The National Football League has an image problem. It is hoping Jay-Z can help solve that problem.
As the New York Times reports, the NFL has hired Jay-Z’s company Roc Nation to be its “live music entertainment strategist.” As part of the deal, Roc Nation and Jay-Z (pictured above at last November’s Chiefs-Rams game in Los Angeles) will consult on the Super Bowl halftime show and the NFL’s other live music events. Roc Nation will also become involved with the league’s activism campaign, Inspire Change.
On “Apeshit,” the biggest hit on Jay-Z and Beyoncé’s joint 2018 album Everything Is Love, Jay famously rapped, “I said no to the Super Bowl/ You need me, I don’t need you/ Every night we in the endzone/ Tell the NFL we in stadiums too,” seemingly confirming 2017 reports that he turned down an offer to perform at the Super Bowl. This was emblematic of a larger problem facing the league: Many prominent black artists were refusing to be associated with the league due to its treatment of Colin Kaepernick.
Kaepernick, who quarterbacked the San Francisco 49ers to an appearance in Super Bowl XLVII back in 2013, became a lightning rod in 2016, when he began kneeling during the national anthem at 49ers games in protest of racial injustice and police brutality. This practice infuriated a portion of the NFL’s fan base — including President Donald Trump, who urged the league’s owners not to employ players who protested during the anthem — and when Kaepernick became a free agent in 2017, he soon discovered no teams would sign him. He sued the NFL for collusion, ultimately leading to a $10 million settlement this year.
The Kaepernick situation made the NFL radioactive for performers such as Roc Nation affiliate Rihanna, who reportedly declined to headline this year’s Super Bowl halftime out of deference to Kaepernick. Jay-Z himself dedicated a song to Kaepernick during a headlining festival set in 2017 and wore a makeshift “Colin K” jersey on SNL a month later.
The league found itself in a Catch-22: With the Super Bowl in Atlanta, a loud contingent of fans were hoping the halftime show would represent the city’s status as a global hip-hop center. Instead, the NFL booked Maroon 5. Even if the league wanted to honor Atlanta’s rap legacy, it seemed unlikely any major Atlanta rappers would sign on to perform. When Outkast’s Big Boi and Houston native Travis Scott ultimately agreed to guest spots within Maroon 5’s performance, they faced backlash.
Presumably the NFL hopes Jay-Z and Roc Nation can guide them out of this pickle and make the Super Bowl a more palatable option for marquee black entertainers. “We don’t want people to come in and necessarily agree with us; we want people to come in and tell us what we can do better,” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell told the NYT. “I think that’s a core element of our relationship between the two organizations, and with Jay and I personally.” Jay-Z told the Times, “The NFL has a great big platform, and it has to be all-inclusive. They were willing to do some things, to make some changes, that we can do some good.”
The NFL and Roc Nation will officially announce their partnership this Wednesday, 8/14. They are not revealing the financial terms of the agreement.