Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing, a seminal film on racial/cultural tension in America, was less a story than a series of unconnected yarns from the Bed-Stuy district of Brooklyn that, due to the proximity in which these occur, became inextricable by the film’s end.
While the death of Radio Raheem at the hands of a white cop and the subsequent “motherfucking of a window” by Mookie make up the explosive climax, the fuse had been lit in earlier scenes, most notably the argument between Buggin’ Out and a neighbor, over a pair of Nike sneakers. Specifically, Air Jordans.
Though Buggin’ Out certainly overreacted here, the scene depicted the cultural significance of Air Jordans. To BO and his shit-stirring friends — which included, you might have noticed, a young Martin Lawrence — the Jordans, at $100 USD a pair (actually, A HUNDRED AND EIGHT WITH TAX), were an accessory that showed one has “made it.”
They were more than sneakers, as evident by BO’s constant cleaning with a toothbrush. To the white man — in a Larry Bird jersey to boot — they were just a pair of shoes.
That fight-the-man/us-against-them symbolism was established from day one for the Air Jordans. Before the first pair was introduced in 1985, no black man had been the face of a brand in America — Michael Jordan was the first. Almost upon its debut, the NBA — headed by a group of white men — banned the shoes for defying the league’s color codes. Sneakers back then, everyone believed, had to be mostly white. The Air Jordan’s all black and red design was deemed radical and raw.
Wear the shoe, the league warned, and be fined $5,000 per game.
Nike, always ahead of the game in the marketing world, realized the potential of such controversy; they gladly paid the fine for Jordan.
The notoriety surrounding the shoes, along with Jordan’s flashy play, immediately propelled the shoe to must-have status. The Air Jordan’s defiance of convention at the point in time was not unlike what the Run DMC was doing with its music. Jordan rocking the Jordans were among the first fight-the-man moments in America’s mainstream culture.
(In the pilot episode of Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, when Will first entered the Banks family’s dinner party — which set the stage for the street-kid-hanging-with-rich-white-folks fish out of water leitmotif around which the show revolved — the very first shot of the Prince’s entrance was a closeup of his Air Jordans. Sadly, I can’t find this clip anywhere on YouTube. But here’s an animated gif of the entrance.)
As Jordan’s dominance over the NBA grew, the Air Jordan’s sneaker pedestal continued its ascension, eventually spawning what would be known today as sneakerhead/hypebeast culture.
And as hip hop culture continued to establish itself in mainstream America, Jordan’s shoes began to transcend cultures too. Today, it’s no longer just a shoe for basketball players, or fans of the NBA, or even fans of Jordan. They’re a key accessory for “street fashion,” which means they’re, well, everywhere.
The Harajuku district of Tokyo, for instance, has a street full of shops dedicated to Jordans. While Japan is, by some distance, the most hip-hop-savvy of all Asian countries, the Jordans’ popularity could probably be traced back to its appearance in SLAM DUNK — widely considered as the most popular Japanese manga (comic book) of all time.
In Hong Kong, MILK magazine recently devoted its cover and 15 some pages to Michael Jordan, with a double page spread dedicated to Hong Kong females in Air Jordans.
And if you google the hashtag #Airjordans on instagram, you’ll come across various Japanese/Korean girls — you know, those very stylish/street types — expressing their love of Air Jordans. Like this one.
Of course, the shoes are still very much a part of hip hop, with rappers famous or indie wearing or referencing the shoes. Here, Rap City takes a look at Jordans’ influence on hip hop.
But while its status as the innovator of the sneaker game/hypebeast culture and a part of hip hop’s early growth remain strong, there’s no denying that Air Jordans have also become a part of corporate American culture. The shoes are overpriced; Nike’s been accused of exploiting cheap labor in third world countries; Michael Jordan is notoriously apathetic to politics or social issues because he doesn’t want to alienate potential customers.
Somehow, the Air Jordans have become simultaneously a symbol of hip hop ideology — of the black man making it in America — and white corporate America. Michael Jordan is now the man.
Let’s wrap with a personal anecdote. I recently purchased a pair of Air Jordan 3s for the absurd price of $350 USD. The retail price is about $100 lower, but these shoes have become such hot items that they’re released in limited quantity, and unless you line up on the day of release, you won’t be able to buy one at retail price — you’d have to go on the re-sale market, which marks up the price (side note: re-selling Air Jordans have become a lucrative business for the youth of America. So in a sense these shoes are churning out young hustlers or entrepreneurs, depending on your point of view).
I contemplated the purchase for weeks, if not months. And almost as soon as I paid for them, I felt a sense of guilt, because I grew up in a blue-collar family, and dropping what would be equivalent to like, two week’s worth of “living money” on a pair of shoes seemed extravagant. Had I made this purchase, say, back in high school, even with my own money, my mom would have slapped the hell out of me. Still, I’m a grownassman and I’ve been living on my own income for over a decade now, I shouldn’t feel guilty about buying something that’s a major part of culture, specifically, a culture that shaped me, right?
Two nights ago, we had this exchange on the phone:
(TRANSLATED FROM CANTO)
“I got new Air Jordans.”
“Around 300 bucks.” (I played down the price, worried of the F-bombs she was gonna drop on me)
“The hell? You know that’s, almost like three 10 hour shifts for me right?”
“Yes, but I’ll be wearing these for years.”
“*Sigh* It’s ok, Jordans have become something of a collector’s item lately.”
“Whoa, you know what’s up?”
“Of course, you think I don’t read the news? I have more style than you, son.”
Yes, I got sonned by my mom — though that wouldn’t be a bad thing — who, at 60 plus, is aware of the fact that Air Jordans are more than just shoes, they’re items of cultural significance.