If you’d forgotten how great Gladys Knight was, Super Bowl Sunday was a reminder of why she’s known as the “Empress of Soul” — and you don’t get royal monikers without earning them.
It wasn’t just that the Atlanta-based R&B legend was singing the national anthem. It was she nailed it, absolutely nailed it. I may be suffering from a bit of recency bias, but I’d easily put it in the top five of Super Bowl album renditions. It wasn’t Whitney Houston in 1991 or Jennifer Hudson in 2009 — but for me, anyhow, it was close.
Sadly, even singing the national anthem is a political statement in a Super Bowl where every major performer was asked by protesters to stay away due to the fact Colin Kaepernick isn’t in the league. We could debate the merits of Kaepernick’s absence from the NFL endlessly, but the idea that every musician of note should boycott the game is a rather farcical request.
Knight had already been less apologetic and dithering than halftime headliner Maroon 5, which made her even more of a target for social justice warriors to take out their Kaepernick-related frustrations on musicians. On Friday night, she appeared on “CNN Tonight” with host Don Lemon to explain her reasoning, and it was almost as good as her version of the anthem on Sunday.
The show can be risky territory for anyone, particularly since Lemon is fond of taking the SJW line on almost anything. And yet Knight handled it perfectly.
Lemon, who’s made no secret of the fact he doesn’t really buy that Kaepernick isn’t in the NFL because of his talents and other problems he presents, hit Knight with a quote from Kaepernick attorney Mark Geragos, who’s been vociferously attacking any musical act that dared appear at the big game.
In an interview after Maroon 5 frontman Adam Levine discussed his decision to perform, Geragos accused him of being an ideological scab: “If you’re going to cross this ideological or intellectual picket line, then own it, and Adam Levine certainly isn’t owning it,” Geragos said.
Lemon played another clip of Geragos discussing that ideological picket line and what she thought about it.
“People are going to have their opinions. You know, about whatever,” Knight said, smiling.
“And all I can deal with, all I can deal with right now is what my heart says,” she continued. “I believe in fairness. I believe in truth. I believe in all of those things, and as far as this is concerned, I grew up with the national anthem.
“We used to sing it in school before school started. We used to say prayers in school before school started, and we just don’t have that anymore and I’m just — I’m just hoping that it will be about our country and how we treat each other and being the great country that we are.”
"People are going to have their opinions about whatever, and all I can deal with right now is what my heart says." – Gladys Knight defends decision to perform the National Anthem at the Super Bowl. "I just want them to know that we have a country that's worth standing up for." pic.twitter.com/GMpgQZh8xL
— CNN Tonight (@CNNTonight) February 2, 2019
When asked if the criticisms could hurt her professionally, she was similarly dismissive.
“You know what? Nothing good comes easy,” Knight said. “And I would hope that they will understand, as I do, that we have a better way to do this than to be angry and why is he doing this or why ain’t she doing that, you know?.
“For me, it’s just for me about respect. If we start denying the anthem, there are so many people that have died for our country and there are so many people in my family that are still part of, you know, just standing for the country, they are in the services and that kind of thing, and just to not say that if you really listen to the lyrics of the beginning, you’ll understand that. We have fought hard for a long time and not just in wars. I have protested myself.”
Knight went on to discuss her personal experiences during the civil rights era — in other words, disavowing the idea that protest need involve disrupting the Super Bowl.
In short, she absolutely schooled Lemon — both on his questions and the real meaning of social justice.
Knight had made a similar defense of the anthem in January when the pressure to boycott was at its most intense.
“I understand that Mr. Kaepernick is protesting two things, and they are police violence and injustice,” Knight said in a statement then.
“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,” the statement said.
“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.”
In the end, she sang the anthem beautifully and didn’t use it to make a political statement against America or the flag. When grilled by Don Lemon — including the implied threat that her career could suffer — she was pitch-perfect, just as she was on Sunday.
Our hats are off to you, Gladys Knight, and may future Super Bowl performers evince even a fraction of your grace and talent.