“You are your shoes, and they define who you are,” said Georgetown University’s first hip-hop artist in residence Marco Pavé as he addressed the audience during the “Sneakers and Speakers” panel discussion that took place Oct. 4 at the McNeir Auditorium.
The panel discussion was hosted by Critical Frequencies, sponsored by the GU department of performing arts and the department of African American studies. The panel is one of several planned for the school year that aims to elaborate on the intersection of African American culture with hip-hop music and its impact across spaces and on people.
The event featured a variety of voices, including Foot Locker Marketing Manager Anthony Steele, founder of Philadelphia-based sneaker restoration company Mike Thompson, stylist and sneakerhead Kash Aboud (GRD ’19), artist and creative director Laci Jordan and St. Louis hip-hop artist Mvstermind, who also performed after the panel.
McNeir Auditorium was adorned with blue and red lighting, with paintings featuring Air Jordans and physical pairs of Jordans and Yeezys dotting the stage. The DJ played songs by Meek Mill and Metro Boomin, among others, as the panelists walked onto the stage.
The panelists gave their reasons for their interest and love for sneakerhead culture. Thompson cited watching basketball as inspiration for his love of sneakers started, through which players like Allen Iverson inspired him to appreciate the beauty and craftsmanship of shoes. For Jordan, it was simply “the culture of the South” that influenced her love for sneakers.
Aboud shared their experience being transgender non-binary and finding an identity in fashion and sneakerhead culture.
“Even if I feel uncomfortable, I have fresh kicks on, and it’s a distraction from that. It’s something to talk about,” said Aboud.
Mvstermind then went on to talk about sneakers as an art form and how colors on shoes served as pure metaphors for concepts.
The discussion then shifted to current social issues surrounding sneakerhead culture, such as class and racism. Discussing the barriers in acquiring sneakers, Mvstermind talked about the financial struggle in trying to purchase sneakers from a poorer background, and Jordan discussed the role location plays in sneakerhead-related opportunities, comparing her experience with the relative ease of buying shoes in Los Angeles against the difficulty of finding sneakers in her native Alabama.
To the amusement of the other panelists as well as the audience, Aboud supported this claim by going back in history to Karl Marx’s critique of fashion. Aboud stated that elites, as they have since Marx’s time, perpetuate the cycle of “hype” and “drop culture;” by the time the lower class can afford a trend, focus shifts away to another article of interest.
Steele spearheaded a discussion on race in relation to sneakerhead culture by stating that he “didn’t see race — [he] only saw sneakers.” Jordan identified sneakers and the obsession surrounding them as having been important to “her and her people,” and said it was a clear example of black influence.
Aboud elaborated on sneakers being the intersection between hip-hop and basketball. The NBA was integrated in 1950, and, by 1972, Kareem Abdul Jabbar’s popularity had risen to new heights — and so did his “Superstar” sneakers. More than a decade later, rap group Run-DMC released the song “My Adidas” in 1986. During what is now their iconic show at Madison Square Garden, thousands of fans lifted their Superstars into the air during the group’s performance of the song.
“White culture has been catching up to what black people have been doing for years,” Jordan said.
Sneakerhead culture is no exception. “The shoes are produced in the third world, popularized by African Americans, but the money goes straight to wealthy White Americans,” said Pavé.
The topic of social media and the internet relating to sneaker sales was also discussed in depth. “Instagram is a tool,” said Steele, that allowed him to see what trends and changes in sneakerhead culture were going on around the world, such as in fashion hotspots like Paris and Tokyo.
Previously, the industry required interpersonal connections to even get access to sneakers, as Aboud and Jordan put it, but the advent of sneaker reselling websites like StockX has made acquiring a pair physically easier yet has raised the costs of more limited edition pairs.
“Able-bodied people walk around the globe six times in their lifetime, which is why it’s so important what we put on our feet,” Pavé said.
Sneakerhead culture and its rise is about much more than just the buying of shoes. The depth and breadth of the topics covered by the panelists showcase the cultural complexities of this phenomenon.