Learning from Rihanna and Damar

There is a much controversy still fomenting this week, specifically among white Americans on the internet, in responses to the appearances, behavior, and performances of Black people at Super Bowl 57. I believe that in many respects it is because this Superbowl, unlike all those before it, for the first time featured two Black men, leading their teams at the Quarterback position. When Black people excel in American society, there is always a predicable backlash from normative white culture. It happened with the election of President Obama, and continues as we witness the diminishing influence of white people as a majority in this nation. But the vitriol expressed against the Rihanna’s performance and Damar Hamlin’s jacket was bewildering in its tone and volume.

Damar Hamlin, the NFL safety who was revived after suffering a heart stoppage on Monday Night Football, wore a jacket depicting a crucified Jesus on the back. But the art was abstract, a design that was a collaboration between rapper Travis Scott and artist Takashi Murakami by brand Saint Michael. Hamlin explained after receiving initial criticism from former NFL running back Adrian Peterson, “It was never my intentions to hurt or disrespect anyone, the coat is abstract art to me. It says Eternal which I am Eternally thankful to my Savior! My beliefs and Relationship with God is not tied to symbolic images. I will learn from this and continue to walk in Love as I ALWAYS have.” But the backlash continued from many sectors, and coupled with the dismissal of Rihanna’s performance by many, it caused me to think about the many ways that Black expressions of spirituality and art are so easily critiqued by white privileged perspectives.

What many white people miss when sharing their uninvited opinions about Black cultural expressions is that spirituality is an integral part of African American culture, rooted in the experiences of enslaved Africans brought to the United States. Black people in America have always found ways to express their faith and spirituality, despite the obstacles they faced in a society that did not always value their humanity. Black cultural expressions of spirituality can be seen in a range of traditions and practices, including music, dance, visual arts, literature, and religious practices.

Music is perhaps the most well-known expression of Black spirituality. From spirituals sung by enslaved Africans to gospel music sung in Black churches today, music has always played a significant role in Black spirituality. Spirituals were songs sung by enslaved Africans that often had double meanings, conveying both the pain and suffering of slavery and the hope for freedom and salvation. These songs were often sung in secret and served as a source of comfort and strength for enslaved Africans. Gospel music, which emerged in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, is a genre of Christian music that incorporates elements of Black music traditions, such as call-and-response, blues, and jazz. Gospel music is often performed in Black churches and is a powerful expression of Black faith and spirituality.

Dance is another expression of Black spirituality. African dance traditions were brought to America by enslaved Africans and have been preserved and adapted over time. African American dance forms such as tap, jazz, and hip-hop have become popular around the world and are often rooted in Black spiritual traditions. Dance has been used in Black spiritual practices as a form of worship and expression of faith.

Visual art is another important expression of Black spirituality. Black artists have used their art to explore themes of spirituality and faith, including depictions of Biblical stories, spiritual beings, and religious rituals. The Harlem Renaissance, a cultural movement that took place in the 1920s and 1930s, was a time of great creativity and expression for Black artists, who used their work to explore themes of identity, spirituality, and social justice.

Literature is also an important expression of Black spirituality. Black writers have used their work to explore themes of faith, spirituality, and the Black experience in America. The works of authors such as James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, and Maya Angelou are considered important contributions to both Black literature and the larger literary canon.

Rihanna’s Superbowl 57 halftime performance brilliantly displayed all of these elements in a tapestry of song, dance, light, color, symbol and theme. Along with the beautiful and unique voice of Rihanna, I thought the choreography was artistic and well executed especially considering they were dancing on moving and elevated platforms. The core strength and coordination required to pull off this performance is simply amazing. And it has been reveled Rihanna did all of this pregnant.

I appreciate all of the camera work, behind the scenes organization, and technical expertise it takes to pull off a live event like that flawlessly. I also appreciate the work that artist do. I don’t have to like every aspect of the performance or understand it in order to appreciate the excellence with which it is done. Just as I may not understand all of the abstract art that decorated Damar Hamlin’s varsity jacket, I can appreciate his expression of thankfulness to his savoir.

Black cultural expressions of spirituality are rich and varied, encompassing a range of traditions and practices. Whether through music, dance, visual arts, literature, or religious practices, Black people have used their creativity and ingenuity to create vibrant and enduring expressions of their spirituality. These expressions continue to resonate today, serving as a testament to the resilience and strength of Black people in the face of adversity. But sadly as with Rihanna and Damar, that adversity continues.

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