It begins with Colin Kaepernick’s NFL protests.
On Sunday, February 3, more than 100 million Americans are expected to watch Super Bowl 53 and its halftime show. That kind of viewership means that most years, the halftime show is a coveted performance slot — but this year, it’s shrouded in controversy.
Maroon 5 are set to perform, with Travis Scott and Big Boi making guest appearances. But all three acts were added to the slate late in the process, after multiple stars reportedly turned down the opportunity to appear during the halftime show. And both Maroon 5 and Travis Scott have fielded major backlash after announcing their performances.
Here’s how the Super Bowl halftime show, an institution that was once the biggest showcase in American music, ended up begging for performers in 2019.
The controversy over this year’s Super Bowl begins with Colin Kaepernick
In 2016, Colin Kaepernick was a backup quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers. After speaking with a former NFL player who had served as a Green Beret, he decided that he would no longer stand during the singing of the national anthem before games. Instead, in a silent act of protest against police shootings of unarmed black Americans, he would kneel. “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” he said.
Slowly, other NFL players joined the protest, and conservative outrage mounted in response. Kneeling athletes, argued some on the right, were disrespecting the American flag, and by extension American veterans. Some conservatives urged a general NFL boycott.
President Trump chimed in, with rhetoric that amplified the already charged racial politics surrounding the protest. “You know what’s hurting the game: when people like yourselves turn on television,” he said at a rally with mostly white attendees in September 2017, “and you see those people” — meaning the mostly black athletes of the NFL — “taking the knee when they are playing our great national anthem.” That October, Vice President Mike Pence walked out of a game when players knelt during the anthem.
The NFL at first supported its players, saying that they were encouraged but not required to stand during the playing of the national anthem. But as outrage mounted, the league changed its tune.
After becoming a free agent in the spring of 2017, Colin Kaepernick was not offered a contract from any team in the league. (He has since filed an official grievance against the NFL, saying it colluded to keep him from working.) And in May 2018, the NFL announced a new policy. Now players would be expected to stand for the anthem if they were on the sidelines but were given the option of remaining in the locker room instead. If they protested, they would be fined.
The policy was wildly unpopular, and last fall, the NFL announced that it would no longer enforce it. (Athletes have knelt in protest this season without consequence.) Kaepernick, however, remains off the field.
Rihanna, always a trendsetter, reportedly turned down the Super Bowl halftime gig. Others followed suit.
Rumblings that the 2019 Super Bowl halftime show would be unusual first began to surface in the fall, when reports emerged that the NFL had offered the headlining spot to Rihanna and she declined. Reportedly, she cited Kaepernick in her reasoning.
“The NFL and CBS really wanted Rihanna to be next year’s performer in Atlanta,” a source told Us Weekly in October. “They offered it to her, but she said no because of the kneeling controversy. She doesn’t agree with the NFL’s stance.”
According to Entertainment Weekly, the NFL also reached out to Pink, but she turned them down too, when contract negotiations dragged on too long.
Eventually, reports emerged that Maroon 5 would perform at the Super Bowl. And before the story was ever confirmed by either the NFL or Maroon 5, thousands of people signed a Change.org petition calling on the group to drop out.
“Kaepernick risked his career to take a knee for equality, and the NFL punished him for it,” wrote petition starter Vic Oyedeji. “Until the league changes their policy and support players’ constitutional right to protest, no artists should agree to work with the NFL. Join me in asking Maroon 5 to drop out of the 2019 Super Bowl halftime show.” The petition currently has over 110,000 signatures.
“I think it would be cool if [Maroon 5] backed out of super bowl like [Rihanna] Did,” wrote comedian Amy Schumer on Instagram. She added that she was refusing to appear in any Super Bowl commercials for 2019. (Schumer did not say whether she was offered any commercials this year, but she’s done Super Bowl commercials in the past, including a Bud Light commercial with Seth Rogen in 2016.) “I know opposing the nfl is like opposing the nra,” she wrote. “Very tough, but don’t you want to be proud of how you’re living?”
“You know, I think that when you look back at every single halftime show, people just can’t — it’s this like insatiable urge to hate a little bit,” Maroon 5 frontman Adam Levine told Entertainment Tonight of the controversy. “I’m not in the right profession if I can’t handle a little bit of controversy. It’s what it is. We expected it. We’d like to move on from it.”
In the wake of the controversy, Maroon 5 were reportedly desperate for an artist of color to perform with
As the Super Bowl approached with no sign of a guest performer, rumors emerged that Maroon 5 were desperate to find someone, ideally an artist of color, to perform with them, and they couldn’t get anyone to say yes.
In December, Variety reported that the band had reached out to “more than a half-dozen stars” to join them for the halftime show, including André Benjamin (a.k.a. André 3000 of Outkast), Mary J. Blige, Usher, Lauryn Hill, and Nicki Minaj. But every last one, Variety reported, said no.
The obvious choice to fill the featured guest artist slot would have been Cardi B. Cardi collaborated with Maroon 5 on a remix of “Girls Like Us” in 2018, and her star is only rising; her name had been in the mix for featured guest artist starting in September, well before Maroon 5 was even confirmed. But in December, she reportedly declined the offer.
Reports vary as to why Cardi said no. One source told Page Six that she would only do it if the NFL offered her $1 million (halftime performers are typically unpaid). But another said that Cardi, like Rihanna, was standing in solidarity with Colin Kaepernick, and that she would only consider performing “when they hire Colin Kaepernick back.”
Cardi has long been vocal in her support of Kaepernick. At the 2017 MTV Video Music Awards, she used her acceptance speech for Best New Artist as an opportunity to shout him out, saying, “Colin Kaepernick: As long as you kneel with us, we gonna be standing for you, baby.”
A rep for Cardi B told Page Six that the reports she was demanding $1 million are false, and that while “she was not particularly interested in participating because of how she feels about Colin Kaepernick and the whole movement,” she didn’t actually turn down the Super Bowl because “there was never a solid offer for her to say yes or no to.”
Travis Scott has tried to avoid backlash for taking the halftime gig. It might have backfired.
Big Boi has largely avoided making too much noise about his appearance, and considering that Super Bowl 53 is taking place at Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium, his status as a representative of the Atlanta music scene at an Atlanta-hosted Super Bowl may have softened the criticism against him. (A sub-controversy of sorts, hidden beneath the Kaepernick protests, centered on outrage over the idea that a Super Bowl halftime show in a city with a rich hip-hop history like Atlanta would spotlight primarily white artists.)
But Scott, who told Rolling Stone in December that he was beginning to get involved with progressive politics, and who stumped for Texas Senate candidate and Ted Cruz challenger Beto O’Rourke in last fall’s midterm elections, immediately drew heavy criticism. Jay-Z reportedly tried to talk him out of taking the job.
“I think he should do what a lot of other major artists have done: say ‘I’m not going to participate,” said Rev. Al Sharpton. “You can’t fight against Jim Crow and then go sit in the back of the bus.”
In an apparent move to neutralize the criticism against him, Scott announced in January that he will donate $500,000 in partnership with the NFL to the nonprofit organization Dream Corps, along with “other initiatives that he will work with the League on.”
“I back anyone who takes a stand for what they believe in,” said Scott. “I know being an artist that it’s in my power to inspire.”
Almost immediately after he announced his donation, Scott officially confirmed that he would be performing with Maroon 5 at the Super Bowl halftime show. A “source close to Scott” told Variety that Scott spoke with Kaepernick before he made his decision and that the two had reached a place of “mutual respect,” but Kaepernick later retweeted a statement from his girlfriend that declared that “there is NO mutual respect” between them.
“Colin doesn’t tell Travis what he can and can’t do,” fired back a Scott source. “That’s Travis’ decision.”
Meanwhile, Gladys Knight, the Empress of Soul, announced in January that she would be singing the national anthem to open the game. She defended her choice strongly.
“I understand that Mr. Kaepernick is protesting two things and they are police violence and injustice. It is unfortunate that our National Anthem has been dragged into this debate when the distinctive senses of the National Anthem and fighting for justice should each stand alone,” Knight said in a statement to E! News. “I am here today and on Sunday, Feb. 3 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.”
For his part, Kaepernick has declined to comment directly on the controversy. He occasionally retweets others’ statements about the issue, but he doesn’t tweet about it himself, and he never grants interviews. “He has grown wise to the power of his silence,” said a GQ profile in 2017.
In many ways, that’s fitting. This Super Bowl 53 halftime show controversy is one that, like Kaepernick’s activism, is defined by silence. It is defined by artists declining to raise their voices in service of the NFL — despite the 100 million viewers the NFL can offer them.