Roc Nation Execs Talk NFL Partnership, Alicia Keys Kickoff Performance & What Comes Next

Alicia Keys
Milan Zrnic

Alicia Keys

When the NFL’s 2020 season kicked off on Thursday night (Sept. 10) with a game between the Kansas City Chiefs and the Houston Texans, it was amid a world much changed since those Chiefs won the Super Bowl in Miami this past February.

The COVID-19 pandemic that shut down much of the world has kept stadiums and arenas empty across the country. Then the protests and demonstrations that erupted in the wake of the police killings of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and others this summer have not only transformed the everyday lives of millions of Americans, but had a marked effect on how the NFL has responded to the issues of social and racial injustice in the country.

And that was seen at the very beginning of the night’s broadcast, with a special video of Alicia Keys singing "Lift Every Voice and Sing," narrated by Anthony Mackie, and her performance of "Love Looks Better," prior to the game. And it continued throughout the event, with end zones stenciled with the phrases "End Racism" and "It Takes All of Us," and decals on players’ helmets honoring the lives of Taylor, Floyd, Ahmed Arbery, Alton Sterling, Amadou Diallo, Elijah McClain, Michael Brown, Philando Castile, Sharona Coleman-Singleton, Trayvon Martin and Vanessa Guillen.

The messaging and the performances -- including Chloe x Halle singing the National Anthem with T-shirts honoring Floyd and Taylor -- were borne from the NFL’s Inspire Change initiative and its partnership with Roc Nation. It was announced last August and will include the multi-hyphenate company consulting on entertainment and social justice initiatives with the League, as well as financial commitments to various causes.

"The Inspire Change program has been around for four years, and they’ve done a lot of work in Black communities and with criminal justice reform and social justice and different organizations that they’ve worked with, but I don’t know if they’ve been able to rise to the level of how we did it last night," Roc Nation CEO Desiree Perez told Billboard in an interview Friday (Sept. 11), the day after Keys’ performance and the first game of the season. "And I think that takes collaboration and cooperation from everyone to say, 'This is how we’re going to move this forward.’"

The "Lift Every Voice" video with Keys and Mackie will be played before every NFL game this season, while every player will have the opportunity to choose a decal honoring one of the victims of racial injustice and violence -- with the support of the victims’ families -- to wear on their helmets for each game. (The NFL has also committed to amplifying the stories of those victims during broadcasts and on social media this year.)

Perez noted that for their game against the New York Giants on Monday night, every member of the Pittsburgh Steelers has chosen to honor Antwon Rose Jr., a 17-year-old from Pittsburgh who was killed in 2018 when he was shot three times in the back by a police officer. It is being done with the support of Rose’s mother, Michelle Kenney, who Roc Nation helped include in the tribute to her son.

"Every single NFL fan is affected by everything going on in the world," Roc Nation executive vp strategic marketing Jana Fleishman tells Billboard. "We have to come together, we have to have empathy, we have to support one another. And the NFL has been very open and receptive to what’s going on. They’re really listening to what’s affecting the players and what’s affecting the communities."

While the ideas for the helmet decals and end zone stenciling -- both of which came from the NFL -- will help put the messaging front and center each game, the League is also working with Roc Nation on community initiatives and financial promises. When the partnership between the two entities was announced last August, it came with a promise from the NFL to commit $100 million over the course of 10 years to social justice initiatives, and prior to Keys’ performance on Thursday night, she announced that she would be forming a $1 billion endowment fund to support Black businesses, communities, banks, schools and other institutions, with the NFL signing on to contribute.

"The NFL can do so much," Perez says. "The power that they have to help heal and bring people together is enormous, and we all have to figure out how we help them do that."

Despite its efforts through the Inspire Change program and other community initiatives, the NFL has not always been vocal about being on board with the Black Lives Matter movement and other protests that have emerged in cities around the country. The League has had a very public and fractured relationship with quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who began kneeling during the National Anthem four years ago as a protest against racial injustice in the country, which led to a since-settled grievance against the League alleging collusion to lock him out of playing. Kaepernick criticized Roc Nation’s deal with the NFL when it was announced, which Roc founder Jay-Z said amounted to "two grown adults with the same goals but different strategies."

But particularly following the murder of Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers at the end of May, which led to major protests across the country, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, as well as many franchise owners across the League, sharply changed tone on the topic and expressed support for Black Lives Matter and the protests, as well as the players who wanted to take a knee in solidarity. Perez notes that she doesn’t speak for the NFL, but said that the incidents "accelerated" the changes the NFL had already committed to making.

"Every day there will be new opportunities to grow the message," says Fleishman. "We’re going to continue PSAs and honoring and connecting with families, and really listening to the players. Because each one of them is in their own respective city, and each city has its own different need and different focus. So it’s an overall collaboration, as long as we just keep on pushing to try to make the world a little bit of a better place. Why have this platform if you’re not gonna use it to help other people?"

"I think in this war on racism, the first step is declaring your values," says Perez. "And then the next step is taking action. And it has to be tangible. It’s going to be tough. It’s going to be an uncomfortable space. But once you’re in that space and you start to make change, it’s so gratifying. And I think we, Roc Nation, want to be part of that. That’s our biggest motivation in all of this."