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Are artists taking a knee ahead of the Super Bowl halftime show?

Travis Scott is reportedly booked, but some fans — possibly even Jay-Z — are opposed to it

Update: TMZ is reporting that Travis Scott has signed on to join Maroon 5 for the group’s Super Bowl LIII halftime performance. The decision certainly adds some hip-hop weight to the show, as Scott has had a massive year, dropping his critically acclaimed No. 1 album Astroworld, and selling out tour dates across the country.

However, Meek Mill has already spoken out against the decision, and fans are also pointing out that it’s only natural for Scott to strive for even more mainstream attention, given his relationship with Kylie Jenner (the couple has a child together).

Now, the NFL has a hip-hop star, weeks of social media publicity thanks to whatever the Kardashians have up their sleeves, and the perception that they do, in fact, welcome urban acts. My prediction: Scott proposes to Jenner onstage.

Variety is also reporting that Jay-Z is trying to talk Scott out of performing.


The NFL may have an accidental decentralized protest on its hands as performing artists take a metaphorical knee ahead of Super Bowl LIII’s halftime show on Feb. 3 in Atlanta. Artists are doing this either in solidarity with Colin Kaepernick, or because performing at the show doesn’t do much for their actual or cultural bottom lines. And the league has no one to blame but itself.

In September, a month after news broke that Maroon 5 would be the headliner, speculation abounded as to who might be the special guest or co-headliner. In October, US Weekly reported that Rihanna turned down an offer to perform, citing solidarity with Kaepernick. Over the summer, Jay-Z, who has been vocal about his solidarity with the exiled quarterback, made it known that he’d previously declined to perform at a Super Bowl. And just this week, Variety reports that upward of six acts, from Mary J. Blige to André 3000 have been offered the opportunity to perform with Maroon 5. All, at this time, and citing various reasons, have turned it down.

Jay-Z rapped about the NFL’s biggest musical showcase on his and Beyoncé’s recent, Grammy-nominated “Ape S—”: I 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. The lyric isn’t hyperbole either, as Jay-Z and Beyonce’s 2018 On the Run II tour grossed upward of $150 million as they performed at stadiums around the world. Yes, even including the very same Mercedes-Benz Stadium that will host the Super Bowl in Atlanta.


The message is clear: These artists, especially the many hip-hop and urban acts on the bill, just aren’t valuable enough for the main stage.

The NFL has yet to make a declaration, but the unofficial official announcement about Maroon 5 was met with near universal confusion and/or disdain. Yes, they’ve been platinum recording artists since their 2002 Songs About Jane, and have headlined seven tours. Regardless, though, having them headline the halftime show is another instance of the NFL picking white or non-urban artists when any number of as-successful black artists would fit.

As the NFL — even with rebounding ratings — loses black cultural cachet (which in so many ways determines overall American cultural cachet), some black artists who may have previously seen the Super Bowl show as a way to reach a wider audience don’t really need it. Artists such as Beyoncé — with 121 million Instagram followers, and Rihanna with 66 million — nearly reach daily the amount of people (roughly 100 million people a year) who watch the Super Bowl in a given year.


The NFL has been at best reluctant and at worst discriminatory in its avoidance of urban artists headlining the halftime show since Justin Timberlake snatched off a piece of Janet Jackson’s top, exposing her breast during Super Bowl XXVII in 2004. It would be three years before another black artist (Prince) even touched the stage, and a rapper has yet to be named as a headliner — despite hip-hop/R&B being America’s foremost cultural music genre, surpassing rock in 2017 (the elephant in the room being the Black Eyed Peas, who headlined in 2011, but they are led by a white female vocalist, and were releasing a brand of music that was hip-hop adjacent at best).

Instead, the NFL has largely opted for legacy acts such as Bruce Springsteen, Madonna and The Who, and new pop from Katy Perry, who appeal to so-called middle American audiences. The situation reeks of a league that wants to appeal to its white fan base while ignoring the black fans who are dedicated to it — not to mention the majority of people who play in it. This is the same criticism the league has dealt with in relation to its handling of the Kaepernick protests and the ongoing refusal to rehire him after he kneeled during the national anthem to protest the police brutality and systemic inequality faced by people of color in the United States.

And it’s not like people don’t feel that energy. Take, for instance, Cardi B, who appeared on Maroon 5’s chart-topping “Girls Like You” and seemed a sure bet to join them in their set for the seemingly annual Urban Performer Who Outshines The Vanilla Headliner While Not Being Billed As A Headliner Invitational. But back in February, TMZ cameras caught up with the then still-relative newcomer and asked her — rather sarcastically — when she’d perform in the Super Bowl and she said that she would “when they hire Colin Kaepernick back.”

The situation was easy to dismiss because the idea of Cardi B (known back then for Love & Hip-Hop, and one hit about bloody shoes) being a big enough star for the big game was a long shot. Now, though, as Billboard’s Top New Artist, with seven current Grammy nominations, and a record-breaking year in sales and streaming, Cardi B could surely headline. However, she’s yet to commit to Maroon 5 or the NFL. In September, TMZ reported that Cardi B would only perform if given her own set.

The booking of Grammy-winning Maroon 5 for the 2019 Super Bowl is even more of a transgression given that majority-black Atlanta is an African-American cultural capital with a rich history of music that has dominated the American music scene for most of the 21st century. So it’s absolutely a slap to not have a global superstar from ATL — Usher, TLC, Ludacris, Outkast, or Monica — get the Super Bowl halftime showcase.


But.

The first Bud Light Super Bowl Festival will take place from the Thursday to the Saturday before the game and will feature Bruno Mars, Cardi B, Migos and Ludacris. One night will also feature Aerosmith, who headlined the Super Bowl in 2001.

So it’s clear that the NFL understands there’s a demand to see these acts, both locally and for the swarm of fans who will enter Atlanta for the event. The message is clear, however: These artists, especially the many hip-hop and urban acts on the bill, just aren’t valuable enough for the main stage. So here, perform for our fans off camera. “Between bringing some of the biggest acts out there right now,” said a Budweiser rep, “along with some local Atlanta flavor, we hope that we can give people a chance to come together, drink a few beers and have an unforgettable experience during Super Bowl weekend.”

The situation reeks of a league that wants to appeal to its white fan base while ignoring the black fans who are dedicated to it — not to mention the majority of people who play in it.

But there’s another concert series, curated by Grammy-winning Atlanta legend Jermaine Dupri. He’s collaborated with everyone from Mariah Carey to Usher to Jay Z, and was recently inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. Organized by the Atlanta Super Bowl Host Committee seemingly in direct response to the local artists’ halftime snubs, the concert, free to the public, will be held the week leading up to the game and is set to be a true ode to Atlanta culture with artists such as the Ying Yang Twins, Goodie Mob, Waka Flocka and more to be announced. “I don’t care what anybody say,” Dupri told Atlanta last week, “besides what the people of Atlanta feel is being represented with this show.”

So, sure, the Super Bowl bump exists, with artists enjoying sizable boosts in streams and YouTube views post-performance. That was the major selling point to persuade artists to foot the bill and do a show pro bono for the NFL (the league covers production costs). But such a national TV audience isn’t as important for artists who have many other ways to reach fans in 2018, and especially for black artists who have to weigh the pros and cons of the crossover exposure of a halftime show compared with the potential backlash of looking like a sellout for teaming up with an NFL that has earned the ire of so many black Americans.

Twenty-five years ago, Michael Jackson changed the Super Bowl halftime show forever, transforming the event from a negligible, boring few minutes featuring local marching bands and dancers to a must-see spectacle of the most popular musicians in American history. For these 2½ decades, it has seemed impossible that we’d ever get to a point in which the Super Bowl halftime show would ever lose relevance again. But thanks to the NFL’s handling of the black artists who are at the forefront of pop music and the black fans who support them, the unthinkable is on the horizon: a Super Bowl halftime show that it simply isn’t worth it for artists to be a part of. And one in which fans opt to re-up on pizza and nachos instead of tuning in.

David Dennis Jr. is a writer and adjunct professor of Journalism at Morehouse College. David’s writing has appeared in The Guardian, The Smoking Section, Uproxx, Playboy, The Atlantic, Complex.com and wherever people argue about things on the Internet.