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(L-R) Eminem, Dr. Dre, Mary J. Blige, and Snoop Dogg perform onstage during the Pepsi Super Bowl LVI Halftime Show at SoFi Stadium on February 13, 2022 in Inglewood, California. (Photo:  Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for Roc Nation)

NFL Embraces Hip-Hop, Despite Its Conflicted History

Super Bowl halftimes have come a long way since Andy Williams and marching bands.

Sometime in the summer of 2023, the musical genre and lifestyle known as hip-hop will officially hit the half-century mark.

The difference now is that they've made their peace with hip-hop's critique of white privilege, its nonconformity, its own problematic narratives around gender and violence, its uncompromising Black aesthetic, its joy of innovation and its unpredictable irreverence.

It's hard to believe nearly 50 summers have passed since Clive Campbell, then an 18-year-old Jamaican-born American known as DJ Kool Herc, threw a house party in the South Bronx that changed the course of popular music while also challenging the idea of what constitutes American music.

Even as he thrilled party guests with unprecedented turntable artistry, no one, including Kool Herc himself, could have imagined that isolating and elongating beats using two turntables would become the foundation for an art form that would, within a generation, become the biggest and most profitable musical genre in the world.

DJ Kool Herc, now 66, probably watched Sunday's Super Bowl halftime show in amazement as Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Mary J. Blige, Kendrick Lamar, Eminem and 50 Cent performed the first all-hip-hop show in NFL history.

If he bothered to watch Super Bowl VII in 1973, the sight of Andy Williams performing "Marmalade, Molasses and Honey" and "Happiness Is" backed by the Citrus College Singers and Woody Herman and the Michigan Marching Band is probably still burned into his memory. That's where the NFL thought America was at the time. It was a billion miles away from a house party in the Bronx.

What was so striking about the halftime performance was that a genre that was once considered antithetical to American order and our collective values was being celebrated on the highest holy day of America's civic calendar.

How did a musical genre that has never disguised its skepticism of American institutions become "safe enough" to program on Super Bowl Sunday?

I suspect that the team owners who collude and exercise monopoly powers within the NFL are probably still as conservative as they've always been. The difference now is that they've made their peace with hip-hop's critique of white privilege, its nonconformity, its own problematic narratives around gender and violence, its uncompromising Black aesthetic, its joy of innovation and its unpredictable irreverence.

A few years ago, the NFL hired the rap icon and music mogul Jay-Z to program its Super Bowl halftime shows for the foreseeable future. The NFL has come a long way since its Andy Williams days, but it decided that tapping someone as widely respected as Jay-Z to help steer them into the future would be a worthwhile investment.

Access to Jay-Z's Rolodex wouldn't come cheap. In exchange for his contacts and good will, the NFL would finally be compelled to bestow its imprimatur on a genre of music it strategically ignored for decades.

Those of us who are old enough to remember the controversies that swirled around Dr. Dre and his band N.W.A. in the late 1980s can't help but be amazed at the deference and respect these same artists are receiving today.

Remember when the FBI sent N.W.A. a letter warning them that they would be subject to arrest if they performed a song from their debut album, "Straight Outta Compton," that was perceived as "anti-cop" by law enforcement?

It was surreal seeing Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg, his one time protégé, opening halftime with a G-rated performance of "The Next Episode" followed by "California Love" and getting the kind of reception that would've greeted Hall and Oates half a lifetime ago.

Did I dream that period in the early 1990s when Dre and Snoop were harassed by law enforcement for their recording of "Deep Cover," with its promise to do a "1-8-7 on an undercover cop?"

Yet, here they were at SoFi Stadium in broad daylight thrilling a sellout crowd with sanitized versions of songs that used to get them classified as public enemies.

When the spotlight segued to Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson hanging upside-down from a pullup bar in the rafters, I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that the game had irrevocably changed.

Surrounded by scantily clad dancers, "Fitty" tore into a clean version of his first big hit "In Da Club." Millions who either weren't alive or were very young when he originally recorded it will download the track this week in an attempt to understand what all the fuss was about when he showed up. It's a fitting "happy birthday" for hip-hop, indeed.

There's nothing like the allure of hip-hop nostalgia. Besides being relatable, the music can be endlessly recycled, reconstituted and monetized. Like its older musical siblings soul, country, disco and rock 'n' roll, much of hip-hop is also destined to become grist for elevators once it is rendered anodyne and nonthreatening by corporate ownership and co-option.

The dirty little secret of so much rap and hip-hop is that very few of its practitioners are rebels with—or without—a cause, though there was a time when the music was dominated by MCs and DJs who were so principled it spilled all over their lyrics and music.

Pulitzer Prize-winning rapper Kendrick Lamar is one such rapper. His commitment to saying something worthwhile through the tight but imaginative choreography for "Alright," his anti-police violence anthem, came through even if the line about the "po-po" wasn't audible in the arena or at home.

The best performance of the evening was Mary J. Blige digging deep with uncompromising renditions of "Family Affair" and "No More Drama" that brought down the house with their focused passion and emotional intelligence.

The only avowedly political "statement" of the evening was one I didn't notice until I read about it after the game. When Eminem finished his performance of "Lose Yourself," he took a knee in solidarity with Colin Kaepernick, according to reports. Eminem just looked tired to me.

There were stories that suggested that Eminem did so in defiance of the NFL's wishes, but that seems doubtful, given that the league realizes how self-defeating the original prohibition was and is no longer enforcing it—especially after the summer of George Floyd protests.

Everything that happened onstage Sunday, including all the acts of lyrical self-censorship and even Eminem's gesture of solidarity protesting police brutality, was choreographed. Wardrobe malfunctions are a thing of the past—and even that was partially staged.

Now, if Dre and his colleagues had managed to bring Mr. Kaepernick out to sing with them during "Still Dre" at the end of the show and kneeled with him as a group, that would have been the single most electrifying event in hip-hop history. It would have been the ultimate usurpation of a once-sacred stage.

Needless to say, that did not happen, and it probably never occurred to anyone involved to make something like that happen. It would have offended the team owners who have agreed to blackball Mr. Kaepernick for speaking out so forcefully against police violence five years ago.

The folks who put together Sunday's halftime show were determined to demonstrate hip-hop's global power and influence. It was not the time to demonstrate its conscience.

Tony Norman

Tony Norman

Tony Norman is a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette columnist. He was once the Post-Gazette’s pop music/pop culture critic and appeared as an expert on cultural issues on local radio talk shows and television programs. In 1996, he began writing an award-winning general interest column, which, he says, rejuvenated his enthusiasm for the kind of journalism that makes a difference.

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