Gladys Knight's national anthem performance gets rave reviews amid controversy

You might have thought the most headline-grabbing stunt Gladys Knight would pull in 2019 would be wearing a bee costume and belting Sia’s “Chandelier” on The Masked Singer.

But the 74-year-old R&B legend found herself at the center of an unexpected controversy this year, when she signed on to sing the national anthem at Super Bowl LIII at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in her native Atlanta.

The move was seen by some as showing a lack of support for former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick - who is currently suing the NFL, claiming team owners conspired to keep him out of the league for protesting police brutality against people of color.

Amid the flak, the “Midnight Train to Georgia” diva defended her anthem appearance in a statement, saying: "I understand that Mr. Kaepernick is protesting two things, and they are police violence and injustice. It is unfortunate that our national anthem has been dragged into this debate, when the distinctive senses of the national anthem and fighting for justice should each stand alone.” 

Knight didn’t make any political statement or address the controversy Sunday, instead keeping things simple by delivering a heartfelt rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” while wearing a Grecian-style dress and tiara fitting the elegant “Empress of Soul.”

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Super Bowl LIII: Gladys Knight performs the national anthem
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Super Bowl LIII: Gladys Knight performs the national anthem
ATLANTA, GA - FEBRUARY 03: Gladys Knight performs during the Super Bowl LIII Pregame at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on February 3, 2019 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)
ATLANTA, GEORGIA - FEBRUARY 03: Gladys Knight performs the National Anthem prior to Super Bowl LIII between the New England Patriots and the Los Angeles Rams at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on February 03, 2019 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
ATLANTA, GA - FEBRUARY 03: Gladys Knight attends the Super Bowl LIII Pregame at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on February 3, 2019 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin Mazur/WireImage)
ATLANTA, GA - FEBRUARY 03: Gladys Knight performs during the Super Bowl LIII Pregame at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on February 3, 2019 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)
ATLANTA, GA - FEBRUARY 03: Gladys Knight attends the Super Bowl LIII Pregame at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on February 3, 2019 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin Mazur/WireImage)
ATLANTA, GEORGIA - FEBRUARY 03: Gladys Knight performs the National Anthem prior to Super Bowl LIII between the New England Patriots and the Los Angeles Rams at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on February 03, 2019 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
ATLANTA, GEORGIA - FEBRUARY 03: Gladys Knight performs the National Anthem prior to Super Bowl LIII between the New England Patriots and the Los Angeles Rams at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on February 03, 2019 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
ATLANTA, GEORGIA - FEBRUARY 03: Gladys Knight performs the National Anthem prior to Super Bowl LIII between the New England Patriots and the Los Angeles Rams at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on February 03, 2019 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
ATLANTA, GEORGIA - FEBRUARY 03: Gladys Knight arrives prior to Super Bowl LIII at Mercedes-Benz between the New England Patriots and the Los Angeles Rams Stadium on February 03, 2019 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
ATLANTA, GEORGIA - FEBRUARY 03: Gladys Knight performs the National Anthem prior to Super Bowl LIII between the New England Patriots and the Los Angeles Rams at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on February 03, 2019 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
ATLANTA, GEORGIA - FEBRUARY 03: Gladys Knight performs the National Anthem prior to Super Bowl LIII between the New England Patriots and the Los Angeles Rams at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on February 03, 2019 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
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After her understated but emotional performance, she appeared humble, beaming brightly. Though the initial announcement that Knight would sing at the Super Bowl sparked a Twitter backlash, fans were almost unanimously kind to Knight on Sunday, praising her stunning performance and declaring her a “class act”. 

Ahead of her performance, the eight-time Grammy-winner and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee had promised that she would “give the anthem back its voice, to stand for that historic choice of words, the way it unites us when we hear it and to free it from the same prejudices and struggles I have fought long and hard for all my life.

“From walking back hallways, from marching with our social leaders, from using my voice for good - I have been in the forefront of this battle longer than most of those voicing their opinions to win the right to sing our country’s anthem on a stage as large as the Super Bowl LIII.

“I pray that this national anthem will bring us all together in a way never before witnessed and we can move forward and untangle these truths which mean so much to all of us.”

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Super Bowl LIII: Maroon 5 performs at halftime show
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Super Bowl LIII: Maroon 5 performs at halftime show
ATLANTA, GA - FEBRUARY 03: Adam Levine (L) and James Valentine of Maroon 5 perform during the Pepsi Super Bowl LIII Halftime Show at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on February 3, 2019 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic)
ATLANTA, GEORGIA - FEBRUARY 03: Adam Levine of Maroon 5 performs during the Pepsi Super Bowl LIII Halftime Show at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on February 03, 2019 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
ATLANTA, GEORGIA - FEBRUARY 03: Adam Levine of Maroon 5 performs during the Pepsi Super Bowl LIII Halftime Show at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on February 03, 2019 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
ATLANTA, GEORGIA - FEBRUARY 03: Adam Levine of Maroon 5 performs during the Pepsi Super Bowl LIII Halftime Show at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on February 03, 2019 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
ATLANTA, GA - FEBRUARY 03: Adam Levine and Maroon 5 perform during the Pepsi Super Bowl LIII Halftime Show at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on February 3, 2019 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
ATLANTA, GEORGIA - FEBRUARY 03: Adam Levine of Maroon 5 performs during the Pepsi Super Bowl LIII Halftime Show at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on February 03, 2019 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
ATLANTA, GA - FEBRUARY 03: Adam Levine and Maroon 5 perform during the Pepsi Super Bowl LIII Halftime Show at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on February 3, 2019 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
ATLANTA, GA - FEBRUARY 03: Travis Scott (R) performs with Adam Levine and Maroon 5 during the Pepsi Super Bowl LIII Halftime Show at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on February 3, 2019 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
ATLANTA, GEORGIA - FEBRUARY 03: Adam Levine of Maroon 5 and Travis Scott perform during the Pepsi Super Bowl LIII Halftime Show at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on February 03, 2019 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
ATLANTA, GA - FEBRUARY 03: Adam Levine and Maroon 5 perform during the Pepsi Super Bowl LIII Halftime Show at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on February 3, 2019 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
ATLANTA, GA - FEBRUARY 03: Adam Levine and Maroon 5 perform during the Pepsi Super Bowl LIII Halftime Show at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on February 3, 2019 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
ATLANTA, GA - FEBRUARY 03: Adam Levine and Maroon 5 perform during the Pepsi Super Bowl LIII Halftime Show at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on February 3, 2019 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
ATLANTA, GEORGIA - FEBRUARY 03: Adam Levine of Maroon 5 performs during the Pepsi Super Bowl LIII Halftime Show at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on February 03, 2019 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
ATLANTA, GA - FEBRUARY 03: Adam Levine and Maroon 5 perform during the Pepsi Super Bowl LIII Halftime Show at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on February 3, 2019 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
ATLANTA, GEORGIA - FEBRUARY 03: Adam Levine of Maroon 5 performs during the Pepsi Super Bowl LIII Halftime Show at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on February 03, 2019 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
ATLANTA, GEORGIA - FEBRUARY 03: Adam Levine of Maroon 5 performs during the Pepsi Super Bowl LIII Halftime Show at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on February 03, 2019 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)
ATLANTA, GEORGIA - FEBRUARY 03: Adam Levine of Maroon 5 performs during the Pepsi Super Bowl LIII Halftime Show at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on February 03, 2019 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)
ATLANTA, GEORGIA - FEBRUARY 03: Adam Levine of Maroon 5 performs during the Pepsi Super Bowl LIII Halftime Show at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on February 03, 2019 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)
ATLANTA, GEORGIA - FEBRUARY 03: Adam Levine of Maroon 5 performs during the Pepsi Super Bowl LIII Halftime Show at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on February 03, 2019 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)
ATLANTA, GA - FEBRUARY 03: Adam Levine and Maroon 5 perform during the Pepsi Super Bowl LIII Halftime Show at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on February 3, 2019 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
Lead vocalist of Maroon 5 Adam Levine performs during the halftime show of Super Bowl LIII between the New England Patriots and the Los Angeles Rams at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, Georgia, on February 3, 2019. (Photo by Angela Weiss / AFP) (Photo credit should read ANGELA WEISS/AFP/Getty Images)
ATLANTA, GEORGIA - FEBRUARY 03: Adam Levine of Maroon 5, Travis Scott, and Sleepy Brown perform during the Pepsi Super Bowl LIII Halftime Show at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on February 03, 2019 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
ATLANTA, GEORGIA - FEBRUARY 03: Adam Levine of Maroon 5, Big Boi, and Sleepy Brown perform during the Pepsi Super Bowl LIII Halftime Show at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on February 03, 2019 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
ATLANTA, GEORGIA - FEBRUARY 03: Adam Levine of Maroon 5 performs during the Pepsi Super Bowl LIII Halftime Show at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on February 03, 2019 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
ATLANTA, GEORGIA - FEBRUARY 03: Adam Levine of Maroon 5 performs during the Pepsi Super Bowl LIII Halftime Show at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on February 03, 2019 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
Lead vocalist of Maroon 5 Adam Levine (R) performs during the halftime show of Super Bowl LIII between the New England Patriots and the Los Angeles Rams at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, Georgia, on February 3, 2019. (Photo by Angela Weiss / AFP) (Photo credit should read ANGELA WEISS/AFP/Getty Images)
ATLANTA, GA - FEBRUARY 03: Adam Levine of Maroon 5 performs during the Pepsi Super Bowl LIII Halftime Show at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on February 3, 2019 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic)
Lead vocalist of Maroon 5 Adam Levine performs during the halftime show of Super Bowl LIII between the New England Patriots and the Los Angeles Rams at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, Georgia, on February 3, 2019. (Photo by TIMOTHY A. CLARY / AFP) (Photo credit should read TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images)
ATLANTA, GEORGIA - FEBRUARY 03: James Valentine and Adam Levine of Maroon 5 perform during the Pepsi Super Bowl LIII Halftime Show at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on February 03, 2019 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
ATLANTA, GA - FEBRUARY 03: (L-R) Adam Levine of Maroon 5, Big Boi, and Sleepy Brown perform during the Pepsi Super Bowl LIII Halftime Show at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on February 3, 2019 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)
Lead vocalist of Maroon 5 Adam Levine performs during the halftime show of Super Bowl LIII between the New England Patriots and the Los Angeles Rams at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, Georgia, on February 3, 2019. (Photo by TIMOTHY A. CLARY / AFP) (Photo credit should read TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images)
ATLANTA, GA - FEBRUARY 03: Adam Levine and Maroon 5 perform during the Pepsi Super Bowl LIII Halftime Show at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on February 3, 2019 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
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Knight told Entertainment Tonight last week: “Atlanta is my home. My background. My family that lifted me up. This is my country. This is my state, my city and I love my country. It's really as simple as that. ... I think about the people that fought, and marched, and died, and did all those things for our country. I'm proud to just honor them by singing that anthem.”

Also performing before Sunday's Super Bowl LIII kickoff were Beyoncé protégés, Atlanta natives, and Best New Artist Grammy nominees Chloe x Halle, who sang “America the Beautiful,” accompanied by footage of U.S. landmarks like Mount Rushmore and the Statue of Liberty, as part of the NFL and YouTube’s “The Honoring of America” segment.

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