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New York (AFP) - The US Super Bowl halftime show, one of pop music's most visible gigs, this year went from highly coveted to largely unwanted, leaving the NFL scrambling for takers as a cultural firestorm over social justice rages.
Prominent artists including Rihanna, P!nk and Cardi B reportedly turned down the offer to headline Sunday's championship game between the New England Patriots and Los Angeles Rams, amid the controversy over racially charged police brutality protests spearheaded by former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick.
When news broke that pop-rock band Maroon 5 would lead the marquee show, which reaches an audience that generally tops 100 million, loud calls to boycott in solidarity with Kaepernick resounded.
With its radio-friendly light songs about romance, the band seemed like a safe choice.
But a petition urging the band to back out amassed more than 100,000 signatures, saying "until the league changes their policy and supports players' constitutional right to protest, no artists should agree to work with the NFL."
Vic Oyedeji of North Carolina launched the petition, calling a boycott "the only way to affect the bottom line."
"The NFL owners, they only see the bottom line. Let's be frank," he told AFP.
After Maroon 5 accepted, two black rappers, Travis Scott and Big Boi, signed on. The move appeared to be an attempt by the National Football League to soothe anger not only over Kaepernick but also at having a mostly white California pop band star in the southern city of Atlanta, the capital of hip hop innovation.
In another apparent bid to placate fans, the league booked Motown legend Gladys Knight, an Atlanta native, to sing the now-controversial Star Spangled Banner anthem before the game.
- 'Throw money' at problems -
Since 2016 the NFL has seen its reputation increasingly challenged after Kaepernick began taking a knee during the playing of the national anthem, a bid to draw attention to racial injustice.
He has not played in the league since that year, and filed a grievance against the NFL and club owners claiming they have conspired not to hire him.
US President Donald Trump made the kneeling protest a major issue, calling anyone who did it a "son of a bitch" and saying they should be fired.
Rap royalty Jay-Z, a vocal Kaepernick backer, turned down top Super Bowl billing last year, which he referenced in his 2018 hit "APES**T."
"I said no to the Superbowl/You need me, I don't need you," he raps in the song he co-performed with superstar wife Beyonce.
The rap mogul reportedly tried to convince Scott, a Grammy-nominated rapper, to scrap his partnership with the NFL.
A slew of rappers including Meek Mill and Common then voiced discontent that Scott would perform.
Civil rights activist Al Sharpton also reprimanded the artists on board with the NFL saying: "You can't help people market something and then turn around and say but you agree with what people are protesting."
The league did not respond to AFP's request for comment.
But the show will go on with Scott, who according to Billboard signed on only after the NFL agreed to make a joint donation of $500,000 to a social justice organization. Maroon 5 partnered with the league and its label to give the same sum to an aid organization for children.
Oyedeji scoffed at the move: "This is how big businesses handle issues with race," he said. "They throw money at the problem."
- Bad publicity, still publicity -
He also questioned the decision to perform by Big Boi -- half of Atlanta's legendary duo Outkast, whose eclectic brand of funk-infused hip hop took southern rap mainstream.
"I can see on the one hand he's doing it for his city," he said. "But a lot of people are upset because they don't want to play second fiddle to a white artist in Atlanta, a black city."
Oyedeji added that Big Boi has lost some fans in the process.
"I know a lot of people who are very disappointed and surprised in Big Boi," he said.
Despite the boycott efforts David Allan, a music marketing expert at Philadelphia's Saint Joseph's University, told AFP ratings would likely survive the controversy.
"It's going to be pretty hard to boycott the Super Bowl -- it's such a big event," he said. "Some of this plays into the idea that it's better to have bad publicity than no publicity at all."
"Just about every artist that performs has a big next week," Allan said. "Their sales explode, whether they did well or poorly."