Antone Exum Jr. is all too aware of what he’s up against as a professional athlete looking to be taken seriously as a recording artist. As if that weren’t a tough enough feat to pull off, the San Francisco 49ers safety also mixed politics with music in his latest track. And Exum made the stakes even higher by name-checking a revolutionary figure who rose from the same NFL ranks as he has, one whose mere mention draws any number of reactions—none of them mild.

Exum’s single, “Officer Kaepernick,” dropped on July 12. The title refers, of course, to Colin Kaepernick, the 49ers quarterback whose risky bid three years ago to protest police brutality and racial injustice by “taking a knee” during the national anthem made him an icon and a pariah in the same instant. But the track isn’t so much an out-and-out ode to Kaepernick as it is a first-person take on the issues “Kap” brought up by sinking down, game after game, to one knee until league officials effectively showed him the door.

 Though they both played (at different times) for the same team, and though they have now both used their public platform to signal-boost a similar message, Exum insists he isn’t looking to follow Kaepernick’s act in one very crucial way: Exum sees himself as an artist and an athlete but not an activist, despite the overtly political—“provocative,” as the promotional material puts it—content he just released, with lyrics like this:

Body after body
Don’t them boys stink
Shotty after shotty
Blow em’ if he blink

“I’m not a civil rights activist—I try not to identify with anything,” Exum told Truthdig in an interview, raising more questions than he settled in making that distinction. “It was a time when I refused to turn a blind eye to what was going on. … I was angry at what I was seeing when I looked outside and at the news and social media.”

Still, it’s getting harder by the moment to tell where any mysterious line between expression and political action may linger, and it isn’t always up to the creator to make that call. As for what happens now that the song is out, Exum doesn’t sound all that concerned, even if any Kaepernick-style static could be headed his way. “To be frank, I don’t care. I just make things, and that’s really where I was at at that time—that song was written like one or two years ago,” he said. “So if anybody wants to do anything about that or try to punish me in any way, then it’ll be what it is … I’m not really worried about any type of backlash.”

So far, he’s been able to count his teammates and coaches among his supporters. The same can’t be said for the gatekeepers in the music business, who see him as a “one-trick pony”—and that trick would be football. “I kind of feel a little bit marginalized right now, because I think people are just seeing me in the light of an athlete,” Exum said. “And I really do understand that history is not in my favor, because a lot of athletes who have tried their hand at music before were either joking, or they were just not serious about the craft, or it was just awful. So that’s not helping my cause at all.”

Though Exum may not claim the label of leader for a broader cause, he wouldn’t mind if listeners heard a specific message in “Officer Kaepernick.” When asked what that takeaway might be, Exum was ready with an answer. “There are people out there that are as enraged and frustrated and upset and hurt as I sound in the song,” he said. “And I think that whatever your role is in some of those injustices that I talked about in the song, let’s move forward to try to ease those peoples’ pain.”

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