Black People Created Sneaker Culture, For Better or Worse

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Black folks are the original purveyors of “cool.” The shoe industry is a prime example of how we have been trendsetters in fashion and pop culture. Sneakers have become a cultural mainstay with the help of hip-hop and basketball over the past few decades.

Early on, hip hop and basketball were associated with racial uplift and seen as a way to rise above poverty. So, it was only natural that people wanted to emulate the pioneers who had found success in those realms.

People paid close attention to their brand of clothes, jewelry, and most importantly what they had on their feet.

The bridge between hip-hop, basketball, and shoes began in late 1970s and 1980s with the popularity of the shell-toe Adidas. At one point, 75% of NBA players were wearing them, so it was only fitting that Run-DMC made their iconic “My Adidas” song revering the classic shoe.

From that moment, shoe companies recognized the power of branding and marketing sneakers to the Black community using our most cherished stars and cultural icons. Even today, Black people are the most likely group to buy a product based on celebrity endorsement.

The entire sneaker game changed when Nike introduced the Air Force 1s in 1982 and Michael Jordan’s first signature shoe in 1985.

Air Force 1s initially became popular in New York and were nicknamed “uptowns.” It was very common to see people like Jay-Z or Diddy rocking a crisp pair while performing on stage or just out and about in the neighborhood which dramatically increased the visibility and popularity of the shoe.  

Years later, Nelly’s ode to the sneaker echoed throughout radios across the country and had everybody thinking they needed “two pair.”

As for Jordans, it boils down to everybody wanting to “Be Like Mike”- when people put on a pair of his shoes, they believed they could fly.

Aside from Jordan’s historic performances in his kicks, movies like He Got Game, Space Jam, Do The Right Thing, and White Men Can’t Jump helped popularize and expose them on the big screen to audiences far wider reaching than just basketball fans.

The common theme with all these shoes is Black people made them hot and redefined what it meant to be “fresh” based specifically on one’s show game.

The dark side of the industry is that sneaker companies do, in a sense, prey on poor Black consumers and lure us into spending exorbitant amounts of money. However, some would argue, these companies really are at our mercy in terms of what becomes the next trendy sneaker.

These shoe companies we willingly give our hard-earned cash to are run by white people, and Black-owned shoe companies actually exist that we could support.

Where Black America goes, the rest of the country follows, so we must recognize the power is truly in our hands. 

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