Alongside members of the military, Knight initiated the performance with delicate vocals, but she clenched her fist as she belted out the final verses of the anthem. The set also featured performance artist and deaf activist Aarron Loggins, who signed the anthem in honor of the National Association of the Deaf (NAD).
The “Empress of Soul’s” appearance follows the footsteps of artists including Cher, Aretha Franklin, Whitney Houston, Billy Joel and P!nk who performed last year.
Ahead of her performance, Knight — who is best known for hits including “Midnight Train to Georgia” and “That’s What Friends Are For” — said she was “proud” to be chosen to sing “The Star-Spangled Banner” at this year’s event despite controversy.
“I am proud to use my voice to unite and represent our country in my hometown of Atlanta,” she said in a statement. “The NFL recently announced their new social justice platform Inspire Change, and I am honored to be a part of its inaugural year.”
“I understand that Mr. Kaepernick is protesting two things, and they are police violence and injustice,” Knight said of her choice in a statement to Variety. “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.”
“I am here today and on Sunday, February 3rd to 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,” she continued. “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.”
This year’s pre-game set also featured a powerful performance of “America the Beautiful” by Grammy-nominated R&B duo Chloe x Halle. Last year Hamilton star Leslie Odom Jr. delivered the song at the game.
Joining Knight in representing her hometown is Big Boi, alongside Maroon 5 and Travis Scott, who will perform during this year’s halftime show.