Forget being on the wrong side of history, the NFL is on the wrong side of the culture. In two weeks, Super Bowl LIII will kick off in Atlanta, the black mecca and current hip-hop capital, but the league has had to scramble to find black artists willing to perform at the halftime show.
Once revered as the biggest audience draw in pop, the halftime slot has become a political hot potato — or football, if you will — due to the fallout surrounding the NFL's alleged blacklisting of Colin Kaepernick. The former San Francisco 49ers backup quarterback filed a grievance against NFL owners in 2017 for colluding to ban him over his protests of police brutality and racial inequality during national anthems. He remains unsigned.
The NFL's latest play came on Thursday, with the announcement that Gladys Knight will perform the national anthem to open this year's Super Bowl. In a statement to Variety, Knight said it's "unfortunate that our national anthem has been dragged into this debate when the distinctive senses of the national anthem and fighting for justice should each stand alone."
Knight continued: "I am here today and on Sunday, Feb. 3 to give the anthem back its voice, to stand for that historic choice of words, the way it unites us when we hear it and to free it from the same prejudices and struggles I have fought long and hard for all my life, from walking back hallways, from marching with our social leaders, from using my voice for good — I have been in the forefront of this battle longer than most of those voicing their opinions to win the right to sing our country's anthem on a stage as large as the Super Bowl LIII."
It's the kind of statement that could easily be propped up to divide the generations — civil rights against hip-hop. Ultimately, it suggests Kaepernick's freedom to kneel in protest will have to be as hard-fought as the opportunity to sing before the biggest television audience once was for black performers. Knight long ago earned her right to claim whatever stage she deems worthy of her presence — but it's a hollow argument to suggest that the many performers boycotting on Kaepernick's behalf have no right to the inverse.
The list of artists who have declined to perform during the halftime show, to stand in solidarity with Kaepernick, includes Jay Z, Rihanna and Cardi B. (Adele and P!nk also declined for different or unspecified reasons.) The NFL finally made its halftime lineup official this week, confirming months of speculation that Maroon 5 will headline the show. But the additions of featured performances by hip-hop stars Travis Scott and Big Boi have only further escalated public criticism. Both Jay Z and Common have reportedly attempted to dissuade Scott from performing. An online petition that originally urged Maroon 5 to decline the invitation is now pushing for all three acts to take a knee during the performance in symbolic support of Kaepernick.
"Just because I love [and] respect someone doesn't mean I like their choices," Ebro Darden, a Hot 97 morning show host and the global head of hip-hop and R&B at Apple Music, tweeted today. "Gladys Knight performing the national anthem sucks and highlights our inability as the oppressed and over-policed to use our power to hold institutions accountable."
On paper, the NFL couldn't have picked a better time to come to Atlanta. The city is driving pop culture right now, with artists like Future and Childish Gambino — scheduled to headline Coachella in April — at the forefront, and with legacy acts ranging from Lil Jon to Ludacris who can still rock crowds. Tapping some of that A-Town talent for a halftime blowout could have been an easy ratings victory, especially considering how desperate the NFL has been to attract younger viewers in recent years. But the league's policy against taking a knee during the national anthem, and the subsequent boycotts sparked by the NAACP and others, has prevented the league from capitalizing on the city's goodwill. Instead, the first-ever Budweiser Super Bowl Festival — featuring Cardi B, Migos, Ludacris, Lil Yachty and more — will happen in the days leading up to the big game.
Maroon 5 band member P.J. Morton, a former Atlanta resident, admits there was plenty of hand-wringing over the group's decision to play the Super Bowl. "There was conflict for sure," he told Billboard. "There was conflict just because of all the rhetoric and all that I've seen around it. I guess I had to come to the conclusion that you can be employed by a corporation and still support the things that are being fought against." In fact, the three acts who finally agreed to perform share something in common that suggests the NFL may have had an even tougher time nailing down halftime talent than previously considered. Maroon 5, Travis Scott and Big Boi all share ties to powerful music industry mogul Irving Azoff's company Full Stop Management, as Billboard has reported. On top of that, Azoff has a longstanding relationship with Gladys Knight, having signed the soul legend to MCA Records, the label he ran from 1983 to 1989, at a time when many in the industry assumed her best years were behind her. With his ties to Live Nation, where he formerly served as executive chairman after helping to guide its merger with Ticketmaster, Azoff's role behind this year's halftime show seems to have been influential, to say the least.
Whether it's an example of a management firm leveraging its relationships to the potential benefit of its clients or wrangling several of its black artists against their best interests — as has often happened throughout the history of music — the show, it seems, will go on.