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Rihanna has criticized the NFL. So why is she playing the Super Bowl halftime show?

The Barbadian pop superstar hasn't toured or released an album in years. She'll make her return on Sunday in Arizona when the Eagles face off against Kansas City.

Rihanna will perform Sunday at the Super Bowl when the Eagles play the Chiefs. (Mike Coppola/Getty Images/TNS)
Rihanna will perform Sunday at the Super Bowl when the Eagles play the Chiefs. (Mike Coppola/Getty Images/TNS)Read moreMike Coppola / MCT

When the Philadelphia Eagles made their first Super Bowl appearance in 1981 in New Orleans, the halftime show was a Mardi Gras celebration featuring the Southern University Marching Band.

1940s big band singer Helen O’Connell sang the national anthem. Up With People, the singing troupe known for their cloying positivity — Super Bowl staples of the era — blessedly took that year off.

On Sunday, when the Birds face off against the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl LVII in Glendale, Ariz., the entertainment will be a little more ambitious.

Chris Stapleton, the bearded baritone who’s the go-to country act on prestige TV events, will sing the national anthem. Babyface will tackle “America the Beautiful.” Philly’s Abbott Elementary star Sheryl Lee Ralph will perform “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” And Jason Derulo and the Black Keys will play the NFL’s TikTok Tailgate pregame show.

And of course, the halftime show headliner is Rihanna. The singer and Fenty fashion boss is on the short list of supersized acts whose pop culture presence is commensurate with the game’s stature.

Even in the context of mega acts like The Weeknd, who performed in 2021, or last year’s hip-hop all-star cast, Rihanna qualifies as an extremely good get for “by far the biggest cultural event in America.”

The 34-year-old singer who topped the charts with “SOS” in 2006 and followed it up the next year with “Umbrella,” then produced hit after hit on eight albums released in 11 years.

Gambling fans not satisfied with wagering on the game itself have Ri Ri prop bet options. Will she open with “Diamonds,” “Bitch Better Have My Money,” or “Don’t Stop the Music”? (They’re the three favorites.) Who will join her: Jay-Z? Drake? DJ Khaled? At some point, will she open an umbrella? Yes, you can bet on that, too.

But though she has a decade’s worth of hits to cram into a 12- to 15-minute performance, few will be of recent vintage. Ever since 2016′s creative left turn (though still hugely popular) album Anti, Rihanna has pretty much ceased making music.

Her only new music this decade has been “Believe It,” a 2020 guest vocal on a PartyNextDoor hit, and the calming Chadwick Boseman tribute “Lift Me Up” from last year’s soundtrack to Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.

Sure, she’s had plenty to do, like build the Fenty beauty empire, become a billionaire, get named a “National Hero” in Barbados, and give birth to a son with boyfriend A$AP Rocky last year.

There’s additional frisson in Rihanna being Super Bowl halftime headliner. That’s because, in the past, she’s been critical of the NFL.

In a 2019 expression of solidarity with former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, she told Vogue that she had no interest in the Super Bowl gig.

“I couldn’t dare do that,” she said. “For what? Who gains from that? Not my people. I just couldn’t be a sell out. … There’s 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.”

So what changed? Is she getting a giant check? Nope. Believe it or not, Super Bowl performers don’t get paid. (Though production costs, which can run over $10 million, are covered by the NFL.)

Ever since Michael Jackson in 1993, megastars have played the halftime show. Big names have included Paul McCartney (in 2005, when the Eagles lost to the Patriots) and Prince (who, I hate to brag, I saw in person in 2007), as well as Madonna, Beyoncé, Bruce Springsteen, Lady Gaga, and Justin Timberlake (when the Eagles beat the Patriots in 2018).

They have played for free to receive something more valuable than cash: exposure. For last year’s game, 99 million Americans watched, along with another 109 million around the world. It’s estimated that in various media, 120 million watched the halftime show with Dr. Dre, Eminem, Mary J. Blige, Snoop Dogg, and Kendrick Lamar.

The Grammys isn’t music’s biggest night. The Super Bowl is. And among the wing eaters watching the game, there will be millions of potential tickets buyers. A Super Bowl performance is typically followed by a tour announcement.

So is that why Rihanna has changed her mind about consorting with the NFL? Perhaps, though last year she alerted fans that her album wasn’t done.

“Super Bowl is one thing. New music is another thing. Do you hear that fans?” she told the Associated Press, tamping down expectations. Still, a tour announcement seems likely: Rihanna seems too astute of a businessperson to leave all that money on the field.

Also, one big thing has changed since she disparaged the NFL in 2019: Jay-Z started working with the league.

Beginning in 2021, Roc Nation, the hip-hop kingpin’s company, began producing the halftime show.

Like Shakira, who played the show with Jennifer Lopez that year, Rihanna is a Roc Nation client.

Rihanna’s comfort level in working with a business associate who signed her to a record deal in 2004 and teamed on two smash hits — her “Umbrella,” his “Run This Town” — is obviously greater than if she was asked to perform by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, with whom she has a history of beef.

Roc Nation has also partnered with the league on its Inspire Change program, in which teams award social justice “changemakers.” (This year’s Eagles winner is Ruth Abaya, an ER physician at CHOP who works on gun violence prevention.)

With Jay-Z working with the NFL on social justice initiatives, might that embolden Rihanna to incorporate some form of protest directed at the league that continues to draw critics on issues like its poor record on hiring Black coaches?

We’ll see. I haven’t seen any place where you can bet on it. But here are some Super Bowl half-time predictions. Jay-Z will definitely show up for “Umbrella” and “Run This Town.” A$AP Rocky and Drake will likely be there as well. And at some point during her viewed-around-the world show, Rihanna will take a knee.