The world is waiting with bated breath for Super Bowl Sunday, not simply for the chance to explode with hometown pride or to watch two brothers duke it out on the gridiron, but also—of course—for Rihanna’s halftime performance. Rihanna was one of the many musical artists who boycotted the 2019 Super Bowl in solidarity with Colin Kaepernick, the former 49ers quarterback who was blackballed for kneeling in protest of police brutality and social injustice during the national anthem at his games in 2016.* At the time, the Barbadian singer told Vogue that she turned down the opportunity to do the halftime show because she “just couldn’t be a sellout,” adding that there are “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.”
Now Rihanna has changed her tune, even though not much has changed with the NFL over the past seven years: Kaepernick, who settled a collusion case against the league in 2019, is still a free agent, the organization had to be pressured to end “race-norming” in their dementia testing, and coach Brian Flores, joined by two other coaches, filed a suit alleging discriminatory hiring practices just last year.
The singer’s 180-degree switch leads to a lot of speculation: Will Rihanna try to critique the NFL (and the general state of race relations in America) by pulling a similar stunt to Beyoncé’s in 2016 and dressing her background dancers as maybe not Black Panther Party members, but Marcus Garvey–ites? Will she bring Kaepernick out at any point, or kneel, or do something? Or was 2019 Rihanna simply playing into the moment without caring about the Movement—and lying to Vogue at that?
Though that last possibility would be disappointing, it isn’t entirely unlikely. The singer’s upcoming set marks her first performance since becoming a mom, and the Super Bowl’s is the biggest stage she’ll perform on amid her longest-lasting musical dry spell. Her most recent album, Anti, was released seven years ago, much to her fans’ dismay. Her decision to perform at halftime has sparked rumors that she’ll capitalize on the wide visibility of the gig to bolster an announcement of the long-awaited arrival of her ninth studio album.
There’s no way to sugarcoat Rihanna’s willingness to sing on the NFL stage though the organization’s behavior remains mostly unchanged, but there is one way to make the decision worth it. Rihanna needs to reprise her single best televised performance thus far: her dancehall medley from the 2016 MTV Video Music Awards.
Rihanna’s “Rude Boy”/“What’s My Name”/“Work” medley, the second of four medleys she performed that year as the recipient of the Video Vanguard Award, was by far the most outwardly Caribbean performance the singer has ever given. Dancehall, developed in late-1970s Jamaica, is a subgenre of reggae named for dance halls that offered local sound systems in which a DJ would preside over prerecorded instrumentals (affectionately called “riddims”). The genre has become popular across the greater Caribbean and is a forefather of hip-hop—it can still be heard in songs by popular musicians today, from non-Caribbean rappers like Drake to Jamaican artists like Sean Paul. Rihanna’s mashup consisted of intelligent remixes of her popular songs with familiar dancehall riddims underneath. To pay homage to this history in under four minutes, like she did in this medley, is masterful.
To start, Rihanna performed her song “Rude Boy,” but with the famous bass line from Chaka Demus and Pliers’ “Murder She Wrote” (which itself repurposed Toots and the Maytals’ “Bam Bam”). Then, she transitioned to her song “What’s My Name?” with an interlude of Beenie Man’s signature “Oh na na na” intro, over a quick snippet of the Diwali Riddim that famously features in Lumidee’s song “Never Leave You.” When Rihanna finally reaches “What’s My Name?” she switches out the instrumental of her hit song in favor of dancehall’s Playground Riddim—which can famously be heard in Beenie Man’s hit “Who Am I?”—with an overlay of the popular vocal sample (the “heys”) of the Showtime Riddim. Then, to slide into her final song of the medley, “Work,” she includes a brief interlude that chops up Mr. Vegas’ “Heads High,” which showcases the Filthy Riddim, before going into her original version of her own dancehall hit.
But the astonishment of this barely four-minute performance isn’t simply in the musical arrangement; it’s also in the look of it: Rihanna brought a whole heap of people pon de stage and turned the VMAs into a Caribbean club. It’s nearly visceral how real it feels: smoky, crowded with bodies holding Solo cups, sweaty, and lit only by colorful club lighting. There’s not enough space to move, but the movement finds a way as dancers show off all kinds of dancehall steps around Rihanna, while she herself takes the occasional moment to bruk it down.
This performance has circulated in my Jamaican family group chat countless times, as a casual reminder of the effervescent quality that our culture has. It’s a superpower that can brighten any mood, liven any situation, and get you hype if you were bored, or standing if you were sitting. It is music that is made to speak to your hips as much as to your soul, and it is, undoubtedly, a damn good time.
This single performance is also the most dynamic performance the Bajan singer has given to date, and sadly, we’re relegated to watching a grainy bootleg copy, since it is the only medley of the four that the VMAs hasn’t officially put on YouTube. Not to mention, it’s only three and a half minutes long—but I know Rihanna has more in her! I want to hear her throw one of her hits over the Bookshelf Riddim of Sean Paul “Deport Them” fame! I want her to channel her inner Elephant Man and give dem a run! I want her to slow it down and swing those hips to a classic she has already covered, Dawn Penn’s “You Don’t Love Me (No, No, No).”
It would be nice to see Rihanna break it down with a Caribbean groove on national television again, because it would be a testament to her identity as an island gyal. To showcase her culture, our culture, on one of TV’s biggest nights would be a continuation of her consistent reminder to the public of who she is—someone who will not stand for being pushed or persuaded by anyone else to release an album, confine her business to the music industry, or even maintain decorum online—and it would be the Blackest show she could conduct on a stage owned by an organization whose racist history she openly disagrees with. When Rihanna honors her roots in her art, she becomes the most entertaining version of herself. Please, Rihanna: The world could use some levity right now, in the form of letting loose and wining our waists at the Super Bowl party.
Correction, Feb. 12, 2023: Due to an editing error, this piece originally described Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling as having taken place at one game, rather than many, throughout the 2016 season.