In 2018, we heard Martin Luther King Jr. speak and saw Prince perform during the Super Bowl.
NBC aired a commercial from Ram Trucks during the second quarter of Sunday night’s game that featured the voice of King delivering “The Drum Major Instinct,” one of his final addresses. Shortly afterward, Justin Timberlake paid tribute to Prince during the halftime show, singing a few bars of “I Would Die 4 U” while a video of the late singer was projected onto a sheet behind the stage, in the Purple One’s hometown of Minneapolis, Minn.
Posthumous representations require delicate handling, no matter how honorable the intentions, and both instances sparked immediate backlash online. Many called out Ram Trucks for manipulating King’s words about the value of service in order to sell a product. Music fans, already peeved by rumors that Timberlake had previously planned to feature a hologram of Prince during the show, pointed out that the two singers had feuded in the past.
This kind of appropriation has happened before. A 2013 commercial for Galaxy got mixed reactions after it used a CGI-rendering of Audrey Hepburn to sell chocolate. That same year, Johnny Walker was criticized for digitally resurrecting Bruce Lee.
The uproar boils down to one question: Is this what the late figures would have wanted?
In Prince’s case, it’s unlikely. An old interview conducted with Guitar World in 1998 resurfaced last week after the hologram rumors circulated. The magazine had asked whether, with digital editing, Prince would ever consider creating a situation “where you could jam with any artist from the past.”
“Certainly not,” he said. “That’s the most demonic thing imaginable. … If I was meant to jam with Duke Ellington, we would have lived in the same age. … Also, what they did with that Beatles song [‘Free As a Bird’], manipulating John Lennon’s voice to have him singing from across the grave. … that’ll never happen to me. To prevent that kind of thing from happening is another reason why I want artistic control.”
Plus, it’s rumored that at a post-Emmy Awards party in 2006, Prince dissed Timberlake’s hit “SexyBack” by saying, “For whoever is claiming that they are bringing sexy back, sexy never left!” Timberlake, while featured on Timbaland’s 2007 track “Give It to Me,” hit back: “We missed you on the charts last week / Damn, that’s right you wasn’t there / Now if sexy never left, then why is everybody on my s—? / Don’t hate on me just because you didn’t come up with it.”
Fans were therefore upset by Timberlake’s plans, with the Daily Beast’s Ira Madison III going so far as to claim, “Black people can’t even have peace when they’re dead.” Sheila E., Prince’s close friend and former collaborator, calmed fears when she tweeted on Saturday night that she had spoken to Timberlake, who confirmed that he would not use a hologram.
During the show, Timberlake, seated at a piano, opted instead to sing alongside the projected video. In a statement shared with the Post on Monday, the Prince estate praised the performance: “Justin Timberlake, the NFL, and the City of Minneapolis used the stadium and the city to give a beautiful hometown tribute to Prince. The two pieces of footage that appeared on the screens were licensed from the Purple Rain movie and a vintage performance in Syracuse, NY.”
But not everyone reacted positively. For some, the projection still seemed to go against the music icon’s wishes.
After the Super Bowl, Timberlake appeared on “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” and said he proceeded with the tribute after getting the thumbs up from The Roots’ Questlove, whom he called “the encyclopedia on music.”
“He’s such a special thing here, aside from what he is all over the world,” Timberlake said of Prince. “I just felt like I wanted to do something for this city and something for him that would just be the ultimate homage to what I consider the GOAT of musicians.”
It’s unclear to what extent Timberlake consulted with Prince’s estate, but we know one thing for sure: Ram Trucks actually did get the permission of King’s estate in creating its Super Bowl spot. The commercial played a portion of King’s sermon, during which he extols the virtues of service, over clips of people helping one another through trying situations. It ends by flashing the Ram slogan, “Built to serve.”
Eric D. Tidwell, who manages King’s estate, shared the following statement with the Post on Monday:
When Ram approached the King Estate with the idea of featuring Dr. King’s voice in a new “Built To Serve” commercial, we were pleasantly surprised at the existence of the Ram Nation volunteers [a group that assists with disaster relief] and their efforts. . . . Once the final creative was presented for approval, it was reviewed to ensure it met our standard integrity clearances. We found that the overall message of the ad embodied Dr. King’s philosophy that true greatness is achieved by serving others.
But the King Center, established in 1968 by King’s wife, Coretta Scott King, was quick to distance itself from the commercial. That night, the nonprofit tweeted that neither it nor its CEO, King’s daughter Bernice King, “is the entity that approves the use of #MLK’s words or imagery for use in merchandise, entertainment (movies, music, artwork, etc) or advertisement, including tonight’s @Dodge #SuperBowl commercial.” Bernice shared the tweet and responded to another, clarifying that the King children had no say in the Ram Trucks commercial.
The King siblings, who have had their fair share of legal squabbles, control separate aspects of their family inheritance. Dexter runs the copyright enterprise Intellectual Properties Management Inc., where Tidwell serves as managing director. Bernice oversees the King Center, the “traditional memorial and programmatic nonprofit.”
The Ram Trucks commercial set Twitter off, with many decrying the appropriation of King’s sermon. Ava DuVernay, who directed the 2014 King biopic “Selma,” called attention to part of the speech that stated how he wanted to be remembered: driven by love and a desire for justice. Others were more heated in their criticism of the commercial, as New York Times columnist Charles Blow said that it proved America is “willing to exploit blackness but perfectly incapable of honoring it.”
Ironically, King explicitly criticized capitalism in the same sermon, delivered two months before his death, from which Ram Trucks pulled audio. As one tweet pointed out, he even called advertisers “gentlemen of massive verbal persuasion.”
“They have a way of saying things to you that kind of gets you into buying,” King said. “In order to be a man of distinction, you must drink this whiskey. In order to make your neighbors envious, you must drive this type of car.”