Justin Timberlake Defends Colin Kaepernick’s National Anthem Protest: ‘It’s a Free Country’
The celebrated musician—and star of upcoming doc Justin Timberlake and the Tennessee Kids—sat down with Jen Yamato at TIFF to discuss the film, cultural appropriation, and more.
Justin Timberlake acknowledges that he could have reacted better this summer to being unceremoniously dragged on Twitter over his praise of Jesse Williams’s moving comments on the appropriation of black lives and black art. “My language was inappropriate but the intention was not misled,” Timberlake told The Daily Beast.
“That’s all I can really say about it,” he added, addressing the Twitter controversy during the Toronto Film Festival, where he debuted his upcoming concert documentary Justin Timberlake and the Tennessee Kids. “But my experience through music, because it’s been such a huge part of my life and it is my career—it’s been such a huge part of my life—has been shared and literally collaborated on with all different cultures of people.”
The multiple Grammy-winning platinum recording star ignited a Twitter firestorm in June when he innocently Tweeted, “@iJesseWilliams tho...#Inspired #BET2016” after watching Williams’ impassioned tribute to Black Lives Matter, which called out how white entertainment has appropriated African-American culture “like oil—black gold, ghettoizing and demeaning our creations then stealing them, gentrifying our genius and then trying us on like costumes before discarding our bodies like rinds of strange fruit.”
When one Twitter critic challenged Timberlake on his history of borrowing from black culture and apparent tone-deafness, he clapped back dismissively, digging himself a deeper hole: “Oh, you sweet soul. The more you realize that we are the same, the more we can have a conversation. Bye.”
The former *NSYNC singer apologized before long, but crystallized his thoughts on the intertwined nature of artistry, ownership, and influence. “Music is the ultimate shared cultural experience,” he said, “now more than ever. But because we also get to share it, it also points out that we are different. I believe that we are all different—but I also believe that we all want the same thing: Progress.”
And with American sports entertainment politicking over Colin Kaepernick’s National Anthem protest, Timberlake shared his thoughts on the San Francisco 49ers quarterback’s controversial crusade.
“It’s a free country,” Timberlake offered. “And I think sometimes we have a way of using symbolism to judge people and when you get down to the matter of it, it’s a free country. Anyone can feel the way they feel and make a statement. I can’t speak to his employers. That’s a whole other issue. I can’t speak to that. That’s a whole other issue and I wouldn’t even touch that. But we’re in an interesting place right now.”
Hindsight is 20/20, and Timberlake’s doc, which Netflix releases in October, suggests the artist is mindful of the forces that shaped him as he continues to forge his own style of pop R&B. His cover of Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature” is a highlight of the show. The film is dedicated to the late Prince, an artist who influenced Timberlake’s neo-soul sound so much so that Prince himself called Timberlake out for stealing his style on FutureSex/LoveSounds.
Timberlake specifically sought out Silence of the Lambs director Jonathan Demme to direct Justin Timberlake and the Tennessee Kids, a longtime fan of the director’s celebrated 1984 Talking Heads doc Stop Making Sense. “The most important thing that I wanted to happen was that Jonathan Demme direct this film. He’s such an amazing human being and he captures the humanity in everything, and I think you get to a place in life where you’ve been striving for… perfection, or the idea of it, and you’ve missed out on something that’s maybe even more beautiful.”
Demme creates an immersive portrayal of what it’s like to be at the show, a nonstop spectacle of visuals and big sound centered on the energetic Timberlake and his company of two-dozen musicians and dancers. The film highlights the impressive group effort it takes to mount such a massive production and opens on Timberlake walking backstage through the venue the day of the show before the camera wanders away to meet the backing performers who will share the stage with him.
“It’s such a great detail, and that’s all Jonathan,” praised Timberlake, who employs a diverse band from all over the country and the world. “It’s such a great tool to meet everyone because the film makes these huge sweeping shots and they focus in on each band member or dancer and it means so much more. You’re going, ‘Oh, I just met that person!’”
“We changed the title of the film to Justin Timberlake AND the Tennessee Kids,” he added, proudly. “That’s my favorite thing about the film. One thing I didn’t want this to be was all about me, because the show isn’t and the tour isn’t.” He said this two-year 20/20 run, his fifth solo tour to date, felt more like a shared experience than any of his previous tours.
“What happens onstage with all of us is such a part of the show that that was the thing I wanted to capture. Because they’re all so good. They’re all so good and I feel like I’m just kind of standing in the middle of them and getting to watch them every night.”