Two women of color, Jhené Aiko and Mickey Guyton, were invited to sing "America the Beautiful" and the "Star-Spangled Banner," respectively, at Super Bowl LVI. Aiko was introduced, but the camera zoomed in on Guyton, and Aiko’s name appeared in the lower-third. "Black Like Me" is one of Guyton’s biggest hits and my favorite song of hers, but I’m certain this is not what she meant. “Did they just confuse these two women who look nothing alike in one of the most extraordinarily-produced television events of the year,” I and several other people of color asked ourselves. While I’m certain this mix-up was an accident, it was unfortunately not a rare occurrence. I study workplace racial climates at companies, agencies, and institutions across a multitude of industries. Black women tell me all the time that they’re often confused for "the other Black woman" in their workplace who bears absolutely no resemblance. I know firsthand that this happens to Black men, too. But really, a mistake of this magnitude at the Super Bowl? Come on, NBC and Pepsi, check your unconscious bias or whatever it was that led to this colossal confusion. Unfortunately, the Guyton as Aiko fumble was only the start for me.
The bigger, much less forgivable ball drop was the avoidable gender imbalance in the halftime show. Admittedly, this had been troubling me since the artist lineup was announced. I’ve been a hardcore Mary J. Blige fan since 1992. Notwithstanding, I thought her inclusion in the Super Bowl was odd. At first, I thought the disconnect was that she is a New Yorker and that Dre, Snoop, and Kendrick are all West Coast artists (I don’t quite know where to place Eminem). “So, if it’s an ode to West Coast rap, then why is Mary in this group,” I asked myself weeks ago. It also seemed weird to me that everyone else raps, while Mary is a singer. Despite the initial head scratching that ensued, I somehow got over it and was very much looking forward to the halftime show, especially Mary’s portion.
My feelings about this intensified during the actual performances. Specifically, it was the 50 Cent surprise that absolutely disappointed me. Another man was unnecessarily added to the lineup. But why? While the person next to me was jamming, I sat in confusion wondering, “could they really not find any other Black women for this?” Personally, Queen Latifah, MC Lyte, Missy Elliott, Salt-N-Pepa, Lil Kim, Foxy Brown, Eve (who has songs produced by Dr. Dre), Remy Ma, Megan Thee Stallion, and several dozen other well-known Black women rappers and hip hop artists would’ve been a better surprise than was 50 Cent. There’s one factor, though, that would’ve made their inclusion just as seemingly random as I initially deemed Mary’s.
In addition to being a professor, I’m also a hip hop DJ. I know lots about the genre. It was therefore obvious to me that Dr. Dre was the through line. He had produced the songs that were being performed. Given this, I suppose that adding women with whom he hadn’t worked would’ve disrupted Dre Day. It would’ve been worth the disruption. The ending scene with Mary standing on that rooftop stage with all those men actually made me sad. More Black women deserved to be there with them. Surely, there was some way to honor Dre’s influence and unique West Coast sound, while simultaneously being much more intentional about gender inclusion. Since Super Bowl LVI was in Los Angeles, perhaps a portion could’ve been devoted to Dre’s catalogue, and then other portions celebrating 90’s and early 2000’s hip hop more expansively and more inclusively.
I’m left wondering if no one who worked on the halftime show deemed it problematic that just one woman was included in this lineup. If so, was that person ignored, and what mansplaining was offered? How many Black women were at the table when decisions about this show were being made? Did they raise this issue? If so, why weren’t they heard? I’ve long understood the terrible erasure of Black women, misogynoir, and gendered power asymmetries in hip hop. But I honestly would’ve thought that a megabrand like Pepsi and the DEI folks at NBC (whom I know and respect) wouldn’t have allowed this to occur on such an important stage. I insist on more intentionality and gender inclusion in future Super Bowl halftime performances.
Shaun Harper is the Clifford and Betty Allen Professor at the University of Southern California. He also is founder and executive director of the USC Race and Equity Center. You can follow him on Twitter @DrShaunHarper.