The Following is an excerpt from Black Dot's book Urban Culture Decoded
Urban culture has many facets to it and sneakers are a big part of its foundation. When we see young people spending the night outside of a sneaker store waiting to purchase the latest pair of Air Jordan’s we automatically call them insane. And if we are just looking at it from a mundane level we are correct. But beyond the mundane lies an artistic expression that only resonates with this generation. Beyond the mundane lies a cultural statement that is made with every fresh pair of kicks worn and the adoration one receives from friends, even envious peers. Beyond the mundane is the elite status bestowed upon one who rocks an original pair of kicks in the hood, and that’s worth spending a couple of cold nights on a city sidewalk with hundreds of others in anticipation of a new release. Symbolically speaking, our feet represent our ability to move forward. They represent our ability to step into the unknown. Our feet are our foundation on which everything else stands upon. Our feet are also our direct connection with the earth. The old saying, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step” is a metaphor for conquering fear, making progress, and overcoming life’s obstacles. But when you grow up in the hood, that journey seems like a million miles. So, a fresh pair of sneakers means that they are going places, even if it’s just metaphorically speaking. Every new pair of kicks means a renewed commitment to their struggle for survival. Every new pair of kicks is like a fresh start on life which knocked them down the day before. When one can’t afford a new pair of sneakers, it says that his or her journey is stagnant. It represents more than just the economics of that person; it represents their state of mind. I know that sounds like a far stretch in the minds of most adults, but to understand this concept you must remove the veil of adulthood and see things through the eyes of an inner-city child. Status is everything, and this phenomenon is not just regulated to children or young adults. Grown men are heavily vested in the sneaker game as well.
This is where the problem truly lies.
Dr. Francis Cress Welsing in her book, “The Isis Papers” gave a masterful breakdown of the psychological effects of wearing sneakers and how it keeps us in perpetual motion to nowhere. The true purpose of a pair of sneakers is to participate in a game of some sort or sporting event. When we constantly wear sneakers, it keeps us in game mode and in a recreational state of being. In other words, we never grow up. Even the term “Player” which is often used in the hood to mean a lady’s man or hustler can be tied back to wearing sneakers. If life is a game, then we are the ones being played by our inability to grow up and face the challenges that it presents in a manner that says we are men, not boys. Dr. Francis Cress Welsing was spot on. How do we expect society to respect us when a man’s sneaker collection is far greater than his book collection? How can we be taken seriously when we will kill someone over a sneaker that cost $12 to make? Who truly places the value on these sneakers?
1985 was the year that truly changed everything regarding this sneaker revolution. Nike released its first pair of Air Jordan’s and the world as we knew it would never be the same. The multi-colored sneaker was banned from the N.B.A. but was a major hit with the youth of that era. Legendary filmmaker, Spike Lee is the one that gave birth to the iconography that is Michael Jordan. His commercials were funny, scientific, and presented in short- film mode. The black and white film gave his commercials more of an artistic feel to them. Michael Jordan’s aerial dynamics and superb agility coupled with Spike Lee’s vision created the mythological figure and the footwear of the Gods. There’s an old African proverb that says, “I am because we are” so Michaels ascension to the top of the world was a collective effort, and wearing his sneakers was a way to participate in his journey. Every time he reached a new level, a new sneaker was released to commemorate that success. So, it’s much deeper than a $12 shoe being sold for $250. The shoe is charged with the spirit of Michael Jordan. The iconic logo of Michael leaping over all obstacles is symbolic of every young man’s dreams growing up in the hood.
We all want to rise above life’s challenges and slay our adversaries. There are those who collect watches, cars, diamonds, and art. But when someone collects sneakers they are looked down upon. Art is art. To this generation, sneakers have an artistic value to them. Some even sell for thousands of dollars at sneaker conventions, so whether we agree with it or not, this portion of the culture will continue to thrive. Michael Jordan hasn’t played in over ten years but his sneaker continues to fly off the shelves as men young and old continue to place artistic value in them. Economically speaking we continue to suffer from “Hood” ignorance as to where and when to spend our dollars. There is still a large portion of the community that blames Michael Jordan for the destruction and mayhem that takes place regarding his sneakers, and rightfully so. Not once has Michael stepped forward to say please stop the violence; your life is far more valuable than a pair of sneakers. Nike understands that this is about art, and how does art keep its value? It keeps its value with exclusivity, scarcity, and high price points. So artistically speaking, this is in line with everything else that is considered valuable art. For most of us adults, it’s hard to grasp the concept of a sneaker having any true value. But the sneaker represents so much more to a poverty-stricken culture. I believe that every male should own a pair of shoes. You automatically take on a different mindset when wearing hard bottom shoes. One doesn’t have time for games when in a nice pair of shoes. Maybe we can convince the youth to see the cultural value within themselves by simply switching from a sneaker to a shoe, even if just for a moment or so.
The Black Dot is the author or the underground classic Hip-Hop Decoded, and his new book, Urban Culture Decoded.