Bowl Halftime Show, from In Living Color castmates to all of the performers who have taken the helm.

And even if you’re still not a fan of the festivities (I don’t blame you), you can also mark Janet Jackson Appreciation Day, which has grown into a Super Bowl counter-tradition honored by millions.

Now, if we could ever get queer acts… 

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