It took a while to be able to say this definitively: On Sunday, Gladys Knight will kick things off at Super Bowl LIII in Atlanta by singing “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Pop-rock band Maroon 5 will headline the halftime show, backed by rappers Travis Scott and Big Boi.
The National Football League didn’t confirm this year’s lineup until mid-January, following months of reports that other artists had turned down offers to perform in solidarity with Colin Kaepernick. The NFL effectively blacklisted the former 49ers quarterback after he knelt during the national anthem in protest of police brutality throughout the 2016 season. He hasn’t played a game since.
And now one of the most high-profile gigs in music has fallen far in the industry’s favor, weighed down by the political implications of appearing to support either the NFL or Kaepernick.
The recent saga is a far cry from the fanfare surrounding previous performances, such as Lady Gaga’s in 2017. After the pop singer was confirmed as the headliner, she told Fox Sports that she had been “planning this since I was 4 so I know exactly what I’m going to do.”
“That night, it will be special. For me it’s all about giving to the fans and bringing people together that wouldn’t normally come together,” Gaga continued. Her 13-minute halftime set went on to become one of the most-watched of all time, second only to Katy Perry’s shark-filled performance of 2015. (The preparation for Gaga’s show also became the subject of the Netflix documentary “Gaga: Five Foot Two.”) Ratings slipped with Justin Timberlake in 2018.
This year, Rihanna was among those who reportedly declined to perform out of support for Kaepernick. Maroon 5 was all but confirmed to play by September, but who would accompany them? Atlanta natives Migos and rapper Cardi B seemed a promising pairing until Cardi announced publicly that she and her husband, Migos member Offset, were splitting up. (A representative also cited Cardi’s support for Kaepernick.)
As the announcements finally arrived, so did the backlash. Twitter users were quick to voice their criticism of Knight working with an institution simmering in controversy. When Variety asked how she felt about the NFL’s treatment of Kaepernick, Knight, an Atlanta native, issued a critical statement: “I understand that Mr. Kaepernick is protesting two things, and they are police violence and injustice,” the soul singer wrote.
She lamented the anthem getting “dragged into this debate” and, drawing attention to a generational divide in the public perception of NFL protests, stated that she intends for her performance 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."
Scott said he signed on only after requiring the NFL to join him in making a donation to “an organization fighting for social justice,” according to Billboard. He chose Dream Corps, which was founded by news commentator Van Jones and, per its website, supports “economic, environmental and criminal justice innovators.” Together, Scott and the NFL donated $500,000.
“I back anyone who takes a stand for what they believe in,” Scott wrote in a statement to Billboard. “I know being an artist that it’s in my power to inspire.”
Even then, a number of public figures still opposed Scott’s decision and encouraged him to back out — said to be among them was Jay-Z, an outspoken Kaepernick supporter who rapped in “Everything Is Love,” his joint album with wife Beyoncé, that he “said no to the Super Bowl. You need me, I don’t need you/ Every night we in the end zone. Tell the NFL we in stadiums, too.” (When Beyoncé sang with Coldplay and Bruno Mars at the halftime show in 2016, she did so in front of dancers sporting Black Panther berets — a performance interpreted by many as a display of “black feminine power and solidarity.”)
Variety reported shortly after the NFL announced the lineup that, according to someone close to Scott, the rapper had consulted with Kaepernick before confirming his appearance: “While the two did not necessarily agree, they emerged from the conversation with mutual respect and understanding,” the article states.
But Kaepernick seemed to deny the report — or at least the headline implying that he had given Scott the green light — by retweeting others' skepticism.
“There is NO mutual respect and there is NO understanding for anyone working against @Kaepernick7 PERIOD. #stoplying,” radio personality Nessa Diab, Kaepernick’s girlfriend, wrote in a tweet that he then shared.
All of this is built on a shaky foundation. Maroon 5 has been encouraged to drop out of the halftime show since October, with an online petition and comedian Amy Schumer among the loudest voices: “Once you witness the truly deep inequality and endless racism people of color face in our country, not to mention the police brutality and murders. Why not kneel next to your brothers?” Schumer wrote in an Instagram post that also revealed she had told her reps she wouldn’t do any Super Bowl commercials.
Given Atlanta’s thriving music scene and the substantial influence its artists have had on the industry, many had hoped the NFL and broadcaster CBS would land on someone from the city to headline the halftime show. (Big Boi, best known for being half of the Atlanta-based duo Outkast, is billed below Los Angeles’s Maroon 5.)
The NFL announced Tuesday that, in a break with recent tradition, the band wouldn’t be holding a news conference before the game. This has been interpreted as a way for Maroon 5 to duck tough questioning.
It remains to be seen whether the NFL’s politics will contribute to the halftime show’s downward ratings trend, given that rumors surrounding Scott’s portion of the performance could attract some curious viewers. Fans believe the rapper might kneel during the show — if not out of support for Kaepernick, then to propose to girlfriend Kylie Jenner.