Today marks the 25th anniversary of the release of Spike Lee’s “Do The Right Thing”, a seminal film on racial tension in America that still resonates today. It was, and is, a visceral saga about the barely kept in check hostilities between different cultures living in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn that finally reach their tipping point on the hottest day of the year. 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 by the argument between Buggin’ Out and a neighbor over a pair of Nike sneakers—specifically, Air Jordans.
Buggin’ Out’s spazzing depicted the cultural significance of Air Jordans. To B.O. 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 had “made it.” They were more than sneakers, as evidenced by BO’s constant cleaning/maintenance with a toothbrush. To the white man, in a Larry Bird jersey to boot, however, they were just a pair of shoes.
The Air Jordans’ fight-the-man/us-against-them symbolism had been established from day one, really. 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 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 too radical, too 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 and gladly paid the fine for Jordan, every single game. The notoriety surrounding the shoes, along with Jordan’s gravity-defying play, immediately propelled the shoe to must-have status. The Air Jordan’s defiance of convention at that point was not unlike what Public Enemy was doing with its music in the music world. Jordan rocking the Jordans were among the first fight-the-man moments in America’s mainstream culture.
(Tangent: 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.)
As Jordan’s dominance over the NBA grew, the Air Jordan’s sneaker pedestal grew higher, eventually spawning what would be known today as sneakerhead/hypebeast culture. And as hip-hop 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 popularity of Jordans 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.
In the US, the shoes have an equal reach outside of the basketball world, while still remaining very much a part of hip-hop, with rappers both 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; kids are shot over them as if they’re jewelry.
Jordan himself, not wanting to alienate potential customers, has been notoriously apathetic to politics or social issues. He sits back and rakes in the dough, having recently crossed the billionaire threshold. Somehow, the Air Jordans have simultaneously become a symbol of hip-hop ideology—of the black man making it in America—and corporate America. Michael Jordan is now the man.
Looking back at that scene between Buggin’ Out and the white man in “Do The Right Thing” today, 25 years later, and it becomes obvious that their argument, their struggle, was over more than just a pair of sneakers. And it still would be today.