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To Kneel or Not to Kneel: NFL's Anthem Singers Debate
Rayvon Owen performs on Aug. 13, 2016 in Los Angeles
NFL players have been taking a knee during the national anthem ever since Colin Kaepernick remained on the bench for the performance of the song in a preseason game, 13 months ago. Now as the movement has spread to include coaches and NFL staff, the performers charged with belting out the patriotic song themselves are split over whether to kneel along with them.
“It’s definitely a heavy decision,” Rayvon Owen, a Los Angeles R&B artist who performed at the San Francisco Rams game last Thursday, tells Billboard.
Owen chose not to kneel during his most recent performance, but he is in talks to sing at an upcoming game and says that given the recent events, he is now feeling the pressure to join in on the protest, especially as a gay, African-American male who’s witnessed his share of social injustice first-hand.
“There are a million other singers who would kill for that opportunity so I’m very grateful,” he says, “yet I realize that that opportunity also comes with the chance to express myself.” (He’s considering standing for the song but doing something like wearing a T-shirt that delivers a message of unity.)
Singer-songwriter Moi Navarro, another upcoming NFL anthem candidate who sang at last month’s Chargers vs. Saints preseason game, says he's also torn as a second-generation Mexican-American performer. He will likely stand through the song: “I couldn’t imagine kneeling just because of my heritage and what I know that this country means to my parents and what the national anthem means,” he says. “But also there is a part of me that is trying to figure out what the bending of the knee means right now. I’m still trying to sort out my feelings. So I would at least consider it,” he says, of potentially kneeling.
The artists’ dilemma intensified last Sunday (Sept. 24) when two anthem singers knelt down after crooning the final lines of "The Star Spangled Banner" in two football stadiums: Rico LaVelle, a local Detroit artist, plopped to the ground at Ford Field, raising his fist while delivering the concluding notes of the game’s opening number. A few states over in Nashville, Meghan Linsey, runner up on season 8 of The Voice, sang “The Star-Spangled Banner” alongside her guitarist while the Tennessee Titans and Seattle Seahawks remained huddled in their locker rooms. Jordin Sparks, meanwhile, stood throughout her performance at Monday Night Football’s Cowboys/Cardinals game, but made a bold statement with Proverbs 31:8-9 written on her left hand, which reads "Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute.”
NFL followers predict the peaceful demonstrations will expand through the rest of the season.
“I think with anthem singers you probably will see more of it,” says NFL Network’s National Insider, Ian Rapoport, who notes the role that music has played in social change throughout U.S. history. “Music has led so many of the movements. Music is not leading here, but it doesn’t mean that musicians can’t have a huge part of it,” he says. “Musicians as a whole are not shy people. And I don’t expect them to be shy going forward.”
Christopher Eric, executive VP of Koffeehouse Music, the L.A.-based company that booked Sparks’ anthem performance, says that many of the upcoming singers are finding themselves in a tricky spot.
“I can already tell from my conversations with various artists that they are conflicted and concerned about performing the anthem when players are protesting and fans are booing,” Eric says, adding that “this is uncharted waters for the artists that proudly sing our national anthem.”
Some musicians are worried about not being asked back to perform at NFL games, while others are terrified of the potential aftermath of expressing themselves on the field. Those who have been bold enough to partake say taking a stand has consequences.
Linsey, who has sang at several NFL events in the past, tells Billboard that minutes before taking the field, she was informed that this would be unlike the previous games she had performed at. “An NFL rep told me, ‘This is confidential and this is going to be weird but the players decided to all stay in their locker rooms.’ At that point I knew I was taking a knee,” recalls the singer, who expresses that she knelt in solidarity to stand against social injustices and recent comments made by President Trump.
The country artist confirms that she has absolutely no regrets about her nationally televised statement, but confesses that since the performance, she’s been haunted by brutal social media comments, including death threats and cancer wishes.
“Coming from the country music background and being a white privileged female, to make a stance like that is a big deal,” she says. But to offset the haters, there has also been an outpouring of support for the star, from the likes of tweets by fellow musician Aloe Blacc and country radio mogul Bobby Bones. Linsey has also had a few big names in music privately inbox her on Twitter to giver her a virtual high-five, including “one very southern country superstar with an ultra-conservative fan base,” who she was shocked to hear from.
The aftermath of taking a stand may have gotten too strong for LaVelle, whose Twitter account appears to have been deactivated a few days after Sunday’s game.
But Chelsea Fields, who has performed at more than 50 major league sporting events, is adamant about standing proud throughout the deliverance of the song. The country-pop performer, who sang the anthem at the September 26th Steelers/Colts game, says kneeling has never crossed her mind.
“I fully believe in the first amendment and people are allowed to do what they feel is right. But I also feel like it’s disrespectful to the men and women who serve our country,” she notes. “I don’t judge any singers that feel that that’s what they need to do. But I do feel that if somebody feels so strongly to take a knee, then I don’t know why they got up there to do it in the first place.”
Katie Ohh, who will sing the anthem for the New Year’s Eve Chargers vs. Raiders game, has also made up her mind to stand. She tells Billboard that her plan won’t change, regardless of how heated things become in the coming months. “It’s a tumultuous time our country for a lot of various political reasons but I feel like standing for the national anthem is what I myself would need to do,” she says.
NFL Network’s Rapoport notes that based on his communications within the organization, the protests have been generally well received. “I’ve been surprised at how few teams, if any, have been looking to silence these voices,” he says. “The open mindedness of some of these teams has been really awesome and refreshing. So hopefully that continues. It makes me happy to see a lot of these people making their viewpoints known, whether it’s athletes or anthem singers or anybody else.”
Recording artist Haley Reinhart agrees. "I have the utmost respect for the national anthem and all that it represents. I've had the honor of performing it over a dozen times now at different sports and musical events. With everything going on in the world, it takes a courageous individual to create change. The fact that people are uniting together in this moment to make a point, peacefully, is a positive,” she says.