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NFL’s biggest storyline? Who will perform at the Super Bowl

Rihanna turned it down, but it might be harder for an ATL musician to walk away from a home gig in front of 100 million people

Forget the phenomenal Patrick Mahomes in Kansas City, the juggernaut Los Angeles Rams offense and the always potent New England Patriots. One of the most dramatic NFL storylines leading up to the Super Bowl is who will perform at halftime.

Rihanna recently turned down an invitation to take the world’s most-watched stage, apparently in support of exiled quarterback Colin Kaepernick. Other celebrities voiced their approval, and comedian Amy Schumer said she wouldn’t do a Super Bowl ad this year. All of which tightens the vise that has been squeezing the NFL for more than two years, since Kaepernick started protesting racial inequality during the national anthem and many mostly white football fans demanded that the NFL stamp out the demonstrations.

While the NFL remains the most popular sports league in America, the Super Bowl halftime show is a crucial symbol of its cultural relevance. Yet, there is no pop culture without African-Americans — the same people most likely to be angered by the NFL blackballing Kaepernick.

“My hat’s off to Rihanna,” said Gerald Griggs, an activist who has been protesting the NFL’s stance on the anthem and is helping organize what he hopes will be a massive protest for Super Bowl LIII, which will be played Feb. 3 in Atlanta. “It takes a lot of courage to be an artist in this climate and stand up for your principles.”

But wait — it’s not that simple. “The culture” seems conflicted about wanting a black artist on the world’s most-watched stage.

The game will be played in Atlanta, the blackest big city in America, a driving force behind modern pop music and home of legends such as OutKast, Usher, Ludacris, T.I. and current supergroup Migos. Jermaine Dupri alone has produced enough hits to fill three halftimes. Native son Lil Jon’s “Turn Down For What” is a sports arena classic with more than 800 million YouTube views.

Many black fans were angered in September when the halftime headliner for the game in the Black Mecca was revealed as Maroon 5, a white pop-rock band from Los Angeles. Ludacris even posted an incredulous photo widely interpreted as a shot at the NFL.

“The culture” seems conflicted about wanting a black artist on the world’s most-watched stage.

The Super Bowl is where performers such as Beyoncé, Prince, the Florida A&M marching band and (infamously) Janet Jackson have all made a huge impact. Jay-Z turned down the gig last season — “You need me, I don’t need you / Every night we in the end zone / Tell the NFL we in stadiums too,” he rhymed on “Apes—.”

So what happens next?

It’s unlikely that a team will sign Kaepernick, who has a pending legal case against the NFL claiming that owners conspired to keep him out of the league. That would outrage many white fans, who are the base of the NFL’s support. It also could activate President Donald Trump’s itchy Twitter fingers, which have consistently plagued the NFL.

The NFL also doesn’t seem to want to outright ban the protests, as that would alienate a workforce that is 70 percent black. An agreement between the league and the players’ union on how to handle the protests fell apart before this season and has yet to be resolved.

The league has pledged $89 million to fund social justice initiatives championed by the Players Coalition. But that has not solved the problem, as evidenced by the on-field confrontation Oct. 21 between the Philadelphia Eagles’ Malcolm Jenkins, leader of the coalition, and the Carolina Panthers’ Eric Reid, who continues to kneel during the anthem.

The NFL has no choice but to keep walking the tightrope. Including at the Super Bowl. Which means it almost certainly will invite other black artists to perform — and it would be hard for an Atlanta musician to say no to the massive exposure and everlasting ego boost of playing a “home game” in front of 100 million viewers.

Don’t we want to see Big Boi and Andre 3000 reunite as OutKast on the biggest stage possible? Is Lil Jon woke enough behind his ever-present sunglasses to turn down a superbig paycheck? Would any song be more appropriate for the occasion than Ludacris’ “Welcome to Atlanta”?

Beyond the ATL, New Yorker Cardi B has a song with Maroon 5, “Girls Like You,” with 1.1 billion YouTube views. She’s reportedly negotiating to perform it at halftime, despite her earlier declaration of support for Kap.

One Atlanta artist who definitely won’t be on stage is T.I. Even if his latest video didn’t depict a Melania Trump look-alike stripping in the Oval Office, Tip’s intentions to boycott the NFL seem rock-solid.

“See what happen when athletes’ll no longer play for you,” he rapped on the 2016 single “We Will Not.”

“Tell them accountants to pray for you.”

Jesse Washington is a journalist and documentary filmmaker. He still gets buckets.