Gladys Knight, the Grammy-winning “Empress of Soul,” opened Sunday’s Super Bowl with a rendition of the national anthem at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium in her hometown of Atlanta.
The Georgia-born singer’s performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner” comes at a time when the anthem is at the center of an ongoing controversy in the football league: Professional players calling for racial justice have been kneeling during the song in protest, while others, including President Donald Trump, have rallied against the kneeling players and accused them of disrespecting the country.
That controversy led big name artists like Cardi B and Rihanna to reportedly decline offers to perform during the halftime show, the Associated Press reports. CBS, which is airing this year’s championship game, describes the halftime show as “the most-watched concert of the year, every year.” Cardi B told AP she sacrificed “a lot of money” by turning down the performance.
“But there’s a man who sacrificed his job for us, so we got to stand behind him,” Cardi B told AP, referring to ex-NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who set off the protests over police brutality and other racial justice issues.
Kaepernick hasn’t been employed in the league since becoming a free agent in 2017, and has accused NFL teams of colluding against him, CNN reports.
Trump waded into the controversy in 2017 at a rally for an Alabama Senate candidate.
“Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a b---- off the field right now,’” Trump said, as McClatchy reported at the time. “‘He is fired.’”
Knight said she was “proud” to perform the song at Super Bowl LIII, and pointed to a new social justice initiative launched by the league.
“I am proud to use my voice to unite and represent our country in my hometown of Atlanta,” Knight said in a statement released by the NFL in January, adding that “the NFL recently announced their new social justice platform Inspire Change, and I am honored to be a part of its inaugural year.”
The NFL said the new program will offer grants focusing on police and community relations, criminal justice reform and education and economic advancement.
Knight spoke in a video posted on Twitter about how, when she first began performing with The Pips in the South, they would play segregated shows.
“We did one for the Caucasian people upstairs,” she said. “And one for the African-American people and people of color in the basement.
Later, Knight said in the video, they marched with and supported Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during the civil rights movement.
Knight said it was especially meaningful to perform at a Super Bowl in Atlanta.
“I’m coming home,” Knight said in a Twitter message on Jan. 17, teasing her performance.
Knight has recorded two Billboard Hot 100 No. 1 singles — “Midnight Train to Georgia” and “That’s What Friends Are For” — and has even more No. 1 R&B songs and albums, according to the NFL. She’s also won seven Grammy awards and is in the Rock Hall of Fame.
Super Bowl national anthem singers in years past include Beyoncé, Garth Brooks, Mariah Carey, Cher, Diana Ross, Lady Gaga and Whitney Houston, the NFL said.
During the halftime show, Maroon 5 will perform with rappers Travis Scott and Big Boi — and all of them have fielded criticism over their decision to perform, CNN reports.
“I am not in the right profession if I can’t handle a bit of controversy,” Maroon 5 front-man Adam Levine told Entertainment Tonight, according to CNN. “It is what it is. We expected it. We would like to move on from it and speak through the music.”