By: Lyndsey Parker.
Music superstars Jazmine Sullivan, Eric Church, H.E.R., and Alicia Keys, as well as U.S. youth poet laureate Amanda Gorman and deaf rapper Warren "WAWA" Snipe, set a lovely tone for Super Bowl Sunday when they passionately performed during the pre-show kickoff in Tampa. The cross-genre pairing between country star Church and R&B diva Sullivan was especially notable, as they were as the first duo to sing "The Star Spangled Banner" at the Super Bowl since Aretha Franklin and did so Aaron Neville in 2006 — and the stunning combination of Church’s bluesy electric guitar licks and Sullivan’s fiery vocals now seems just as likely to go down in NFL history.
Interestingly, Church had been reluctant to sing the national anthem at the big game at all — until Sullivan signed on. He recently confessed to Apple Music Country's Today’s Country Radio that he'd always thought of himself as “a stylist, not a vocalist,” so when he was first asked to perform at Super Bowl LV, he balked at the idea. "I've said this forever: ‘I will never, ever sing the national anthem,’” he said. “I fully assumed — I mean, I'm not Chris Stapleton. I fully assumed they're never going to ask me. When they asked, I thought, ‘s***,’ you know?”
However, after Church heard the arrangement created by Adam Blackstone, an Emmy-nominated producer who has worked with the Roots and Justin Timberlake and came up with the idea to put Church and Sullivan together, he was “floored.” Though Church was unfamiliar with Sullivan’s music and the two had never met, he instantly realized that Sullivan, whose fourth album Heaux Tales is already an early frontrunner for critics’ best-of-2021 lists, “may be the best singer” he’d ever heard, and he decided that he was “not missing a chance to sing with her. And that was it. Once I heard her voice, I said, ‘OK, I'm in.’” (Sullivan apparently shared her duet partner's enthusiasm, telling Entertainment Tonight, "I think it will be cool to blend the different sounds of music and just show some unity.") Church additionally described the duet as “a nervy thing that we got to do,” but it turned out to be a risk that paid off this Sunday.
Earlier in the day, Sullivan’s fellow Grammy daring H.E.R., who guests on Heaux Tales, also brought the rock ‘n’ soul fire to Tampa's Raymond James Stadium with a powerful and Princely guitar-shredding rendition of “America the Beautiful”; Alicia Keys also movingly belted “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” a hymn widely considered to be the “Black national anthem,” in a pre-taped video that originally aired last September with narration from Ma Rainey's Black Bottom actor Anthony Mackie.
The above-mentioned Snipe accompanied Sullivan and Church's anthem and H.E.R.’s performance, becoming a breakout star and MVP in his own right this Sunday. The 50-year-old deaf rapper, who refers to his genre as “dip-hop,” instantly trended on Twitter thanks to his high energy and sense of joy.
Overall, however, Sunday’s Super Bowl LV pre-show — taking place in a nearly two-thirds-empty stadium, with 7,500 vaccinated frontline healthcare workers attending for free — was a somber but hopeful affair. In a video message, President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden called for “a moment of silence for the more than 440,000 Americans who have lost their lives in this pandemic, and for their loved ones they left behind.” Then Amanda Gorman — the United States' first-ever youth poet laureate, who nearly upstaged two past Super Bowl halftime show headliners, Lady Gaga and Jennifer Lopez, at last month's presidential inauguration — continued to make history as the first poet to ever perform during a Super Bowl.
Gorman’s brief but beautiful poem was a tribute to the game’s three honorary captains: Los Angeles educator Trimaine Davis, Florida nurse manager Suzie Dorner, and Pittsburgh Marine veteran James Martin. “They've taken the lead, exceeding all expectations and limitations, uplifting their communities and nation as leaders, healers and educators. … Let us walk with these warriors, charge on with these champions and carry forth the call of our captains. We celebrate them by acting with courage and compassion, by doing what is right and just, for while we honor them today, it is they who every day honor us,” Gorman declared.