Shakira And Jennifer Lopez's Halftime Show Unpacked : Alt.Latino Shakira and Jennifer Lopez did more than shake things up on the Super Bowl stage. A panel of sociologists and music writers unpack the dialog.

Shakira And Jennifer Lopez's Halftime Show Unpacked

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From NPR Music, this is ALT.LATINO. I'm Felix Contreras.


UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: The National Football League welcomes you to the Pepsi Super Bowl 54 Halftime Show.

CONTRERAS: It was the most talked about 15 minutes on television in recent history. The recent halftime show at Super Bowl 54 featured two iconic Latinas - Shakira and Jennifer Lopez. And it has sparked lively conversations in living rooms, beauty salons, coffee shops, office cubicles, the internet and social media. And they involve conversations about representation, social justice, race, even sexuality.

There are as many ways to look at this as there are people talking about it, so this week, ALT.LATINO will try to unpack things in our own conversation with a panel of cultural observers and commentators. And just so you know what's happening this week, there will be no music as we take on the responsibility of interpreting culture in all forms, even Super Bowl halftime shows.

This week we have with us Suzy Esposito, the Latin music editor for Rolling Stone magazine, Maria Elena Cepeda, professor and co-chair of the Latina/o Studies program at Williams College, Petra Rivera-Rideau, assistant professor of American studies at Wellesley College, and we welcome back Stefanie Fernández, ALT.LATINO contributor and producer for AtlanticLIVE.

OK, so here's how we're going to dig into this. I've divided it up into sections based on the discourse I've seen on social media - Latina representation, Afro Latinx representation and then what I've seen referred to as crossing the picket line, the performance in the context of the NFL, Colin Kaepernick's social justice statements and a boycott of the NFL by some social activists. But first off, a lightning round about first impressions - was it a good thing or a bad thing? Petra Rivera-Rideau, bad thing - Petra, you first.

PETRA RIVERA-RIDEAU: I feel that it was mixed.

CONTRERAS: OK, Stefanie.

STEFANIE FERNÁNDEZ, BYLINE: It was both. I have to say it was both.

CONTRERAS: Maria Elena.

MARIA ELENA CEPEDA: I think it was imperfect but full of moments of possibility.

CONTRERAS: I was like, gosh, this is awesome. OK, Suzy.

SUZY EXPOSITO: Listen, it rocked my world, and I mean that in a way that's positive. But I also think that it made me uncomfortable at certain moments, and I'm, like, ready to lean into that.

CONTRERAS: OK, so let's indeed lean into that. I want to first talk about Latina representation. Where did this fit in? How do you think non-Latino audiences perceived that? Let's start with Suzy.

EXPOSITO: I think that Shakira and J.Lo - they're two Latina artists who came up in a time in the United States - they came up, like, at the turn of the 21st century, and they have been the most enduring entertainers, I think, from that wave of, like, Latinx talent. Like, they have managed to create, like, a niche for themselves in - when it comes to American pop culture. They're the two most recognizable names when it comes to Latinas in American pop culture.

So I think that it was - especially in this time when Latin music is part of the American mainstream, especially with the help of folks like J Balvin and Bad Bunny, who were also at the Super Bowl, I think that this is a very, very crucial moment for us to be represented in a mainstream event. However, representation is not value-neutral.

CONTRERAS: Maria Elena, what are you telling your students in your classroom if you're talking about it? Because we...

CEPEDA: (Laughter) I talked about it today.

CONTRERAS: What's coming up in your class, and what are you telling your class?

CEPEDA: Well, I'm telling them that I saw a lot of the same. I think historically - if you take a longer historical view, Latinas have always been viewed in this country through the lens of gendered hypersexuality, and that's something that we saw very much on display again.

There is also - and, you know, I know we're going to talk more about this, but I also think there's an issue of how white non-Latinx Americans were responding to this show. And for me, it was a lot of talk - there was a lot of talk circulating about vulgarity, whether or not this was appropriate family fare. And that, for me, says a lot about - you know, a lot of white Americans were saying that and that, for me, says something about how the borders of decency get policed in certain way for Latinos and for Latinas in particular. And in the process, those borders are policed, and we're drawing a really stark line between which community is considered morally deficient and who is morally bankrupt and who is really a model of restraint and propriety. And I think that's definitely part of - a big part of the reaction that I've been noticing online and just among people in general, right?

We have this association of Latinas with a culture of excess - excess sound, excess color, excess movement - and a response. And we're seeing the response to that traditional coding of Latinos and Latinas and Latinxs as being excessive.

CONTRERAS: Petra, I think I heard you down the line voicing support of that opinion.

RIVERA-RIDEAU: Yeah, I agree with everything Maria Elena said. I think part of it - like, the consequences of this extend beyond representation, right? So it's an interesting thing, you know, to be in this moment of extreme xenophobia - right? - and, like, anti-Latinx rhetoric in our politics. The same kinds of ideas about excess and hypersexuality that we saw represented in the Super Bowl are also underlying a lot of the xenophobic rhetoric about things like anchor babies, right? So the same kind of hyperfertility of Latina women, the stereotype of the hypersexuality, hyperfertility of Latina women that we saw in this backlash to the Super Bowl, I think, has much deeper social consequences than just being worried about how Latinas look on TV or worried about our kids watching them, you know?

CONTRERAS: Stefanie, your generation came of age with these women well in place as performers - right? - but also role models and people to look up to, whereas, you know, some of us have watched their careers grow over time and become these women. You know, what was your take on this just based from your perspective and your generation's perspective?

FERNÁNDEZ: Absolutely. I think, touching on Suzy's point about Latin music and the way it's been perceived as a genre, in my view, growing up in Miami with both of these women already being incredibly famous since I was a child and looking up to both of them, you know, in my mind, in a - where I was in a culture that was saturated with Latin art and music, these two women occupied very different spheres for me musically. And, of course, you know, Shakira started with much different roots than than J. Lo did and in much different places.

You know, to be flattened into that hypersexual model was something that, I mean, I've - I'm, of course, not surprised by, unfortunately, but felt like par for the course when something like this happens at a level this large, even in a place like Miami, of course. And it was complicated for me. I truly loved this performance, and there were so many bright spots to it. On the comment of vulgarity, there was, of course, the - almost the first meme that came out of this performance was Shakira's zaghrouta...


FERNÁNDEZ: ...The kind of tongue-flicking action that was, like, you know, widely tweeted and memed and to, like, the, of course, assumption that this had to be some kind of vulgar sexual act instead of, like, a cultural act of celebration in Lebanese culture. I think that lack of the benefit of the doubt is what concerns me when we consume media. And I wonder - even as I hesitantly take this in some way as a win for representation, I wonder at what cost that comes, at what cost to the complexity of our full story...


FERNÁNDEZ: ...This is being told.

CONTRERAS: I will be the voice of pointing out that when these complex things - as you said, these complex issues of representation are presented on mass media here in the United States, it's almost definitely always going to get misinterpreted.

CEPEDA: But I think even Latinos themselves - right? - we participate in some of that. Many of us are not aware...



CEPEDA: ...That Shakira comes from a very long-standing historic population of Lebanese - you know, of Lebanese individuals from Barranquilla, that area of Colombia, right? And we all kind of - and the act of, you know, her dancing and the zaghrouta - right? - it all - all of that really gives the lie to this really facile equation that we have about Latin American and Latino identity as being a real simple equation of European plus African plus Indigenous. And, you know, she and her very being contests all of that. So we also, as Latinos, need to sort of be in touch with that and in tune with our own history in that sense.

CONTRERAS: You're listening to ALT.LATINO and a discussion about the recent Super Bowl halftime performance featuring Jennifer Lopez and Shakira. Let's move on now to the issue of Latinx representation, and I want to start with Petra because you wrote a piece that ran in the Washington Post. I believe it was yesterday.


CONTRERAS: Can you give us a thumbnail of what the point of your editorial was?

RIVERA-RIDEAU: For me, one of the parts of the halftime show that was very striking was when Shakira and Bad Bunny performed "I Like It." I was digging the halftime show, and then when they started performing, "I Like It," I got very uncomfortable because although that's - right? - a Pete Rodriguez song from the 1960s, it's clearly - they're capitalizing on the Cardi B version of the song, right? That's why Bad Bunny is there to - singing his verse, right? And I felt uncomfortable because although I know that Cardi B was at the Super Bowl and she Instagrammed about how she liked the performance and all of that, she just last year, when the Super Bowl was in Atlanta, declined to perform in the Super Bowl in solidarity with Colin Kaepernick. And so for me, this seemed really problematic - the choice to perform that particular song. I felt like there were other choices. I don't know who decides what to sing in the Super Bowl. I was thinking probably the choice to sing this song had to do with making Bad Bunny legible for American audiences who would be familiar with "I Like It," but I felt like that wasn't a good enough reason.

So the piece that I wrote - I was really thinking about the ways that Shakira and Jennifer Lopez have both benefited from this privileging of whiteness in our representations of Latinos, Latinas in the media, right? They embody a particular look that is the acceptable one or the expected one, for lack of a better word. And this has given them, I think, an ability to both be popular in Latin America and also in the United States, right? So both the English-language media and the Spanish-language media perpetuate this look and prioritize or privilege these white Latinx performers in a way that marginalizes Afro Latinx people. And so to me, like, it was really complicated - right? - to see these two performers who have benefited and incorporated a lot of Afro Latinx cultural production into their own performances, and then to be part of a show that is performing a song that was popularized by an Afro Latina woman who was protesting anti-Black racism - I found to be very problematic. So that's what motivated me to write that particular piece in the Washington Post.

CONTRERAS: And I'm going to go ahead and push back by way of some of the things I've read online to the rest of the group in that there were several instances of recognizing Afro Latino culture, especially on the part of Shakira when she did the two dances that were part of Afro Colombian culture...

FERNÁNDEZ: Champeta and mapalé.

CONTRERAS: ...And then even acknowledging the - like you said, the Pete Rodriguez boogaloo hit, which was a direct tie between the Afro Caribbeans and African Americans in the 1960s and also the fact that - and Shakira had a group of Black dancers at one point in her performance. Suzy, there was some representation there, but was that good enough? Or was it - did it still miss the mark?

EXPOSITO: You know, it's not up to me to say whether it was enough because I'm a non-Black Latina. Like, I don't really think it's up to me, and I think that was what - as beautiful as the performance was - because here's the thing. I think Shakira is a product of, like, the just diaspora.

Like, everything that Shakira does, she's kind of like a citizen of the world. I think that's sort of how she has presented herself as an entertainer. But at the same time, like, as incredible as it was to see these cultures represented, especially, like, the African diaspora in Colombia - to see them represented, to hear sounds like, you know, like, Congolese and, like, Cameroonian music being represented in her performance, at the same time, what was stopping anyone at Roc Nation from reaching out to - I don't know - any of the performers who recorded "Waka Waka," you know?

Like, it could've - there were so many different ways that they could have approached it. And I think that - you know, when I think about how - like what you were saying, Petra, basically about Black Latinidad without the actual, like, Black Latinas on screen.

RIVERA-RIDEAU: Right, exactly, yeah.

EXPOSITO: (Laughter) It's pretty wild. And, you know, as someone who's also from Miami and who's half Cuban, like, you see it all the time, you know?


EXPOSITO: What does it mean for, you know, all of, like, our favorite Latinx ambassadors in American culture? What does it mean that they're all light-skinned, you know? It's weird.

FERNÁNDEZ: And I just - can I just add one more thing about that, too? - is, like, I also don't think this is new, right? So, I mean, you could go way back. Let's think about mambo, right?


FERNÁNDEZ: And mambo is something that was really created by an Afro Cuban community and then in the United States gets kind of repackaged as Desi Arnaz's "Babalú," right?

EXPOSITO: Oh, yeah.

FERNÁNDEZ: And so a lot of our big Latinx musical stars have for a long time been white or very light-skinned Latinos who are performing cultural practices that come out of Black communities.

And I think - you know, so I know that Shakira, you know, acknowledged that she learned champeta from these different people, and she had Black dancers. But to me, Shakira surrounding herself with Black dancers, which is something she's really been doing, I think, since, you know - you know, she does it in "La Bicicleta" and, like, different of her, like, kind of reggaeton pop hits. To me, that isn't necessarily celebrating Afro Colombian culture, right?

I mean, it's - she's still kind of - I agree with you, Suzy, that they could have - there are lots of Black Latinx performers that could have been part of this show or could have been highlighted in other, more - in prominent ways and as the voices - right? - not just the bodies that are in the background.

CEPEDA: 'Cause I agree with everybody, but I'm seeing - I think there's a moment of possibility in this whole show that kind of contests a lot of the dynamics we're talking about. The moment I'm thinking - when Jennifer Lopez says, let's get loud, Latinos, right?


CEPEDA: It's a song reference to a previous hit, but it's also a simultaneous call for Latinx political action. And for me, it's very much - you can think about it as an echo of James Brown's 1968 song "Say It Loud - I'm Black And I'm Proud" - right? - which becomes an anthem for the Black Power movement. Maybe I'm stretching it a little bit, but that's one of the first references that came to mind when I heard her say that.

CONTRERAS: And along those political lines, let's move over to the picket line that we talked about that has been referenced in social media in the few minutes that we have left. Let's talk - Stefanie, talk to us a little bit about something that you mentioned earlier in the week when we were on Pop Culture Happy Hour about what this performance did or didn't do to the problems that the NFL is having with some of their players standing up for social justice.

FERNÁNDEZ: For me, I think one thing that hung over all of this - and contextualizing the setting in which this took place is what helps me make sense of it as someone who truly loved this performance in so many ways. I think the specter of, of course, the Colin Kaepernick controversy and Jay-Z's Roc Nation deal I believe Suzy alluded to earlier hangs over this whole thing. Of course, this is the first time that Roc Nation would consult or Jay-Z's group would consult on who would perform in that halftime show. So there's - it's clear that there was some kind of political discussion around what it would mean to feature an all-Latino halftime show in this particular year in Miami. I will say as a Cuban girl growing up in Miami, if I had still lived there, I would have felt no lack of representation outside my house, you know, even before watching this.


FERNÁNDEZ: So when I was left - when I was - you know, like, this is - it felt very, like, my 2005 in so many ways, you know, and...

CEPEDA: (Laughter) Yeah.

FERNÁNDEZ: It was a privilege to grow up that way. And so what was - what I was questioning myself about the whole time was, you know, where did this not go far enough? I think, of course, the statement that J. Lo made about, you know, children in cages with her daughter singing and a children's choir, you know, from these lit-up cage-like spheres was powerful and moving, and yet it didn't even register with me the first time I saw it, I hate to say. I think it reached the people that might have been looking for something or, you know, people who wanted to find that message in the Super Bowl, as I did, but I can imagine how it might have not landed that way for so many of the other NFL core demographic.

CONTRERAS: I've got to say it was the most action-packed and symbolic 15 minutes I've seen on television in a very, very long time. And I want to thank all of our panelists for joining us today. Thank you all for hustling and making this happen on short notice. Thank you so much.

RIVERA-RIDEAU: Thank you, Felix.

CEPEDA: Thanks for having me.

FERNÁNDEZ: Thank you, Felix.

CONTRERAS: Thank you for sticking with us as we tried to unpack this momentous 15-minute Super Bowl halftime performance. We are indeed living in times when every act or statement can have so much resonance within so many communities, and the only way to understand what it all means is to talk amongst ourselves and even with people we disagree with. And we hope ALT.LATINO can be one of those places where we can try to figure things out as they come along.

Don't forget to follow us on Facebook and Twitter. We are NPR's ALT.LATINO. Always, always, always check out our weekly playlist, the best new music coming at you from all across the Spanish-speaking world. This has been ALT.LATINO from NPR Music. I'm Felix Contreras. Thank you for listening.

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