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The Non-Promise of Jennifer Lopez’s Super Bowl Performance

The Non-Promise of Jennifer Lopez’s Super Bowl Performance

Woman performing holding microphone
Photo Credit: Kevin Winter/Getty Images for ABA
Woman performing holding microphone
Photo Credit: Kevin Winter/Getty Images for ABA

Jennifer Lopez has consistently demonstrated a profound lack of interest in showing up for the Black community in any meaningful way, which makes her decision to perform at the Super Bowl LIV halftime show troubling.

When it comes to the current needs of the NFL, Jennifer Lopez — who will be performing the halftime show at Super Bowl LIV alongside Shakira — checks all the right boxes. As a loved and widely-respected global superstar in the midst of a career-high point, she presents the promise of a newly reinvigorated halftime show following last year’s lukewarm reception. As a Latina woman in the age of President Donald Trump, she grants a certain level of legitimacy to the league’s professed new political consciousness. More than anything, though, J. Lo is the ideal performer for an organization that wants to continue catering to the sensitivities of a White audience while appearing in tune with the demands of the current political moment. 

But the partnership makes as much sense for Lopez as it does for the NFL. 

J. Lo’s decision to perform at the halftime show while remaining silent about issues of race, inequality, and police brutality, specifically as they affect Black people in this country, is on par with her track record. Over a career that spans more than two decades, Lopez has consistently demonstrated a profound lack of interest in showing up for the Black community in any meaningful way, even as she’s benefited greatly from her proximity to it. 

READ: JAY-Z & Roc Nation Have Aligned Themselves with the NFL — But At What Cost? 

In the late ‘90s and early 2000s, as the mainstream appeal of Black culture became ever more apparent, so too did the massive commercial potential of Jeniffer Lopez’s celebrity. For a woman like her, it was completely possible to capitalize on the popularity of “urban” music while maintaining mass-market appeal. The debut of her 2001 J.Lo album (which marked her progression toward a less pop, more R&B/hip-hop sound) coincided with the release of her film The Wedding Planner, in which she played an Italian-American woman. That week, she became the first person ever to have a number one song on a Billboard chart and a number one film in the domestic box office at the same time. 

From her start as a Fly Girl dancer on In Living Color to her many successful collaborations with Black men, including Ja Rule, P. Diddy, LL Cool J, and Nas, Lopez’s career has been profited directly and indirectly by the genius of Black people. At the same time, she’s maintained crossover appeal into a world of ethnically nondescript leads in romantic comedies — Maid in Manhattan, The Back-Up Plan, Monster-in-Law — often starring alongside White male love interests. 

READ: Eight Reasons Why the NFL Should Kill the Rooney Rule & Update Its Policy On Hiring Black Coaches

J. Lo falls neatly into a long history of Latinas whose success in the entertainment industry was facilitated by the ease with which they could slip in and out of “ethnic” roles. Despite their undeniable talent and hard work, all of the biggest Latina stars in Hollywood over the last hundred years — Dolores del Río, Carmen Miranda, Rita Moreno, and Jennifer Lopez — have benefitted from their ability to diversify the screen while maintaining a safe distance from less racially ambiguous people. But these women have been more than just passive benefactors in an industry that tilts the scales in their favor. 

Lopez has proven that she has no qualms with capitalizing on her proximity to Blackness while refusing to take responsibility for harmful rhetoric that’s deservingly landed her on the receiving end of criticism from the Black community. When Today Show co-host Matt Lauer interviewed her in 2001 about the controversy surrounding her use of the n-word on the “I’m Real” remix, she refused to apologize and instead responded, “For anyone to think or suggest or say that I’m racist is really absurd and hurtful to me. I don’t want to get into it. I don’t want to give it too much energy. I’m here to perform for the fans, and that’s what I want to do.” Fifteen years after that interview — and three years after the acquittal of George Zimmerman fueled the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement — the Latina mogul came under fire yet again for her use of the All Lives Matter anti-movement phrase. The only public comment she made in regards to her use of it was, “I was only trying to be inclusive. I didn’t realize there was such sensitivity to it in that moment which is why I decided to take it down.”

Most recently, Lopez posted selfies accompanied by the hashtag “Bronx Girl Magic” to her Twitter account. In the pictures, she’s wearing a t-shirt with the same phrase—a co-option of the social-media-hashtag-turned-movement Black Girl Magic, originally popularized by CaShawn Thompson in 2013 and created to celebrate the greatness and resilience of Black women. It’s really hard to believe that, after all of the criticism she’s received throughout her career, she didn’t anticipate the negative feedback.

In recent years, Lopez has been especially vocal about political matters such as the Me Too movement and family separation at the border, which makes her silence around issues of anti-Black racism feel even more calculated. Her refusal to develop a political consciousness that pushes beyond the limits of a “me and mine” framework is frustrating, particularly against the backdrop of the current political moment in which celebrities aligning themselves with progressive movements (if only symbolically) isn’t particularly bold or unusual. 

 When reflecting on the significance of her upcoming Super Bowl performance during her Variety Actors on Actors interview with Robert Pattinson, the multihyphenate millionaire stated, “I think it’s important in this day and age for two Latin women to be standing on that stage when Latinos are being treated a certain way in this country or looked at a certain way.” The convenient way she’s framing a massive financial and professional personal gain as inherently transgressive and politically significant echoes the way billionaire JAY-Z notably defended his own decision to partner with the NFL. “I think that we forget that Colin’s whole thing was to bring attention to social justice, correct?” he boldly stated at a press conference following the announcement of the deal. “So in that case this is a success; this is the next thing.” 

Two woman standing next to each other, thumbs up
Photo Credit: Rich Graessle/PPI/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Whether or not it’s possible to both partner with the NFL. and not be complicit in its treatment of Black players and dismissal of anti-Black racism in this country is a question worth asking. (Personally, I don’t think it is.) Still, I’d like to imagine a halftime performance where Lopez, in full support, shares the stage with Black artists who can speak to these issues, for example. But my better judgement tells me not to get my hopes up.  

In that same Variety interview, Lopez declared, “I want [that night] to be a celebration of who we are. All of us, because we’re in this together. I want to bring everybody together in that moment.” And, even though she likely has a different idea of what that looks like, I think her phrasing is exactly correct. In more ways than one, U.S.-Latinx and Black American people are in this together. The two communities have a long history of showing up for one another in the face of adversity. But non-Black Latinx people also have a particularly troubling history when it comes to the reinforcement and reproduction of anti-Black sentiments and structures. It’s up to Lopez to decide which tradition she intends on upholding (or continuing to uphold). Because in the end, the most significant barriers that she herself has faced throughout her career are undergirded by some of the same notions of whiteness and otherness that inform the political reality of the people she refuses to stand up for. 

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Mariana Viera is a first-generation Mexican-American writer. She has written for Teen Vogue, Noisey, and VIBE. You can follow her on Twitter @_malditamari

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