Peace, Black Brother...Your felon Sneakers can't fit the billYou got to know yourself to be really chillAnd you rob, you rape, you shoot and killYou're wearing those sneakers but you lost your will.1
When Nike's advertising agency, Wieden + Kennedy, hired Spike Lee in 1986 to direct commercials starring the athlete-turned-hero Michael Jordan, the agency did not anticipate that the collaboration would become emblematic both of a breakthrough in American race relations and of the fleecing of inner cities.2 For some, Jordan's success on the courts and in his Nikes, particularly as represented through the lens of director Spike Lee, fulfilled the as-yet unrealized dream of mainstream respect for black Americans. But by 1990, critics had unleashed a swell of criticisms about what came to be known as the "sneaker killings," implicating Nike in debates about brand-incited violence. The cultural "success" of the Michael Jordan, Spike Lee, and Nike relationship, as well as its influence on the brand, was played out on the streets and in newspapers across America.
The debates about the "sneaker killings" centered on the premise that black urban consumers were susceptible to advertising appeals, which often failed to account for complex social and historical circumstances and for the relationship of consumers with brands. To examine these issues, this article begins with a brief history of athletic fashion and hip-hop to contextualize how sneakers, in particular, became a meaningful part of urban life and aesthetic, and how they became symbolic of what many considered a culture of violence. This is followed by a recounting of Nike and their endorsement deal with Michael Jordan to set the stage for the game-changing "Mars and Mike" campaigns of the late 1980s and early 1990s. These histories are important because, as is argued in this article, the circumstances of the "sneaker killings" are an expression of more enduring social and historical circumstances of race in American culture.
"Felon Sneakers": Aspiration in or Assault on Black Communities?
Sneaker fashion dates back at least as far as the 1950s and was popularized in music, movies, and through celebrity. Tommy Tucker, and later Sammy Davis Jr., Johnson Davidson, Elvis Presley, and Stevie Wonder, sang a million-seller pop anthem called "High Heel Sneakers." Sneakers were on the feet of Woody Allen as he escorted Mrs. Gerald Ford to a black tie benefit; Mick Jagger wore them to marry Bianca. By 1978, sneakers had "achieved grace, dignity, had crossed social, ethnic, cultural and class lines, and [had] high tailed into the world of high culture, haute cuisine, and heavy thinkers."3 Together with their relevance to sport, sneakers were poised to reflect an aspirational lifestyle associated with of a variety of social forces including basketball and hip-hop that came together in urban environments in the 1980s.4 Music and sport had long provided spaces for advancement for African Americans; hip-hop culture combined these spaces with lyrical messages and street fashion that formed its sound and aesthetic.
Hip-hop was born in the midst of growing disparities between rich and poor and the increasing alienation of some of the most devastated inner-city communities. Black youth who represented the first generation to grow up without legalized segregation felt alienated from the benefits of the Civil Rights movement and began expressing this estrangement in politicized voices of hip-hop. Despite the strains of hip-hop exploiting violence and sexuality—fueling fears and criticisms of hip-hop from both within and outside of the black community—the core of the hip-hop culture and the spirit out of which it developed was one of empowerment and expression of the hardships of black urban life.5
Sneakers were a part of the street fashion that had taken hold well before Michael Jordan signed his deal with Nike in 1984. Early hip-hop artists used specific athletic brands and developed out of them expressions of affiliation, solidarity, meaning, and status. According to Run-DMC biographer Bill Adler, an additional fashion trend came directly...