A symbolic picket line has developed around this year’s Super Bowl halftime show in Atlanta in solidarity with Colin Kaepernick. Kaepernick of course has no home in the NFL because he kneeled during the anthem to protest police violence. Now, a host of top performers are making it clear that they have his back. Galactic superstar Rihanna first said that she would not perform in front of the worldwide audience “because of the kneeling controversy…. She doesn’t agree with the NFL’s stance,” in the words of one of her reps. A source also said to Entertainment Tonight, “The offer and exposure would have been great for Rihanna as she’s planning a new album and tour but she stuck to what’s right in her eyes.”
Then hip-hop sensation Cardi B turned down the spot because “she was not particularly interested in participating because of how she feels about Colin Kaepernick and the whole movement.” Lauryn Hill, Usher, Pink, Andre 3000, and Nicki Minaj also reportedly said thanks but no thanks.
At the moment, the halftime performers are the pop group Maroon 5 and hip-hop artists Travis Scott and Big Boi. (Big Boi is one half of Atlanta’s legendary musical duo, Outkast. His inclusion is notable, given that his ATLien partner André 3000 reportedly just said no.) Of the three, the most pressure has been levied upon Travis Scott, a 26-year platinum performer from Houston, Texas. Scott even met with Kaepernick to discuss why he was choosing to cross this artistic picket line. That meeting generated a great deal of social-media rancor, as Scott’s camp said that while the conversation was contentious, the two left the meeting “with mutual respect and understanding, with the rapper taking the stance that everyone makes a statement in their own way.”
Kaepernick’s camp has disputed this severely, with Kaepernick’s partner, television and radio host Nessa Diab tweeting, “There is NO mutual respect and there is NO understanding for anyone working against @Kaepernick7 PERIOD. #stoplying” This was retweeted by Kaepernick and many of his social-media allies.
The issue is bigger than just Travis Scott’s decision to perform. Scott is saying that he is “making a statement in [his] own way” by taking $500,000 from the NFL and giving it to Dream Corps, a “social justice” organization founded by Van Jones. He said in a statement,
I back anyone who takes a stand for what they believe in. I know being an artist that it’s in my power to inspire. So before confirming the Super Bowl Halftime performance, I made sure to partner with the NFL on this important donation. I am proud to support Dream Corps and the work they do that will hopefully inspire and promote change.
If Scott didn’t realize that this statement would aggravate Kaepernick, someone in his inner circle wasn’t doing their job. Dream Corps is seen as an organization that was used by the NFL to sideline player protests in 2016. Dream Corps put itself forward as a group that NFL owners could make monetary donations toward if—according to the belief of Kaepernick’s camp—players stopped kneeling during the anthem. Kaepernick retweeted that connection, sending out to his 2 million-plus subscribers, “$500K to Dream Corps for Travis Scott to strike a deal and walk past the Cardi B/Rihanna/others protest line. In 2016, The NFL also committed cash to Dream Corps in the Players Coalition deal brokered by Malcolm Jenkins. Dream Corps now in two NFL #PaidToNotProtest schemes. “
There is much to unpack here. On one level it feels manifestly unfair that the weight of this is being put on the shoulders of Travis Scott and not Maroon 5. Why aren’t the pop-rockers being asked the same questions? “Do you support Kaepernick’s stance?” “Are you somehow aiding in the collusion perpetrated by NFL owners by playing this show?” “Do you see yourself as crossing a picket line?” They absolutely should have to deal with the same pressure. The only member of Maroon 5 that I have seen pressed about this wasn’t their high-profile lead singer, Adam Levine, but their black keyboardist, PJ Morton, who said that “there was conflict for sure” in the group about whether to perform. This is practically parody: Levine gets a pass, but the heat is turned up on PJ Morton.
Given the pressure being levied on Scott, there is a question of whether he will attempt to save face by using the halftime platform to make a political statement. The game, as mentioned, will be in Atlanta, the mecca of black culture, the birthplace of Martin Luther King Jr., and the site of a governor’s race that smacked of right-wing suppression of the black vote. Maybe Scott will wear a Kaepernick jersey. Or maybe the blood is too toxic between their respective camps. Either way, it will be fascinating to see whether the announcers, fans, or artists recognize the fact that this was the first Super Bowl halftime show to ever be surrounded by an artistic picket line.