Can Buying a Pair of Sneakers Make the World a Better Place?

This article originally appeared on Noisey UK. 

Like a double-sided coin or the opposing and complementary forces of yin and yang, there are two sides to life. The warm kindness of strangers, exuding the stresses of the day into a toilet bowl before taking a soak in jasmine-scented water, unconditional love—these are the good things. Competing against these ultra light beams are their rivals from the team of darkness: jealousy, the ceaseless extermination of nature, the gamut running from disease to poverty. But what if these totems of negativity could be erased? What if the answer is…. sneakers?

That’s one solution Kendrick Lamar appears to be on for a minute now. Since 2014, his sponsorship deal with footwear giant Reebok has aimed to address equality within society. The pair’s latest collaboration is the Kendrick Lamar x Reebok Club C, created as part of a need for “individuals to come together as one.” In a press release, Lamar said: “This is something I try to do with my music, and now here with the Club C.” So far, so typical branded content.

The shoes may not quite make waves in the fashion community. They’re of the acid-washed denim variety, black and white, with a red label on the sneaker’s tongue and the “K” and “O” of “Reebok” highlighted to represent Lamar’s “K Dot” nickname. Looking at them is like being transported back to an Etnies store somewhere around 2003, as though these new sneakers are the slimmer second cousin of a now-familiar skate shoe design.

Though not too dissimilar from other top tier shoes—Air Max 90s, Flyknits, anything from Footlocker—the Lamar collaboration carries a sizeable price tag too, coming in at about £80 ($109.99). So are they really speaking to equality as much as they are capitalism placing a translucent veil over its necessity to make money? Or can shoe collaborations like this genuinely have a positive knock-on effect?

Lamar and Reebok’s collaboration isn’t the first time a footwear brand has cosied up to progressive politics. In a journey that threads its way from Gil Scott Heron’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” soundtracking a Nike commercial to Lena Dunham’s “inspiring” 2016 collaboration with Lakai, the leather-tongued merchants of the sneaker industry have long harnessed the issues of the day to shift product. Good trainers are worn by cool people; and cool people are hip to politics, or so the story goes. Just look at what Run-DMC pulled off with Adidas back in 1986.

That’s one concept in Thomas Frank’s The Conquest of Cool, a book that analyzes how the brands of the 1960s latched onto counterculture sloganeering and, in turn, used that rhetoric as a way to sell more and more stuff. “Nike shoes are sold to the accompaniment of words delivered by William S. Burroughs, and songs by The Beatles, Iggy Pop, and Gil Scott Heron,” Frank writes in the book’s introduction. “Peace symbols decorate a line of cigarettes manufactured by RJ Reynolds and the walls and windows of Starbucks coffee shops nationwide; the products of Apple, IBM, and Microsoft are touted as devices of liberation; and advertising across the product category spectrum calls upon consumers to break rules and find themselves.”

Frank’s book may focus on the 60s but the ideas in his book hold water today. From a restaurant piggy backing on a political hashtag to Supreme’s recent “Say no to racists, to sexist pigs, to authority figures” t-shirt, big brand advertising continues to leverage the roots of counter culture to connect with their audience. That knowing relationship between brand and consumer is key to engaging with young millennials. But then a question follows: how does an artist like Kendrick Lamar’s use a brand collaboration to fit in with the ethos of his music—and does it boost his art’s message, or somehow cancel it out by virtue of being connected to something “corporate”?

On the premise of his music alone, it’s difficult to fault Lamar. He’s released two critically lauded albums that delve into the political topography of identity, struggle and masculinity while also spreading the messages of hope, unity and equality these trainers seek to provide. One of his tracks, “Alright,” became a rallying cry for the Black Lives Matter movement. Yet it’s not certain whether profits from the Reebok Classic collaboration will be used for any meaningful purpose—or, in fact, whether they should be. In a way, the collaboration makes it seem as though Lamar has entered the storied tradition of brands using politics as a means to engage with audience to make money.

In 2016, a Reebok director of entertainment marketing put it to Billboard this way: “Kendrick represents an authentic voice within today’s pop culture. Similarly, the Reebok brand represents innovation and authenticity in the marketplace. There is a seamless and organic relationship between Reebok and Kendrick Lamar which makes him the right fit for this collaboration.”

That said, a collaboration between Lamar and Reebok would undoubtedly move units regardless of whether or not it’s carrying along a message. Lamar could, if he wanted, put his name to any piece of leather and people would still queue round the block. Instead, he’s released one that sends a positive message, backing up the mindset he preaches in his music. Charitable donations aside, previous collaborations between Lamar and Reebok have come with bespoke advertising campaigns—the sort of thing that could benefit teenagers from Lamar’s Compton roots, inspiring them to see out their potential. There is power in the message, regardless of who delivers it.

Ultimately, the idea of Lamar’s face being part of a global marketing campaign that could inspire someone is the sole reason these sneakers are little more than a naive marketing ploy. As beautiful as they may be, it’s naive to think trainers can bring unity and equality into the world. They keep our feet warm and dry, but they aren’t—historically at least—agents of change. Lamar is though—and he’s proved that with his music. To his credit, he’s clearly making money in an industry that seems to be providing its artists with less and less. Yet through aligning the message in his music with a pair of sneakers, he somehow comes off worse in this deal than Reebok. The concept of selling out may be moot, but that doesn’t mean the brands won’t continue to win—as in the past, and into the future.

You can follow Ryan on Twitter.

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