'More than just a stage': why performers at the Super Bowl are in the hot seat

Spirited debate about the Super Bowl's halftime show are nothing new, but this year the conversation has taken a decidedly more serious tone. Entertainers taking part simply can't avoid the elephant in the room: the National Football League's treatment of former star player Colin Kaepernick after his protest against racial inequality.

Some musicians declined to play due to anger over NFL's treatment of quarterback Colin Kaepernick

Entertainers set to perform at the Super Bowl in Atlanta this weekend, including Adam Levine of Maroon 5, Travis Scott, Big Boi and Gladys Knight, are facing criticism for taking part. (Getty Images)

Entertainers engaged in Super Bowl festivities in Atlanta this weekend simply can't avoid the elephant in the room: the National Football League's ongoing treatment of Colin Kaepernick, a former star quarterback who remains unemployed after protesting against racial inequality.

Entertainers who agreed to perform at the event are "saying yes to more than just a stage," said Atlanta music writer Travis (Yoh) Phillips. "You are saying yes to associating with the NFL, associating with what they will decide to do with Kaepernick." 

Spirited debates about the Super Bowl's halftime show are nothing new — after all, it's the cultural event that hosted Nipplegate, launched the Left Shark and debuted Beyonce's Formation. But this year, the conversation has taken a decidedly more serious tone ahead of Sunday's big game between the Los Angeles Rams and New England Patriots.

Former 49ers player Kaepernick set off a polarizing wave of demonstrations in 2016, when he began kneeling during the U.S. national anthem to protest racial inequality and police brutality.

Missing from professional football since becoming a free agent in 2017, he's now suing the NFL, alleging team owners have colluded to keep him off the field. His supporters point to several semi-retired or inferior quarterbacks who have been picked up by clubs in the past two seasons.

Former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick was unsigned by any team in the NFL in the past two seasons. He's filed a grievance against the NFL, alleging that team owners have conspired to keep him out of the league because of his civil rights protests. (Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press)

Musicians performing at this year's Super Bowl are rightfully "taking heat," Kaepernick's lawyer Mark Geragos told NBC's Today this week.

"They're crossing an intellectual picket line. They're saying to themselves 'I care more about my career than whether what I'm doing is right.'"

'We expected it... we'd like to move on'

Kaepernick's protest has sent waves beyond the sports world, with top entertainers — the likes of Jay Z, Rihanna and Cardi B — purportedly turning down the prestigious Super Bowl gig in solidarity.

When the NFL officially announced Maroon 5 as this year's halftime headliner in mid-January, it came later than usual and months after the band had been rumoured to have signed on. Earlier this week, organizers cancelled the customary press conference held with the featured act.

Petitions and celebrity appeals have urged the pop-rockers to drop the gig. Pink Floyd's Roger Waters has even encouraged the band to make a statement supporting Kaepernick onstage.

Maroon 5 members, from left, PJ Morton, Jesse Carmichael, Adam Levine, Mickey Madden and James Valentine are seen in New Orleans in 2017. (Amy Harris/Invision/Associated Press)

"I'm not in the right profession if I can't handle a little bit of controversy," frontman Adam Levine told Entertainment Tonight in an interview broadcast Thursday evening.

Addressing critics who feel their voices are not being heard, Levine pledged that "they will be — that's all I want to say because I don't want to spoil anything." 

Maroon 5 hasn't been the only one on the defensive: others have also faced criticism, from rappers Big Boi and Travis Scott (slated to join the band onstage) to soul icon Gladys Knight (chosen to sing The Star-Spangled Banner) to Jermaine Dupri, who curated the free Super Bowl Live concert series taking place in downtown Atlanta's Centennial Olympic Park.

Rapper and producer Jermaine Dupri says he was called a sellout for helping organize the free Super Bowl Live concert series in downtown Atlanta's Centennial Olympic Park this month. (CBC)

Rapper and producer Dupri — who said he was called a "sellout" for his role — didn't feel right turning his back on his hometown during this celebratory time. Yet, he also wanted to give voice to those central to Kaepernick's protest: victims of police violence.

"We can get these stories in front of people," said Dupri, who has vowed to use his celebrity platform to share the stories he's heard after meeting with victims' families.

Saying no to '100 million pairs of eyes'

Turning down the "more than 100 million pairs of eyes" that the Super Bowl offers is hard for performers who thrive on large audiences, said Steven Ehrlick, a professor at Ryerson University's RTA School of Media and director of its music industry incubator The Music Den.

Just the fact that they're walking away from a platform with so many people viewing... it's quite remarkable.- Steven Ehrlick, Ryerson University

"Just the fact that they're walking away from a platform with so many people viewing and the possibilities for expanding audience there — it's quite remarkable," he said.

While big-name acts might be in a place to say no, most performers would likely struggle with the decision to decline the potentially once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Even if an entertainer is lesser-known or bombs onstage, Ehrlick pointed out, viewers will be searching out more info about them online or may decide to stream their music.

Then, there's the fact that the halftime show is what unites all viewers in front of the screen — whether football fans or not. It's something incredibly valuable in today's era of fractured audiences. With fewer people watching football and television overall, Ehrlick noted, advertisers value events like the Super Bowl and its eyeball-attracting halftime musical showcase.

The NFL's 32 team owners and its commissioner "are probably fairly disconnected from the music business," he said.

The league simply wants to see the audience eyeballs promised to advertisers "come to fruition, or next year, [the NFL is] not going to get as much money from them," he said. "That's what it's about."

'People are listening'

Moving forward, artists who participate in the Super Bowl this weekend might face consequences, including potential backlash, said Atlanta writer Phillips, whose beat focuses on hip hop.

"Having that public backlash — it might not be fair per se, but it comes with that decision," he said.

Whether fair or not, a public backlash comes with the decision to partner with the NFL today, according to Atlanta music writer Travis (Yoh) Phillips. (CBC)

With hip hop now edging out pop and rock as the most consumed genre of music in the U.S., Phillips predicted that the NFL will continue to court its artists for future editions of the Super Bowl to attract viewers.

But, in seeking out rappers, the political and social statements that remain strong elements of the genre will also be something the league must face, he said, adding that discussions sparked by this year's Super Bowl halftime show are ultimately a good sign.

"People are impacted by the conversation — it's just not falling on deaf ears. People are hearing this, people are listening," Phillips said.

"We'll see what the outcome will be, but as long as the people have voices and the people are speaking, I think change can come."

With files from Tashauna Reid and Alice Hopton.