The gig of a life­time – that no­body wants to play

The Guardian Weekly - - Spotlight - By Ed­ward Hel­more NEW YORK ED­WARD HEL­MORE RE­PORTS FOR THE GUARDIAN FROM NEW YORK

Watched in the US by more than 100 mil­lion peo­ple and at­tract­ing per­form­ers such as Lady Gaga, Beyoncé and Justin Timber­lake, it is one of the most pres­ti­gious mu­sic shows in the world. But the Su­per Bowl’s half-time slot next month is fac­ing an un­fa­mil­iar prob­lem: a lack of artists will­ing to per­form.

As the Na­tional Foot­ball League digs in its heels in a dis­pute with Colin Kaeper­nick, the star quar­ter­back who re­fused to stand for the na­tional an­them in protest at po­lice bru­tal­ity against racial mi­nori­ties, the show this year has be­come more about pol­i­tics than mu­sic. The fact that the Su­per Bowl is tak­ing place in At­lanta, ar­guably the cap­i­tal of black mu­sic in the US, has only added to the storm.

Some of the big­gest names in pop and rap, in­clud­ing Ri­hanna and Cardi B, have turned down the op­por­tu­nity to ap­pear, while Ma­roon 5, are un­der pres­sure to pull out. Rap­per Travis Scott also faces pres­sure from hip-hop su­per­star Jay-Z and civil rights groups. With four weeks to go, pro­duc­ers of the 13-minute event are scram­bling to find ad­di­tional per­form­ers for what Va­ri­ety has called “mu­sic’s least-wanted gig”.

Ger­ald Griggs, vice-pres­i­dent of the At­lanta chap­ter of the NAACP civil rights group, said: “The ma­jor­ity of artists we’ve reached out to are stand­ing in sol­i­dar­ity against the NFL. They do not want to be as­so­ci­ated be­cause of the protest that was started by Mr Kaeper­nick against racial in­jus­tice and po­lice bru­tal­ity.”

Kaeper­nick, who was the quar­ter­back for the San Fran­cisco 49ers and led them to the Su­per Bowl in 2013, ac­cuses NFL own­ers of col­lud­ing to keep him out of the league af­ter his de­ci­sion to “take the knee” dur­ing the na­tional an­them at games sparked a mass protest move­ment. In 2017 the player filed a col­lu­sion griev­ance against the NFL, claim­ing team own­ers had con­spired to keep him off the field due to his protests.

He is seek­ing dam­ages equal to what he would have earned if he was still play­ing in the league. The NFL de­nies the al­le­ga­tions.

For protesters who back Kaeper­nick, the At­lanta show is the ideal venue to send a strong mes­sage about the league’s re­fusal – backed by Don­ald Trump – to sup­port play­ers’ right to refuse to stand for the an­them. The Su­per Bowl half-time show “is the big­gest stage in the world to bring our mes­sage to the world about the atroc­i­ties that are hap­pen­ing in the United States, and par­tic­u­larly in At­lanta, that have not been ad­dressed,” said Griggs.

The first star to clearly link the Su­per Bowl show to Kaeper­nick was Ri­hanna. In Oc­to­ber she con­firmed she had been ap­proached to per­form but had de­cided to sup­port the quar­ter­back. “She said no be­cause of the kneel­ing con­tro­versy. She doesn’t agree with the NFL’s stance,” a rep­re­sen­ta­tive told US Weekly.

With typ­i­cal flam­boy­ance, Cardi B ini­tially said she wanted a solo slot and $1m to per­form (artists are not paid for the half-time show, but are given a “gift in kind” by the NFL), though a rep­re­sen­ta­tive later said “she was not par­tic­u­larly in­ter­ested in par­tic­i­pat­ing be­cause of how she feels about Colin Kaeper­nick and the whole move­ment”. So far Ma­roon 5 have been ab­sent from the con­ver­sa­tion. The band have not been for­mally an­nounced by the NFL, but a rep­re­sen­ta­tive called the in­vi­ta­tion “a dream come true” and their par­tic­i­pa­tion has not been de­nied. Observer

CHRISTOPHER POLK/ GETTY

Justin Timber­lake per­forms at last year’s Su­per Bowl in Min­neapo­lis

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