Gladys Knight is singing the National Anthem at Super Bowl LIII… should she get a pass?

The legendary Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Gladys Knight has caused an uproar in the “woke” community.

Her decision to sing the National Anthem at this year’s Super Bowl sparked a barrage of criticism from black Twitter and others who’ve supported Colin Kaepernick, the former NFL quarterback who famously took several knees during pregame performances of the anthem, and who has been banished from the NFL ever since, even while far less qualified QBs filled teams’ starting rosters.

By inserting herself in the discussion, Ms. Knight, 74, has naturally become a pawn for both sides of the argument. The far right, for instance, wasted no time co-opting her as a “freedom-loving patriot,” as Fox News columnist Todd Starnes put it in an article Friday.  In the process, he dismissed other artists who’ve taken a stand by boycotting the Super Bowl as “foul-mouthed, tone-deaf, auto-tuned, lip-syncing, flag-hating socialists.”

Talk about “unbiased” reporting. 

But Ms. Knight’s decision to perform isn’t solely what’s fueling the fire.  Her written statement that followed is also drawing controversy.  

In it, she attempts to separate the flag and the National Anthem from the issues that Colin Kaepernick and his supporters have been protesting.  In defending her decision, she states she wants to give the anthem back “its voice,” while offering no legitimacy to the method of protests chosen by other musicians who’ve used their “voices” in boycotting the games.  She also defends her civil rights legacy by mentioning that she’s “fought long and hard all (her) life” and that she’s “been at the forefront of this battle longer than most of those voicing their opinions.”

Ms. Knight’s legacy as a musician is undeniable.  You don’t last as long as she has in this business without the talent, the work ethic and the credibility she has as an artist.  She’s one of the few musicians whose career began in the 1950s and can still fill a large venue as we enter the 2020s.  That’s nothing short of amazing by anyone’s standards.

Gladys Knight, circa early 1960s

Admittedly, however, Gladys isn’t the first name one thinks of when it comes to being at the “forefront” of the movement, as she put it.  Don’t get me wrong, as a black woman in America, there’s no doubt in my mind that she’s faced discriminatory practices from all directions, whether it be racism, sexism, even ageism.  But, aside from “walking back hallways and marching with our social leaders” and “using her voice for good,” as her statement suggests, Ms. Knight’s legacy as a freedom fighter isn’t as well known as, say, Stevie’s or Aretha’s.

I know, that’s a pretty high bar and perhaps an unfair comparison.  But in googling Gladys’ name and “civil rights,” the only thing that the internet kept returning was this latest flap about the Super Bowl, and nothing else.

So it begs the question, should an artist of Gladys’ stature get a pass for crossing the black picket line simply because she has the longevity and perhaps a few personal scars she’s endured along the way?

Does her written statement, which on its face comes across as more tone-deaf than any of the younger artists the Fox News reporter labeled as such, deserve the benefit of the doubt as that of an artist who isn’t used to the kind of scrutiny she received from social media?

Does her brief reference to Kaepernick’s issue amount to an acknowledgment of its legitimacy?  Or was her focus on the National Anthem – the “victim” in this case – really telling?

Let’s face it, black artists are held to a higher standard when it comes to social issues involving our people.  When artists like Maroon5 (this year) and Justin Timberlake (2018) perform, they’ll get some blowback for seemingly endorsing the NFL’s latest stance against player protests, but it’ll be short-lived and things will usually return to business as usual.

Black artists have to do far more internal reckoning before making the decision.  Rappers Big Boi of OutKast and current hit-maker Travis Scott, both black males – or as the Fox News columnist described, “some rappers he’s never heard of” – will be joining Maroon5 during this year’s halftime show, and both have also received heavy criticism from Kaepernick’s supporters for being the NFL’s “tokens.”  

The NFL itself is walking a tightrope as it continues to navigate the anthem issue while catering to its large black fan base.  It has to continue to pursue black entertainers for its marquee games while not appearing to patronize the black community.  Black artists who accept the offer run a far greater risk than the JT’s and the Maroon5s of the world.  The more relevant and current you are, the greater the risk.

In that way, Travis Scott stands to lose more than Big Boi, who hasn’t had a hit in 15 years.  In fact, the attention is more likely to cause a spike in the latter’s sales and streams, akin to what happened with R. Kelly last week amidst all of his recent controversies.  After all, negative publicity is still publicity.

But Gladys Knight’s career and legacy are set in stone.  She has absolutely nothing left to prove to anyone, especially those who referred to her as “old” and a “sellout” on Twitter and Instagram. And as quiet as it’s kept, many of those same people will still be watching the big game on February 3, especially if their team is in it.

Ms. Knight does stand to gain something, however.  She could have the satisfaction and piece of mind that she will have indeed given the National Anthem the “voice” she believes it needs.

As for the hopes that her performance “brings us all together in a way never before witnessed” and that she can separate the anthem and the flag from the issues that Kaepernick and others are protesting, particularly in the current sociopolitical environment?

I may not have the wisdom of her 74 years on this earth, but I’m also not that hopeful… or naive.

This weekend’s MLK Day parades stand a better chance of achieving that outcome.


P.S., You can read Ms. Knight’s entire statement below:

“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.

“No matter who chooses to deflect with this narrative and continue to mix these two in the same message, it is not so and cannot be made so by anyone speaking it.  I pray that this National Anthem will bring us all together in a way never before witnessed and we can move forward and untangle these truths which mean so much to all of us.”

Gladys Knight

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