Superbowl 50: a tale of two Panthers

I missed the Superbowl last weekend. I almost always miss the Superbowl, because even though I am a fan of things American, I am not prepared to stay up half the night to watch guys in shoulder pads run into each other over and over again, for hours. But it turns out that this year’s game was one to watch. Not for the football, but for the half time show.

The NFL has a peculiar history with race relations. African American players were part of NFL teams from the beginning of a formal football league in the early 20th century, but from 1933 until after the war, teams did not recruit Black players. After the war, integration was slow, but by 2014 almost 70% of players in NFL teams were African Americans. The league still suffers from what ESPN has called a ‘coaching diversity crisis’, pointing to the results of a recent academic study on racial disparity in leadership positions.

It wasn’t until 2007 that a Superbowl was won by a team coached by an African American. Tony Dungy’s Indianapolis Colts beat the Chicago Bears to win Superbowl XLI. But Dungy himself had overcome career slumps of his own, possibly based on systematic racism within the NFL. In 2003 the Rooney Rule was introduced to attempt to even out the playing field (pun intended) for African American coaches, who were much more likely to be fired from their positions than their white counterparts. Since then, things have begun to change, but slowly.

So, when Beyoncé took to the stage last Sunday to sing her new song ‘Formation’ as part of the half-time show, she did so in an environment that was not racially neutral. When she followed Chris Martin and Bruno Mars with a stomping rendition of the song, complete with Black Panther iconography, she was performing black lives in an arena where there are still serious questions over who holds power. She was performing blackness in an America where African Americans still struggle to exercise economic power, and where mass incarceration has stripped a large proportion of the black population of their full citizenship rights. At Fox news, pundits’ heads exploded. Tellingly, Rudi Giuliani complained that the show was inappropriate because ‘middle America’ watched the Superbowl. He seems to think that middle America does not include black men at risk of being shot in the street by police.

Of course, song as protest is not new. Neither is commercializing protest. From Billie Holiday’s Strange Fruit and Nina Simone’s Mississippi Goddamn, to Bob Marley’s Get Up, Stand Up and NWA’s Fuk da Police, artists and the labels that support them create, produce and make money from political protest. So, what was it about this show that was so provocative?

In yesterday’s Guardian, Syreeta McFadden’s article goes much of the way towards unpacking the answer to this. She outlines how the song speaks to young African American women and explains the resonance of the lyrics for a generation. She focuses mostly on the official video. I watched it for the first time this morning: it is incredibly evocative. The young kid with the hoodie challenging the police through dance is particularly effective. One wonders how long they would have stood still and watched him had that been a real life incident.

Reactions have focused on the ways that Beyoncé’s performance channelled the imagery of the Black Panthers (founded in Oakland, across the bridge from San Francisco, in 1966) and connected to the #blacklivesmatter movement. Black leather, afro hair, bodies draped with mocked-up ammunition and shotgun shells. It was interesting that Beyoncé chose to wear her lightened hair in contrast with her dancers: white benchmarks of beauty are still so dominant in a country where well over 70% of magazine covers feature white models.

The black female body has always been considered in a depoliticized way, stripped since slavery of its agency. Theorists like bell hooks have commented on the commodification of the black female body, its exploitation and framing in ways that are deemed acceptable for white men. Certainly the shock was that the female body was fighting back.

What I found particularly interesting is the way that nobody seemed to criticize Bruno Mars or Chris Martin. Martin’s opening and closing routines were rainbow-laden exhortations to ‘believe in love’. In the light of the Obergefell decision last summer, perhaps pundits are over the controversy of same-sex love, and at least Martin sang in English.

But Mars and his dancers were also dressed in black leather (leatherette? PVC?) with gold chains around their necks and afro hair. They pranced around the stage, in much the same way as Beyoncé’s dancers did. Was this acceptable because they weren’t singing about black rights? Fox’s Steve Doocy thought ‘Bruno Mars was fantastic’, but dismissed Beyoncé altogether. The inconsistency of his position makes the message clear: ‘black’ music is fine once it’s not political, and black men dressed in black leather are not as threatening as black women. Formation is a term of war, or battle: Beyoncé’s war cry, the resurrection of the protest song, and her donation with Jay Z of $1.5 million will ensure that the conversation continues.

The Carolina Panthers lost the Superbowl, by the way. I think the Black Panthers beat them.

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