It was announced this week that legendary soul singer Gladys Knight will perform the national anthem at Super Bowl LIII, to be held in her hometown of Atlanta on Feb. 3. The news was met with disappointment among fans and others across social media; artists have been urged to stand in solidarity against the NFL and the Super Bowl ever since former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick was effectively blacklisted from the league for protesting the killing of black citizens by police.
After the announcement, Ms. Knight addressed the criticism with a statement explaining why she’s chosen to perform the anthem.
“I understand that Mr. Kaepernick is protesting two things, and they are police violence and injustice,” she wrote. “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.
“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, from walking back hallways, from marching with our social leaders, from using my voice for good—I have been in the forefront of this battle longer than most of those voicing their opinions to win the right to sing our country’s anthem on a stage as large as the Super Bowl LIII.”
As many voiced their criticism of Knight’s decision, others suggested the general public was being too hard on the iconic diva. R&B star Tevin Campbell tweeted his defense: “Gladys Knight literally had to walk thru the back doors. She lived thru the ‘colored’ and ‘whites’ only bullshit. She marched with the civil rights leaders. She does not owe you manure. And she gives 0 f&cks about y’all cancelling. STFU please. Carry on.”
There was also a question posed by many observers: Are we harder on the black women we deem transgressive in their politics or behavior than on the men?
Rapper Travis Scott is confirmed to join pop-rockers Maroon 5 as the halftime performers for Super Bowl LIII, alongside Atlanta rap legend Big Boi. While there has been criticism—Scott, in particular, is catching flak for what reports claim is a falsified endorsement of his performing by Kaepernick himself—there doesn’t seem to be a full-on backlash against Scott and especially not Big Boi, who has emerged unscathed. After months of reliably bizarre antics, so many of his fans and peers seem to have accepted Kanye West’s pro-Trump ramblings as some kind of meaningless political side-show; when his G.O.O.D. Music releases were rolled out last summer, there was no shortage of A-listers ready to bask in the “genius” of a rapper who was suddenly Donald Trump’s loudest, proudest fan. If it isn’t true that we are outright harder on black women, they definitely have the most to lose in these scenarios.
Hip-hop’s primary consumer base is young white males. When you take that into consideration, it seems likely that, even before the media circus of 2018, Kanye West had a significant amount of right-leaning white fans—or, at the very least, fans who were primed to become MAGA hat-wearing Trump supporters. For rappers like West and Travis Scott, there is definitely a cultural risk to ignoring the concerns and voices of their people for the sake of pandering or placating; but they’ll still be on every major entertainment news site and their streaming numbers will remain high, because they have much more of a middle-of-the-road white audience than a Chrisette Michele, who has seen her career tailspin since she performed at Trump’s January 2017 inaugural ball.
The Washington Post’s recent piece details the ways in which the Trump soiree devastated Michele’s career. In the 2000s, the Grammy-winning singer-songwriter was one of soul music’s more successful stars and was still maintaining a steady (if somewhat subdued) career as late as spring 2016, when she released her fifth album, Milestone. Back then, she was basking in a new engagement to her manager Doug “Biggs” Ellison, as well as a recent reconciliation with hip-hop star Rick Ross following their falling out after the 2010 Soul Train Awards—when Michele scolded the rapper after it was asserted that Ross ditched a performance over losing Best Hip-Hop Song to Eminem—and the assertive proclamations of the Black Lives Matter era. It would only be a few months later that she would take that Faustian offer from Trump’s people and alienate her fan base.
“While I felt like people took so much away from me in those two years, I’m more grateful for finally having time to look at the last 12 [years],” she says in the Post piece. “And I think that is the bright side… I want people to know that it’s okay to expect more from me.”
My father used to love the aphorism “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.” I’ve never taken that adage to be a wholesale indictment of a person’s character—more a denunciation of willful ignorance and naiveté. In seeking to “give the anthem back its voice,” one of our most revered artists is effectively contributing to the ways that it mutes the voiceless. Sentimental platitudes aside, that anthem hasn’t evoked “unity” for everyone—even before the current administration’s toxicity stoked the simmering embers of hate that always burn across America. It wasn’t that before, and it damn sure isn’t that now.
Are we harder on black women? Yes. Yes, we are. But while it’s unlikely that performing at the Super Bowl will hurt Gladys Knight’s career, it will undoubtedly drive a wedge between her and her community. For women like Michele and the legendary Ms. Knight, it’s important to remember that the audience that has always loved them and the audience that has always connected to them isn’t the one wearing the red hats. The bridge you’re trying to build, the olive branch you’re so intent on extending—it’s to connect with people who won’t remember the name of that soul singer who sang at that thing that time. They won’t martyr you, your maligned reputation or your devastated career. That audience won’t remember the “well-intentioned” sacrifice you made. But your audience will absolutely remember the betrayal.