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The politics of Jay-Z and Beyoncé sitting during the Super Bowl’s national anthem

Jay-Z’s controversial partnership with the NFL has led to scrutiny of why he and Bey opted not to stand.

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Super Bowl LIV at Hard Rock Stadium
Jay-Z walks with his daughter Blue Ivy Carter as they tour the field before the start of Super Bowl LIV at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Florida, on Sunday, Feb. 2, 2020.
Jose Carlos Fajardo/MediaNews Group/The Mercury News via Getty Images
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

Super Bowl Sunday ended with the Kansas City Chiefs winning their first Super Bowl in 50 years, after a J.Lo-centric halftime show whose quality was never in doubt. Meanwhile, one of the more controversial moments of the evening came when two celebrities decided to remain seated.

According to a video published by TMZ, Beyoncé and Jay-Z did not stand for the national anthem when it was sung at the start of the game by Demi Lovato.

The high-profile couple has not commented on why they remained seated during Lovato’s performance, but the act is being interpreted as a show of solidarity with Colin Kaepernick. Kaepernick, a former quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, was at the center of a nationwide debate in 2016 after he started kneeling during the national anthem before games, in protest against police brutality.

Kaepernick was widely criticized by people who viewed his protests as disrespectful toward the American flag (including President Donald Trump). But he also garnered widespread support, inspiring other athletes to kneel during the anthem as well. He later became a free agent amidst the controversy — and hasn’t been signed to an NFL team since 2017.

Many celebrities have shown support for Kaepernick.

Music stars like Rihanna and Cardi B., among others, have said they will no longer perform for the NFL because of the way it treated Kaepernick — Kaepernick filed a lawsuit, which was eventually settled in 2019, accusing the NFL of colluding against him to keep him off the field due to his protests.

It would not be surprising for Jay-Z and Beyoncé, who have championed social causes in the past, to support Kaepernick.

But on the other hand, Jay-Z entered a controversial partnership with the NFL in 2019. And it’s that partnership that has encouraged scrutiny of why he and Bey opted not to stand during the national anthem at this year’s Super Bowl. Critics have wondered whether it’s an instance of Jay-Z playing both sides — nodding to injustice while also collecting a paycheck from the league that punished others for doing the same.

Jay-Z has publicly supported Kaepernick, but many have disagreed with his NFL partnership

On August 13, 2019, the NFL announced that it was entering a partnership with Jay-Z’s Roc Nation, the entertainment company he founded in 2008. One of Jay and Roc Nation’s duties under the partnership would be to “advise on selecting artists for major NFL performances like the Super Bowl.” And the first visible part of that deal came to life on Sunday as Jennifer Lopez and Shakira became the first Latina artists to ever headline the Super Bowl halftime show.

Another role Roc Nation plays in the partnership is to help lead the NFL’s “Inspire Change” initiative, a collaboration between the NFL and the Players Coalition, a group of NFL players seeking to advance social and racial justice. The initiative, according to the NFL, focuses on three causes: “education and economic advancement; police and community relations; and criminal justice reform.”

An example of the NFL’s Inspire Change initiative took the form of a Super Bowl ad starring wide receiver Anquan Boldin that intended to raise awareness about police shootings. Boldin’s cousin was shot and killed by a police officer in 2015; the officer was later sentenced to 25 years in jail after being convicted of manslaughter and attempted murder.

But some critics have nonetheless viewed the Jay-Z/NFL partnership as a sign that the rapper and entertainment mogul is betraying Kaepernick and his stance on social issues. The argument: Jay-Z, a black artist whose company represents black artists and athletes, went into business with an organization that colluded against an athlete protesting against racial injustice and inequality.

No matter their reasoning, the fact that Jay-Z and Beyoncé did not stand for the anthem has led many people to question where they stand politically. Was sitting during the anthem a show of support for Kaepernick, despite Jay-Z’s NFL partnership?

If so, it would align with Jay-Z’s past comments on the matter.

In interviews prior to the partnership, Jay-Z was an outspoken Kaepernick supporter, alleging that the NFL did collude against the quarterback to keep him off the field. In a 2017 interview with New York Times editor Dean Baquet, Baquet point-blank asked Jay if he believed the NFL was blacklisting Kaepernick because of his protests. Jay emphatically said yes:

BAQUET: If you were an owner, you would sign Colin Kaepernick, right?
JAY-Z: Yeah. I dedicated “The Story of O.J.” to him at the Meadows concert.
BAQUET: Have you met him?
JAY-Z: No. We just had dialogue over the phone, but we supposed to get together.
BAQUET: Do you have any doubt that if this had not happened, he would be signed by a team?
JAY-Z: Yeah, yeah. Of course.

Jay’s support of Kaepernick, combined with Beyoncé focusing much of her recent work on themes of black identity and black womanhood, would seemingly place the couple at odds with the NFL — not just for its treatment of Kaepernick and the issues of racism and police brutality he wanted to bring forward, but also because of other issues like the league’s frequent leniency toward players who commit domestic abuse. Many celebrities have publicly condemned the league, in which a majority of teams are controlled by white owners, for not supporting Kaepernick.

In a Vogue interview from November, Rihanna explained why she turned down a chance to perform a Super Bowl halftime show for the NFL. She said it would be exploitative to the black community.

“I couldn’t dare do that. For what? Who gains from that? Not my people. I just couldn’t be a sellout. I couldn’t be an enabler,” Rihanna said. “There’s things within that organization that I do not agree with at all, and I was not about to go and be of service to them in any way.”

Politically, Jay’s decision to enter a partnership with the NFL in August of 2019 seemed incongruent with his statements. And though the NFL had confidentially settled with Kaepernick by that time, Kaepernick still wasn’t on a team and insiders believed he was still being blackballed.

“Jay-Z claimed to be a supporter of Colin — wore his jersey, told people not to perform at the Super Bowl because of the treatment that the NFL did to Colin,” Carolina Panthers safety Eric Reid told reporters in August, during the NFL preseason. Reid, like Kaepernick, also knelt during the national anthem and also filed a collusion lawsuit against the NFL.

“It’s kind of despicable,” Reid added.

Jay-Z said he wanted to make NFL fans think about racism beyond Kaepernick

Jay addressed concerns about his perceived flip-flop on Kaepernick in an interview with the New York Times published a day before the Super Bowl. He explained that he entered the partnership because he believed he could push the NFL, and more importantly, its fans, to think of institutional racism and police brutality in a way that goes beyond Kaepernick.

“No one is saying he hasn’t been done wrong,” Jay told the Times. “He was done wrong. I would understand if it was three months ago. But it was three years ago and someone needs to say, ‘What do we do now — because people are still dying?’”

He also acknowledged the criticism he’s received for working with the NFL, and suggested that his partnership with the league is more important.

“As long as real people are being hurt and marginalized and losing family members, then yes, I can take a couple rounds of negative press,” he said.

That was the last interview Jay-Z did before remaining seated with his wife Beyoncé and their daughter Blue Ivy during the national anthem. He and Beyoncé have made no comment since, but the fact that it’s being discussed at all indicates the importance society places on Jay and Bey.

Whether or not the couple intended to support Kaepernick, some people — predominantly right-wing personalities who often deride anyone (or a person of color) who sits out the anthem — are calling Jay and Bey disrespectful. And to be sure, the most volatile tweets are coming from trolls looking to gin up maximum outrage and extend their social media clout.

But attacks aside, at the heart of this sitting controversy is Jay-Z and Beyoncé’s political identity, and our deep desire to know how exactly they feel. That says more about us than it does about them.

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