Timberlake drops out of ABC Motown special. He insists a scheduling conflict is the reason, not protests over his scandalous Super Bowl appearance

By Gary Susman
February 25, 2004 at 05:00 AM EST
Justin Timberlake: Mike Marsland/WireImage.com

Justin Timberlake won’t be joining Lionel Richie after all as the host of ABC’s upcoming Motown special celebrating the legendary record label’s 45th anniversary. He’s pulled out of the April 4 taping in Los Angeles, citing a scheduling conflict with his new movie ”Edison,” which begins shooting in Vancouver around the same time. But some African-American protestors may be claiming credit for his departure, having expressed their anger in the wake of his scandalous Super Bowl appearance.

Timberlake spokesman Ken Sunshine said the pop singer will be in the middle of completing his first major film role — he stars opposite Morgan Freeman and Kevin Spacey as a cub reporter who uncovers a police corruption scandal — ”and that’s the only reason he can’t do it,” Sunshine said in a statement. But Timberlake’s presence on the special has been the subject of protests, not just because he’s a white performer representing a historically black label for which he’s never recorded, but because he seems to have suffered far less career fallout for ripping off Janet Jackson’s top than Jackson has. (Earlier this week, Jackson dropped out of ABC’s planned Lena Horne biopic after the octogenarian singer threatened to withhold her approval of the movie if ABC didn’t fire Jackson.)

Najee Ali, executive director of Project Islamic Hope (and a public supporter of Jackson’s brother Michael during his current legal troubles), issued a statement last week calling Timberlake’s selection ”a cultural insult to the black community.” And Black Talent News editor-in-chief Tanya Kersey-Hensley wrote an editorial last week, saying: ”Before the Super Bowl scandal, Timberlake had gotten a ‘Black folks pass.’ But then he sold out Janet to save his own skin, showing his true colors in the process.  It?s a classic case of profiting from black culture, but jumping ship when things get hot.” She urged ABC to find a more appropriate host, suggesting Usher.

ABC spokeswoman Lauren Tobin said ABC did not bow to pressure to replace Timberlake, saying the decision had been his. ”It just happened, unfortunately, that right around the time that we were made aware of Project Islamic Hope thing,” she said, ”Justin got information about when he needed to work.”  (Of course, since the producers of ”Edison” announced the project to the press on Feb. 10, Timberlake must have known his shooting schedule for at least two weeks.) No word yet on who’ll replace him on ”Motown 45,” which ABC expects to air during May ratings sweeps.