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.
Lady Gaga’s 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 when Justin Timberlake performed 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.”