An open letter to Jay-Z Etan Thomas: Jay-Z shouldn’t be canceled, but he does need to answer to his critics

Dear Jay-Z,

Since the announcement of your NFL deal, I have heard many of your fans attempting explanations for your partnership. Be patient. Chess versus checkers. Crabs in a bucket. He’s a billionaire and has to move differently. Wait and see.

For a long time, the “greatest rapper alive” has been an example of “actionable items” in the community. You’ve raised money for the families of Sean Bell and Trayvon Martin, you’ve donated tens of thousands of dollars to help bail out protesters in Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore, and served as an executive producer on several documentaries about the criminal justice system.

This doesn’t look like chess versus checkers, this looks like Connect 4, you stacking your chips on top of the movement and connecting with the NFL for a straight line across capitalism.

Your body of work speaks for itself. I don’t believe you should be canceled, but we shouldn’t allow our adoration for someone to stifle our critique.

In 2017, you told an audience at a Miami concert, “I want y’all to understand when people are kneeling and putting their fists up in the air and doing what they’re doing, it’s not about the flag, it’s about justice. It’s about injustice. And that’s not a black or white thing, it’s a human issue.”

A year later, you rapped in “APES—“: “I said no to the Super Bowl: you need me, I don’t need you.”

Surprisingly, during a news conference while sitting next to Roger Goodell, you told a room of reporters “that we are past kneeling [and] it’s not about getting [Colin] Kaepernick a job.” Then you asked people in the room, “Do you know the issue? How about you, do you know the issue?”

As you asked the question, I noticed Goodell’s smile as he leaned back in his chair. I thought to myself, was this a prerequisite for Jay-Z to sit at the table with the NFL?

At that same meeting, the NFL announced that Roc Nation will help promote the NFL’s Inspire Change initiative, which will focus on education, economic development, police, community relations and criminal justice reform. In addition, Roc Nation will have a music series and clothing line, both collaborations with the NFL. Capitalism mixed with activism.

It appears as though you changed your entire message once the NFL deal happened. This looks bad, Jay-Z.

Former NBA player Etan Thomas says Jay-Z changed his entire message regarding social justice when he struck a deal with the NFL.

Etan Thomas

Here is the part that’s hard to swallow. It seems as though you are profiting from the very movement that Kaepernick started by partnering with the NFL, which to this day has whiteballed Kaepernick from the league.

Let’s be honest, if Kaepernick never took a knee and verbalized that he was protesting systemic racism and police brutality, this deal would never have been extended to you. That’s why NFL players Eric Reid and Kenny Stills are questioning you, because it’s not adding up.

Is this the chess versus checkers we keep hearing about? Maybe you are working within the system to further the movement that Kaepernick and Reid started. Or, is it simply you using Kaepernick as a ladder to step into a position that will financially benefit you, cloaked in activism but with the stench of capitalism?

I’m not advocating for anyone to be a broke activist. After all, I get paid an honorarium when I speak at universities, where I also sell my books. In fact, I interviewed family members of victims of police brutality for my book We Matter: Athletes and Activism, and I have been working closely with them ever since.

I asked Dr. Tiffany Crutcher, twin sister of Terence Crutcher, who was murdered by officer Betty Shelby in Tulsa, Oklahoma, if she wanted to weigh in on your NFL partnership. She shared the below quote:

Rapper and entertainer Jay-Z grips a football before the NFL season opener between the Dallas Cowboys and New York Jets at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey, on Sept. 11, 2011.

Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

“At the end of the day, I choose not to get distracted by things that won’t change the laws that give police officers permission to kill unarmed black and brown people in this country. We are in a state of emergency as it relates to being black in America and until the NFL publicly acknowledges that the reason why Kaepernick took a knee is valid, then hiring Jay-Z for their social justice campaign is a farce and I will continue to boycott the NFL.”

In early September, a new report was released saying $400,000 from the Songs of Seasons concerts, a partnership sponsored by Roc Nation and the NFL, are going to Chicago charities. That’s great, but this is not a charity issue, it’s a police brutality issue. If proceeds are going to specific organizations that fight for social justice, be transparent about the organizations.

So that cops like New York Police Department officer Daniel Pantaleo, who choked Eric Garner, an unarmed man, to death, isn’t fired but given prison time. Or Shelby, the cop who killed Crutcher, another unarmed man, doesn’t avoid prison time while conducting speaking tours profiting off Crutcher’s murder. Or Timothy Loehmann, the officer who murdered Tamir Rice, isn’t rehired by another police precinct.

That’s the issue, that’s why Kaepernick was taking a knee, and I am having difficulty seeing how your NFL merger is helping the issue.

Let’s be honest, if Kaepernick never took a knee and verbalized that he was protesting systemic racism and police brutality, this deal would have never been extended to you.

And in January, I cringed when you made the comments that a single-parent household is to blame for people “losing their lives.”

I wondered, did Jay-Z just Bill Cosby pound cake speech us? I wanted to ask someone who was directly impacted by the issue of police brutality what his response was to your comments. I asked Eric Garner Jr. — son of Eric Garner. He said:

“I grew up loving Jay-Z . I have nothing but respect for him. What he said was hurtful. It sounded like he was making excuses for the police. My father wasn’t rude. Didn’t say, ‘F you.’ He said, ‘I can’t breathe’ 11 times. He didn’t just lose his life, they jumped him and murdered him for selling loosies, and five years later only one cop got fired. No jail time, but just fired. That’s not justice. This isn’t a problem you can just throw money at. Actual laws have to be changed so this doesn’t keep happening, and that’s why Kaepernick was taking a knee.”

I had the same reaction as Eric Garner Jr. Maybe you are trying to speak the language to people in a way that will get them on board? Perhaps helping them see that it’s not a “their problem” but an “our problem.” Chess versus checkers? Even if it is the latter, peddling a false narrative to gain support is a dangerous tactic. It feeds into the negative and inaccurate stereotypes of black fathers.

Jay-Z, you are in the upper echelon of revered entertainers who have the ear of the masses. You can’t use that power recklessly. You said it yourself: “Add that to the fact I went plat a bunch of times. Times that by my influence on pop culture. I’m supposed to be No. 1 on everybody’s list.

I wanted to ask someone in law enforcement who I trusted, have worked with and support to weigh in on their perceived effectiveness of your NFL merger, so I asked Capt. Sonia Pruitt of the National Black Police Association, and she said:

“In the realm of social justice, it is important that our actions as activists have depth. While I respect the endeavors of selling clothing and entertainment from a capitalistic view, the reality is that what we need are the added voices of influential members of the community, such as entertainers and those in the athletic arena, to push for actual change. And funding should be funneled to those organizations whose messages, actions and results are strong and meaningful.”

Bottom line, this doesn’t look like chess versus checkers, this looks like Connect 4, you stacking your chips on top of the movement and connecting with the NFL for a straight line across capitalism. You won the game, but it definitely doesn’t equal social justice, not yet at least.

With Respect,
Etan Thomas

Nipsey Hussle’s Puma legacy lives on with new co-branded collection The capsule collection contains 19 pieces — and 100 percent of the net proceeds from the sales of collection will go to the Neighborhood ‘Nip’ Foundation

BOSTON — “I still keep his texts.”

Ian Forde, a merchandise manager for the global sportswear company Puma, can’t bring himself to delete his iPhone thread with the late Nipsey Hussle. Every now and then, he’ll pull it up, reread old messages and reminisce about their conversations from the months they spent working together on a co-branded capsule collection between Hussle’s store, The Marathon Clothing, and Puma, which the Los Angeles rapper and community leader joined as a brand ambassador in January 2018.

“It’s not a one-way situation. It’s … more authentic,” Hussle once said in an interview. “It’s more of a realistic partnership outside of just cutting a check and supporting product. It’s a deeper, more dynamic relationship.”

Forde met Hussle for the first time later that year after being assigned to oversee the collection from a design standpoint. During their creative process, he came to know Hussle as a serial texter. Any time he found some inspiration, he’d hit Forde up. And whenever Forde needed some input, he reached out to Hussle, who always messaged back within minutes, often with the praying hands emoji, or the black-and-white checkered flag, which symbolized how Hussle cherished life as a marathon. His partnership with Puma had become part of that journey.

In March, Forde traveled to L.A. to show Hussle and his team the finalized pieces of the Puma x TMC apparel, footwear and accessories. Hussle signed off, marking the official completion of his first collection with a global brand. And before Forde went back to Boston, Hussle made sure to thank him.

“He looked at me and was like, ‘Listen … I really appreciate you helping to shepherd this through,’ ” Forde remembers. “It kind of felt different coming from him. That he was appreciative not in a way that you just say thank you, but in a real man-to-man way. For me, that was the ultimate validation about everything that we had done.”

That was the last time Forde spoke to his colleague and friend. Four days after he left L.A., Ermias “Nipsey Hussle” Asghedom was shot and killed outside of his Marathon Clothing store near the corner of Crenshaw Boulevard and Slauson Avenue in South Central L.A. He was 33 years old.

Five months after the tragedy, though, Hussle’s partnership with Puma continues. On Monday, TMC took to Instagram to announce a Sept. 5 release of the capsule collection Hussle worked tirelessly to perfect — and Puma saw his vision through.

View this post on Instagram

Our team is proud to announce that our first collaborative capsule with @puma drops on September 5th 2019. Nipsey spearheaded this project from concept to final product over the course of last year, flying to meetings, reviewing samples, bringing in material references he liked, and most importantly ensuring that it reflected his style authentically with no compromise. Each detail from logo placement, fit, colorways, and materials was thoughtfully done. His signature style and DNA can be found in each garment that’s part of this collection from the khaki suit to the tracksuit. This project is very special to our team and we’re handling it with the utmost care to ensure it’s delivered exactly as Nipsey envisioned it. It’s a privilege for us to honor his commitment and carry out this project for people to receive a personally curated collection by Nip Hussle Tha Great.

A post shared by The Marathon Clothing (@themarathonclothing) on Aug 19, 2019 at 5:07pm PDT

“I hoped that it would see the light of day and people would see all the work that went into it … all the attention to detail,” Forde said. “I wanted people to experience what I experienced working with him … We know him for a music angle, but do we know him from a style point of view? This collection speaks to different facets of who he was.”

The 19-piece collection — featuring two colorways of the iconic 1980s Puma California sneaker, a pair of woven khaki jacket and pants suits, a marathon-themed MCS tracksuit and more — was designed using the measurements of Hussle’s body. Every single element of the capsule was created to represent California, the Marathon and, most importantly, Nip Hussle tha Great.

“It’s so representative of what he wore and what he loved about Puma,” says Adam Petrick, Puma’s global director of brand and marketing. “There’s a lot of that energy in it. It’s nice to be able to keep it clean, keep it simple, keep it focused on who he was and how he wanted to tell his story through our product.”

Puma also announced that 100 percent of the net proceeds from the sales of collection will go to the Neighborhood “Nip” Foundation.

“Nip wouldn’t have wanted it any other way,” says Chief Johnson, Puma’s senior manager of entertainment and marketing who worked more closely with Hussle daily than anyone from the brand.

A few years ago, Johnson was one of the first people to envision a partnership between Puma and Hussle. Eventually, that idea stuck.


In 2014, when Johnson worked in marketing for California lifestyle company Young & Reckless, he executed his first brand deal with Hussle. Young & Reckless and TMC partnered with Pac Sun for a limited-edition “Crenshaw” collection. Johnson remembers the day of the pop-up shop release, when approximately 1,000 people lined up outside in the pouring rain to cop pieces from the collection, which sold out in a half-hour.

“That’s the moment I realized, ‘Damn. He’s a lot bigger than I thought … he commands attention and people love him.’ He had this infectious attitude and this charisma that he carried himself with. You wanted to be around it,” said Johnson.

In 2017, Johnson began working for Puma and maintained his relationship with Hussle.

“When I came over to Puma, Nip was one of the first people I texted,” Johnson says. “He was like, ‘Yo, you already know. I’m ready.’ I just knew that doing something with him would set us on a path that was gonna be something amazing.”

Hussle also got the co-sign from Emory Jones — a cultural consultant for Puma (who’s also teamed up with the brand for his own collection) and the right-hand man of the legendary rapper and businessman Jay-Z, the founder of Roc Nation who in June 2018 was named the creative director of Puma’s relaunched basketball division. Jay-Z had also been a huge supporter of Hussle for years after famously buying 100 copies of his $100 mixtape Crenshaw back in 2013.

“Emory Jones … actually approached me,” Petrick recalls, “and said, ‘There’s this guy, he’s doing these amazing things. He’s really fantastic as an artist, but it’s also more than just his art. It’s how he works with his community and how he’s really pushing forward with the right energy to make the world a better place.’ … Emory recommended that we talk to Nip and try and figure out if there was a way to work with him. We took our time about it, did it the right way, established a relationship and eventually it was time to have him become a part of the family.”

After about a year of conversations, Hussle made it official — signing his Puma deal live on air during an L.A. radio appearance on Power 106’s The Cruz Show, nearly a month before the release of his Grammy-nominated, and now-classic, debut studio album, Victory Lap. And from the early days of the partnership, Hussle showed undying support to the brand, most notably through his daily wardrobe. Pairing Puma’s iconic T7 tracksuits, which first debuted in 1968, with Clydes and Suede sneakers became a part of Hussle’s go-to swag.

“Honestly, they should rename the T7 tracksuit the ‘Nipsey tracksuit.’ He’s the only person that literally makes a tracksuit look like a tuxedo,” says Johnson, who estimated that Hussle owned at least a dozen white Puma tracksuits alone. “Anytime stuff came in, it was like, ‘That’s Nip’s corner in the office. Fill those boxes up. Send them.’ To the point where … little things I remember like he once said, ‘Keep that box at the office, because I ain’t got no more room.’

“We just made sure he was always dripped out, and didn’t have any void in product. Every time he wore it, man, it felt like something brand-new.”

By late summer 2018, Hussle appeared as the face of his first Puma campaign for the brand’s relaunch of the California sneaker. On Sept. 10, 2018 — Forde knows the exact date from the text message thread that remains in his phone — Hussle and the TMC team arrived at Puma’s Boston headquarters to discuss collaborating for his own co-branded collection. Jones told Hussle to find Forde once he got there. That’s the day their relationship, and the design process of the collection, began.

“He was superattentive. He paid attention to the details … the larger picture. He treated everything like an album or a project, and every item in the collection is almost like a track, right?” Forde said. “There’s the intro, there’s the outro, there’s the party song, there’s the more introspective, reflective song. Everything had a cadence and a rhyme or reason.”

During that first meeting, Hussle played one of his old music videos from the early 2000s. In it, he wore some cutoff khaki shorts with an oversize white tee, and on his feet was a pair of Pumas. That’s really how long Hussle had been rocking with the brand. The throwback outfit inspired the two woven khaki suits created for the collection. And that moment represented how hands-on Hussle proved to be over the next several months.

“At one point with this collection, we’d reached a creative roadblock. I think we were speaking to ourselves and we weren’t really communicating in the right manner,” Forde remembers. “He called me one day and was like, ‘There’s some things I want to work through as a team.’ He’s like, ‘I’m gonna bring the team to Boston.’ …

“Three days later, he came. He stayed here for two days. We worked from 9 to 5. We worked through lunch. Through that, we took him to the material library. He touched fabric. We looked at different executions. We looked at what he was doing, what the brand was doing moving forward, and how he could best encapsulate all those best ideas.”

While Puma worked on the collection, Hussle leveraged his partnership to give back to his community and kids in need, surrounding the brand’s return to basketball for the first time in nearly two decades. He came up with the idea of collaborating with Puma to refurbish and repaint the basketball courts at L.A.’s 59th Street Elementary School, located right around the corner from his grandmother’s house. (59th and 5th Ave, granny house with vanilla wafers, he raps on his Victory Lap track “Dedication.”) Hussle also donated $10,000 to the school on behalf of the brand and TMC.

Last fall when Puma debuted the Clyde Court — the first basketball shoe — Hussle and fellow Californian MC G-Eazy boarded the brand’s private jet and ventured to Las Vegas, where they pulled up to the Puma store and bought every single pair of the sneaker, which they gave to local high school players.

(That wouldn’t be the last time he used the jet. For the music video of his track “Racks in the Middle” — in which he famously spits the line, See my granny on a jet, some s— I’ll never forget / Next day flew to Vegas with my Puma connect — Hussle hit up Johnson about using the plane, which happened to be in L.A., not New York, where it’s typically kept. Johnson made some phone calls, passing the request up Puma’s chain of command, and within a few hours, got him an answer. To this day, Forde cherishes the music video because in it, Hussle is wearing a prototype of the MCS tracksuit they designed for the first Puma x TMC collection.)

In March, Hussle returned to Power 106, and in what ultimately became one of the final recorded interviews of his life, he announced his new deal with Puma for 2019 that would include multiple future co-branded collections, the first of which was set to drop in September.

On March 31, Hussle was killed — the day before his previously scheduled meeting with L.A. mayor Eric Garcetti, Jay-Z and members of Roc Nation on combating gang violence in his hometown. The following week, he’d planned on traveling with Johnson to Puma’s global headquarters in Germany to be a part of a brandwide summit for the first time.

“We were gonna be in front of the entire Puma team and talk about this collection, talk about what the future could hold,” Petrick says. “There were so many positive ideas about what we could do down the road. He was so enthusiastic about the brand, and I think that the sky was the limit. To have that happen in that moment was just crushing.”

Johnson still made the trip to Europe to clear his head and represent the man he called his brother. He left early to return to L.A. for Hussle’s funeral on April 11, held at Staples Center before one final victory lap around South Los Angeles with a procession spanning 25 miles. In the ensuing months of Hussle’s death, Petrick confirmed the posthumous continuation of his partnership with Puma while speaking at The Wall Street Journal’s Future of Everything Festival. Billboards and posters teasing his collection soon went up across L.A., featuring “TMC” in white letters and an image of Hussle, head down above praying hands, from his final Puma photo shoot. Johnson remembers that day vividly, with one moment standing out to him. After the shoot wrapped, true to Hussle’s appreciative character, he went around the room and gave everyone on set a hug.

“To this day, it still doesn’t seem real that he’s gone,” Johnson says. Now, it’s only right that he and Puma celebrate Hussle’s legacy with his long-awaited collection. In less than two years as partners, Puma and Nipsey Hussle have become synonymous.

“It’s bittersweet, because you wish he was here to enjoy this moment with the TMC family and Puma,” Johnson says. “But I do believe he’s somewhere smiling down, like ‘Yeah. Y’all did it.’ ”

Courtesy of Puma

Friend or Foe: What’s behind Jay-Z’s surprising partnership with the NFL There are a million and one questions about the new alliance. The answers are a combination of money, power and the movement.

It could be just one. Or, more probably, it’s a combination of all four. Jay-Z’s history tells us that the reasons behind the partnership between the NFL and rap’s first billionaire likely revolve around money, power and the movement. And the potential to become the NFL’s first black owner.

For the past decade, the NFL has been at the epicenter of the definitive culture war in sports, from concussions and CTE research to domestic violence, as well as issues of social justice dramatized by exiled quarterback Colin Kaepernick. For the NFL, the cost-benefit analysis of this arrangement is clear. The league brings in one of the most famous celebrities of the past half-century who has donated time, money and attention to some of the very topics on which the NFL is accused of being tone-deaf. The league needs to recover its cultural cachet, and a big part of that means reaching out to black fans, at least some of whom swore off the game after Kaepernick’s exile.

Wednesday’s news conference at Roc Nation’s New York headquarters grew out of talks that began in January between Jay, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft. (Kaepernick and former San Francisco 49ers teammate Eric Reid reached a settlement with the NFL over their collusion grievances a month later for a reported $10 million.) Roc Nation’s partnership with the NFL is set to include entertainment consultation, which includes helping curate the Super Bowl’s halftime show. But, according to Jay, the kicker was the ability to bolster the league’s Inspire Change program through a variety of avenues, including “Songs of the Season” that will entail inspirational songs from a handful of artists played during television broadcasts and “Beyond the Field,” which will feature voices and perspectives of NFL players on a multitude of topics.

Responding to questions about whether this partnership negates his previous support for Kaepernick, who still doesn’t have a job in the NFL, Jay said that it was about figuring out the next step. “I think we’ve moved past kneeling, and I think it’s time to go into actionable items.”

He continued: “No, I don’t want people to stop protesting at all. Kneeling, I know we’re stuck on it because it’s a real thing, but kneeling is a form of protest. I support protest across the board. … I’m not minimizing that part of it because that has to happen, that’s a necessary part of the process. But now that we all know what’s going on, what are we going to do? How are we going to stop it? Because the kneeling was not about a job, it was about injustice.”

Colin Kaepernick onstage at the W.E.B. Du Bois Medal Award Ceremony at Harvard University on Oct. 11, 2018, in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Photo by Paul Marotta/Getty Images

It’s impossible to say it’s not about money too. Jay’s career is a case study in the pursuit of wealth. Being broke is childish, he quipped on 1997’s “I Love The Dough” alongside The Notorious B.I.G., and I’m quite grown. On “Imaginary Player,” he raps, You beer money, I’m all year money. Two billionaire conglomerates don’t come together without a return on investment. Morally, sure. Hopefully. But financially, absolutely.

The deal gives Jay the power to program annually the most watched concert in the country and one of the last remaining mass-market entertainment experiences of any kind. Roc Nation will co-produce and consult on entertainment presentations, but it boils down to one real production: the Super Bowl halftime show. In a world where the internet has all but eliminated the concept of must-see viewing, the Super Bowl draws hundreds of millions of people to a live broadcast. But it’s also a moment that, especially for black artists, has become a picket line of sorts. A considerable amount of the backlash against Jay thus far has focused on the perceived hypocrisy over his criticism of Travis Scott’s decision to perform at Super Bowl LIII in Atlanta this year.

Jay said Wednesday that Kaepernick wasn’t the rationale for his criticism of Scott. “My problem is [Travis] had the biggest year to me last year and he’s playing on a stage that had a M on it,” Jay said, referring to Maroon 5, the headline performer. “I didn’t see any reason for him to play second fiddle to anyone that year, and that was my argument.”

And while some are uneasy seeing Jay pictured laughing with Goodell, it’s not exactly the first time Jay’s been before the court of public opinion’s firing squad.

Damon Dash (left) and Jay-Z (right) during Dash’s birthday party on May 4, 2004, at La Bodega in New York.

Photo by Johnny Nunez/WireImage

From Roc-A-Fella Records’ demise and his split with its CEO, Damon Dash, to activist Harry Belafonte questioning Jay and Beyoncé’s commitment to social responsibility in 2013, Jay continuing his partnership with luxury retailer Barneys after its “shop-and-frisk” practice ignited debates about racial profiling, and criticism of streaming company Tidal — Jay’s longevity isn’t due as much to winning every round as it is to being able to take a punch.

Now, the haymakers are coming from Kaepernick’s supporters. And it seems from Kaepernick himself.

Kaepernick’s girlfriend, Nessa, and brother-in-protest Reid criticized the deal for helping the NFL clean up the mess while Kaepernick can’t get a job in the league, even as he said last week that he was still ready to return. This week, Kaepernick put up an Instagram post commemorating the third anniversary of the start of his fight against systemic oppression. He then took to Twitter on Thursday afternoon thanking Reid for his loyalty from day one as well as the fans who still see Kaepernick as the face of a movement. Life’s irony is oftentimes wickedly poetic. Their fidelity to Kaepernick and the cause he raged against the machine for call to mind one of Jay-Z’s hardest bars from 1996’s “Feelin’ It:” If every n—a in your clique is rich, your clique is rugged / Nobody will fall ’cause everyone will be each other’s crutches.

Jay-Z’s support and praise of Kaepernick is well-documented — he once wore his jersey during a Saturday Night Live performance and dubbed him an “iconic figure” who deserved to have his name mentioned along with Muhammad Ali. Now, Jay has aligned himself with the same institution that has kept the Super Bowl runner-up quarterback off the field since the 2016 season. And in pursuit of the next phase of equality, he’s seemingly alienated the one athlete who brought the conversation into the living rooms of every house in America.

But it pays to remember that discussions similar to the ones now surrounding Jay were held about Kaepernick months ago. Kaepernick, too, aligned himself with a billion-dollar corporation in Nike in a move that drew criticism from some who felt he corporatized his cause. Did Kap, too, sell his legacy for a check? Even Uncle Luke weighed in on the issue. The truth of the matter is that Jay-Z wasn’t required to obtain Kaepernick’s blessing. But for some, Kap’s lack of involvement is a near unforgivable sin because it may have the effect of making his NFL banishment a lifelong sentence.

Jay-Z (left) and New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft (right) attend the launch of the Reform Alliance, a criminal justice reform organization, at Gerald W. Lynch Theater in New York City on Jan. 23.

Photo by Shareif Ziyadat/Getty Images

What does success look like in this deal? Bringing more money and quantifiable action toward social justice and educational reform is one metric. A halftime show capable of tapping into the culture and being comfortable with that messaging is too.

But it feels like there’s something else underlying the rollout. Playlists, podcasts and access to players are all opportunities Jay could’ve captured on Tidal. At Wednesday’s announcement, Jay attempted to figure out who a reporter’s question was directed toward, himself or Goodell, by quipping, “I’m not the commissioner yet.” It was a way to lighten the mood while whimsically planting a seed. Connecting the dots, this feels like it could be a path to future ownership in the NFL.

It’s a long game. Attempting to fix the league’s image might be the most uphill battle of Jay-Z’s career — especially while he’s trying to use the platform to benefit his own business interests. It’s capitalistic. It’s selfish. But it’s also a business model that he’s repeatedly used over the last quarter century.

And if it does succeed, he’d become the first black power broker in a league that has acquired a reputation for silencing black voices, not privileging them. Debates will rage on over whether it’s a savvy or snake move by Jay. But any potential buyer of an NFL team has to be someone who at least 24 of the league’s 32 team owners want as a member of one of the most exclusive (yet anything but inclusive) clubs.

How Jay handles the NFL’s inevitable next controversy, whether it be another Stephen Ross public relations debacle or President Donald Trump weaving his way back into league storylines as the 2020 election year approaches, will be interesting to watch. N—as said Hova was over, such dummies / Even if I fail I’ll land on a bunch of money, he rhymed on 2007’s “Success.”

The boast is only partially true now. Jay-Z’s bank account is secure. But his future is now intertwined with a league he blasted just last summer — and seemingly on the opposite side of the aisle from the one player who made this newfound partnership possible. It’s not a stretch to say this could be the most important and daunting blueprint of Jay-Z’s career.

Joining forces with Jay-Z is just what the NFL needed The musical legend gives credibility to a league struggling with its image among African Americans

NEW YORK — The pairing of the NFL and rapper-businessman-activist Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter is surprising, but it actually makes tremendous sense for the buttoned-down league.

As part of a long-term agreement that will be announced during a news conference on Wednesday, Carter’s Roc Nation entertainment company will lead the NFL’s music and entertainment endeavors, including advising on the selection of artists for the Super Bowl halftime show, a production that has presented challenges for the league.

The NFL, which will greatly expand its entertainment footprint because of the deal, is still the same organization that has for years shut out onetime San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who protested during the 2016 season to draw attention to police brutality and systemic oppression. And Carter has been a vocal supporter of Kaepernick, who in February settled his collusion grievance against the league for an undisclosed amount.

Despite taking a public stance about Kaepernick that is at odds with the NFL’s position, Carter clearly views the alliance as an opportunity to potentially improve the league’s culture from within. Think of it as sort of a Nixon-goes-to-China moment. As for the NFL, well, joining forces with Carter is a gift that’s heaven-sent, says Harry Edwards.

In fact, Edwards, the legendary sports activist and professor emeritus of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley, has only one question about the new partnership: What took NFL commissioner Roger Goodell so long?

“I don’t know why Roger didn’t make this move long before now,” Edwards said on the phone. “I’m surprised that it took Roger so long to say, ‘Hey, we can’t keep going through this every Super Bowl.’ He had to put an end to it.”

In Everything Is Love, Jay-Z’s surprise 2018 album with his superstar wife, Beyoncé, he rapped about declining to participate in the Super Bowl. On the track “APES—,” he says:


“I said no to the Super Bowl

You need me, I don’t need you

Every night we in the end zone

Tell the NFL we in stadiums too.”

In the run-up to Super Bowl LIII in Atlanta in February, many A-list entertainers declined to participate in the halftime show and boycotted the game altogether, largely because of the league’s perceived mistreatment of Kaepernick. Additionally, more than 100,000 people signed an online petition requesting that Maroon 5, the show’s eventual headliner, drop out of the performance.

Despite recent efforts to back players in championing social justice, the NFL still lacks credibility with many African Americans, even some who identify as being among the league’s fans. Credibility with black folk is not something Jay-Z lacks, Edwards said.

“To get someone with the awareness and the credibility, as well as the street cred — because let’s not forget that in this situation, that’s important, too — that Jay-Z has is exactly what Roger needs,” said Edwards, a longtime 49ers adviser who has been active at the intersections of race, sports and politics since the 1960s. “Jay-Z provides the cover the NFL needs for [some] entertainers to give it [the NFL] a chance again.

“It’s crystal clear that if Roger had not made this move, every event that the NFL tried to put on would be complicated by the political implications of entertainers not wanting to be part of a system that supports the likes of [Miami Dolphins owner Stephen] Ross and [Jerry] Jones of the Dallas Cowboys and others. Now the challenge for Jay-Z, what he has to ask himself, is, ‘How do I frame that entertainment module so that it reflects, even in an evolving fashion, the right side of history?’ ”

Not surprisingly, many Kaepernick supporters are angered by Jay-Z’s decision to embrace the NFL. On social media on Tuesday, Jay-Z was attacked, predictably, for being a sellout, including by Carolina Panthers defensive back Eric Reid, who had joined Kaepernick in his grievance against the NFL.

Regardless of whether the union of professional sports’ most powerful league and the entertainment impresario improves the NFL’s social justice efforts, some critics won’t forgive Jay-Z for apparently being insufficiently supportive of Kaepernick.

Jay-Z, however, can’t worry about that, Edwards said. He just has to do good work.

“The Super Bowl is Jay-Z’s program to script,” Edwards said. “And if Jay-Z is half as sharp as I believe him to be, he will figure a way to take the burden off of the league so that every year the NFL is not confronted with another question about whether anyone worthy of the halftime musical production of the Super Bowl will even want to participate.

“He’ll also figure out a way, artistically, to project the right message to we the people, because you can do a whole lot through art. Through art, you can express things that you can’t say with a bullhorn, but you can get the message through just as clearly. Jay-Z clearly has the intellectual capacity and the artistic chops to get that done.”

He has proved that by surprising us time and time again with other big moves. And for his latest project, Jay-Z will try to quarterback the NFL to a comeback.

A$AP Rocky case shows the discomfort of fighting for freedom Wanting black folks free means freeing even those we disagree with

Grammy-nominated Harlem rapper A$AP Rocky (real name Rakim Athelaston Mayers) has spent the past three weeks in a Swedish jail. He was arrested on July 3 after a now-viral video allegedly showed the MC and his entourage beating up two men. In the multiple videos of the incident to hit the internet — Rocky himself released two to tell his side of the story — the two alleged victims are seen following Rocky and his crew, refusing to leave them alone, before the attack transpired. But cooler heads did not prevail, and Rocky’s crew is seen punching and kicking the two men. Rocky himself tosses one man, sending him flying before he crashes down on the street.

Rapper A$AP Rocky speaks at the 2019 SXSW Festival Featured Session: Using Design “Differently” to Make a Difference on March 11 in Austin, Texas.

Photo by Diego Donamaria/Getty Images for SXSW

While Rocky’s video did garner him some sympathy — he is, after all, seen trying to defuse the situation before any blows land — it hasn’t gotten him out of jail. Now, Rocky’s arrest and impending July 30 trial have become the focal point of an international debate over prison reform, race and politics, a debate that has involved everyone from Rocky’s rap peers to fans bombarding trending Twitter hashtags with demands for his release to Kim Kardashian and even President Donald Trump. All of this is intersecting with Rocky’s past comments and the realization that freedom for all also means freedom for people we don’t always agree with or even like.

One reason so many rallied behind Rocky was that he was held in jail for weeks before even being charged with a crime. One of the touchstones of prison reform, in America especially, is that in America alone there are more than half a million people in jail, mostly minorities, who have yet to be charged. They’re in jail simply because they don’t have enough money to pay for bail. The most infamous example is Kalief Browder, the New York teenager who was jailed in Rikers Island for three years in a minor theft case because he couldn’t make bail. He was the victim of brutal violence and spent two years in solitary confinement. After being released, he committed suicide in 2015 and is the focus of a Jay-Z documentary.

Additionally, sources told TMZ that Rocky was being held in abhorrent conditions in Sweden — unclean rooms with feces on the walls, he was eating only an apple a day and sleeping on a yoga mat — and we have the makings of a human rights story that shows how incarcerated people are treated across the world. The widespread support for Rocky, however, has waned in the past few days, as an old interview of his surfaced in which he disparaged the Black Lives Matter movement and said he’d rather talk about fashion than liberating black folks:

Demonstrators hold aloft a symbolic coffin bearing Kalief Browder’s name as they rally near the gate of City Hall in New York on Feb. 23, 2016. About a dozen prison reform activists demanded the closing of the long-controversial Rikers Island Corrections facility, where Browder was held.

Photo by Albin Lohr-Jones/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

“So every time something happens because I’m black I gotta stand up? What the f— am I? Al Sharpton? I’m A$AP Rocky. I did not sign up to be no political activist. I wanna talk about my … lean, my best friend dying, the girls that come in and out of my life, the jiggy fashion that I wear, my new inspirations in drugs! I don’t wanna talk about … Ferguson … because I don’t live over there! I live in f—ing SoHo and Beverly Hills. I can’t relate.”

For many, this was quite the karmic treat. A man who didn’t believe in the most prominent black liberation movement of his lifetime is suddenly in need of help from the activists he would have continued to ignore had he not been incarcerated. And while the schadenfreude is quite delicious to some, that shouldn’t mean that anyone should feel less obligated to find justice for the rapper if they believe he is truly being mistreated. Wanting black folks free means freeing even those black folks we disagree with — even black folks who don’t care about extending that freedom to the rest of us. A$AP Rocky deserves the same revolutionary acts of liberation and kindness we extend to any other incarcerated people, regardless of his stupid comments on activism.

Despite A$AP Rocky’s dispiriting comments and his strange bedfellows, he should be treated fairly and justice should be served.

Rocky’s situation has been further complicated in recent days by newly converted social justice activist Kardashian lobbying for Trump to get involved. Trump responded by tweeting out support for Rocky, directing aggressive tweets toward the Swedish prime minister and stating that “Sweden has let our African American Community down in the United States.”

So to recap, we have a man in jail who has expressed ambivalence about black liberation movements being supported by a woman who has made a career mining black culture for her own gain and who asked for help from a president who went on a racist outburst just last week demanding that four Democratic congresswomen go back to the countries they “came from.” The rest of us have been handed a cocktail of race, entertainment and politics in which we’re left wondering whether the enemies of our enemies are really our friends and which side is right here.

In the end, there should be only one winner: justice. Despite A$AP Rocky’s dispiriting comments and his strange bedfellows, he should be treated fairly and justice should be served. Because so often, our black and brown brothers and sisters are denied their rights. Of course, if we can extend the resources of Kardashian and the president to get one black man free, then it should be no problem to find the same justice for the Kalief Browders of the world. Then we can really talk about what liberation looks like.

Jay-Z’s billionaire status adds up to a lot more than what’s in his bank account Like Madam C.J. Walker and John H. Johnson before him, Jay-Z’s rise to business mogul is testament to the power of the black dollar

Jay-Z gathered his thoughts as he sat behind a desk at Roc-A-Fella Records’ headquarters in New York. In a rarely seen 1997 interview, the Brooklyn MC gave a striking answer to a question about what percentage of rappers he believed would still be viable artists a decade later.

“A rapper’s life is like three albums … unless you gon’ endure during the times,” Jay-Z said. “That’s a special case. It’s like 3 to 5% of artists who have a successful career. Crazy, right?”

Jay-Z’s rise to become hip-hop’s first billionaire is important beyond the fact of it.

Jay-Z, at the time, was only a few years removed from drug-dealing as a self-described “Marcy Projects hallway loiterer.” A product of post-civil rights movement America (I arrived on the day Fred Hampton died, he’d later rhyme) who came of age during the war on drugs, Jay-Z by 1997 was an independent businessman with a critically acclaimed rap debut in 1996’s Reasonable Doubt. But it’s likely that not even the notoriously confident Jay-Z saw this coming: Two decades after that interview, Jay-Z is hip-hop’s first billionaire.

On Monday, Forbes released a review of the Brooklyn MC’s financial portfolio that concluded Jay-Z’s empire had surpassed the 10-figure plateau. His fortune is spread across a variety of endeavors, including real estate, liquor, music, the streaming platform TIDAL, entertainment company Roc Nation, his art collection and more. The confirmation is both unsurprising — along with Diddy and Dr. Dre, he has long been near the apex of hip-hop’s top earners — and awe-inspiring.

“Here we had this hip-hop industry that everybody sort of wanted to dismiss and thought that it would go away,” said Angel Rich, author of History of the Black Dollar. “It has now turned into the fabric of American society. It’s weaved into every portion of business. We have [another] symbol of that success and what it means in Jay-Z becoming a billionaire.”

At the start of the 20th century, Madam C.J. Walker made a fortune through black hair. In the middle of the century, John H. Johnson became a mogul with lifestyle publications such as Ebony and Jet. And at the end of the century came the start of Jay-Z’s financial success rooted in black music. All cultivated in America. All tapped into the core of America’s spine, black culture, which has alternately been ignored, chastised and co-opted. All understood the power of the black dollar. These foremothers and forefathers of black wealth in white America were prophytes in The Blueprint MC’s real-life blueprint.

John H. Johnson was the successful head of Johnson Publications Inc., a multimillion-dollar corporation, with publications that included Ebony and Jet.

Bettmann / Contributor

Jay-Z’s original (legal) revenue stream puts the moment in perspective. In a career notable for lyrics as literature and congressional honors, one of Jay-Z’s most recognizable lines is his declaration on Kanye West’s “Diamonds (Remix)”: I’m not a businessman/ I’m a business, man. The potency is rivaled only by its accuracy. The accumulation of wealth has been a constant narrative in his career. “You know n—as die for equal pay right? You know when I work I ain’t your slave right?he rhymed in 2015. “You know I ain’t shucking and jiving and high-fiving/ You know this ain’t back in the days right?”

On 2017’s stellar 4:44, he referenced the history of black wealth and abandonment in “The Story of O.J.” and concluded with the poignant “Legacy.” With daughter Blue Ivy’s innocent inquiry, “Daddy, what’s a will?” Shawn Carter, the patriarch, launches into his explanation while sampling Donny Hathaway’s “Someday We’ll All Be Free.”

Take those monies and spread ‘cross families/ My sisters, Hattie and Lou, the nephews, cousins and TT/ Eric, the rest to B for whatever she wants to do/ She might start an institute, she might put poor kids through school.

Jay-Z then turned to his oldest daughter’s future: My stake in Roc Nation should go to you/ Leave a piece for your siblings to give to their children too.

Success has led to both praise and criticism as well as detailed examinations of his practice of both capitalism and philanthropy. Jay-Z’s financial rise occurred as the income gap between the robustly rich and all other classes has steadily increased over the past 30 years. The word “billionaire” is increasingly viewed as a piece of derogatory lexicon in some circles — even by actual billionaires. But Jay-Z’s black path to entrepreneur and billionaire status distinguishes it from most of his fellow moguls and emphasizes his kinship with his predecessors Walker and Johnson.

Madam C.J. Walker (Sarah Breedlove) was the first female self-made millionaire in the world. She is shown here posing for a portrait, circa 1914.

Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

For the better part of the decade, Jay-Z, now 49, has taken on the most socially conscious role of his career. And his monetary boasts have evolved. He’ll never apologize for how he amassed his fortune — he never entered the business to stay a starving artist. I ain’t got a billion streams, got a billion dollars, he said on Meek Mill’s “What’s Free. The 10-figure threshold is a topic of discussion in the Carter household too. We gon’ reach a billi first, he hypothesized on “Family Feud,” also found on 4:44. Generational wealth is a decades-long theme in Jay-Z’s arsenal, dating to 1996’s “Feelin’ It”: If every n—a in your clique is rich, you clique is rugged/ Nobody will fall ’cause everyone will be each other’s crutches.

This largesse has been displayed on a variety of fronts: Paying a considerable chunk of Meek Mill’s legal fees and Lil Wayne’s back taxes. Securing legal representation for 21 Savage’s deportation proceedings. Getting Jabari Talbot’s case dropped; the 11-year-old had refused to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance and was subsequently arrested. Covering the cost of college tuition, with Beyoncé, for 11 high school seniors through $100,000 scholarships during the domestic leg of their On The Run II Tour.

A man who doesn’t take care of his family can’t be rich, Jay-Z lamented on “Feud,” paraphrasing The Godfather. That notion gets reinforced in “Legacy.” Generational wealth, that’s the key, he noted. My parents ain’t have s—, so that shift started with me. Given where he started, reaching a billion dollars is an objectively resounding accomplishment and testament to his business acumen. But “Legacy” hits differently given who is touched by Jay-Z’s message and the fruits of his labor. TIDAL, the champagne, D’USSE, I’d like to see/ A nice peace-fund ideas from people who look like we/ We gon’ start a society within a society/ That’s major, just like the Negro League.

Jay-Z (left) and Nipsey Hussle (right) are shown here at the PUMA x Nipsey Hussle 2019 Grammy Nomination Party at the Peppermint Club in Los Angeles on Jan. 16.

Photo by Vivien Killilea/Getty Images for PUMA

Jay-Z’s rise to become hip-hop’s first billionaire is important beyond the fact of it. His story is also the story of the black dollar in America. How it was used to build this country, and how it was manipulated — and worse, destroyed — because of the power and independence it carries.

Looking at Jay-Z today, it’s hard not to think about the young MC who sat in Roc-A-Fella’s offices discussing his plans in an industry often described as cutthroat and soul-draining. A billion dollars isn’t immune to lost friendships along the way — or evidence that he made the right decision every time.

“The genius thing that we did was we didn’t give up,” Jay-Z said years ago.

Some of hip-hop’s most promising thought leaders were murdered on the cusp of their fiscal, creative and business primes. The deaths of B.I.G., Tupac Shakur (his frequent yet spiritual partners in rap’s mythical “greatest of all time” debate) and just recently Nipsey Hussle, with whom Jay-Z shared a particularly close brotherhood that expanded far beyond music, is hauntingly painful.

He is the destiny their fate denied them. That’s why the moment matters far more than the actual figure in Jay-Z’s checking account. A billion-dollar industry that began in the boroughs of New York has been monetized, criticized and immortalized the world over. And now that industry has a billionaire of its own.

How the ‘Black Godfather’ changed baseball legend Hank Aaron’s life Aaron joins Hollywood to toast new Netflix documentary about music executive Clarence Avant

LOS ANGELES — Hank Aaron was closing in on Babe Ruth’s record of 714 career home runs when the death threats started coming.

Thousands of letters, many of them racist, poured in weekly. Those folks didn’t want to see a black man break the record, which had stood since 1935. But there was also a call the superstar got before April 8, 1974, the day that Aaron hit his 715th home run off Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Al Downing — a call from the Black Godfather.

That call changed everything.

Everything.

Former MLB slugger Hank Aaron (left) and his wife, Billye (standing), attend Netflix’s The Black Godfather premiere at Paramount Theatre in Los Angeles on June 3.

LISA O'CONNOR/AFP/Getty Images

The Black Godfather, known as such inside the tightknit music and entertainment fraternity, is music executive Clarence Avant, who quietly became one of the most influential dealmakers in the business over the past six decades.

Avant, who has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, had a varied career as a manager, the founder of two record labels and an occasional concert organizer and event producer. But his real influence came from advocating for black artists and advising them on how to get paid what they were worth.

Avant, now 88, would in many cases reach out to people he saw making moves and help them make better ones. When he saw what was happening with Aaron, he called then-U.S. Rep. Andrew Young (D-Ga.), whose political career he helped launch, and told him that he’d be calling Aaron to help formulate a plan for endorsements. The deals needed to be in motion before Aaron broke the record, Avant said.

And Avant got it done. How? He walked into the office of the president of Coca-Cola and, without any small talk or pretense, announced that “n—–s drink Coke too.”

The Black Godfather, known as such inside the tightknit music and entertainment fraternity, is music executive Clarence Avant, who quietly became one of the most influential dealmakers in the business during the last six decades.

Photo by Charley Gallay/Getty Images for Netflix

“He is the godfather,” Aaron, 85, said in an interview with The Undefeated before the Monday night world premiere of The Black Godfather, a Netflix documentary that tells that story and more about how Avant connected people, closed deals and made sure that black creatives and athletes moving on from sports were getting their due. “He’s mine. I love him. He played [a role in] almost 90 percent of my career. He broke down doors to get [me] in to do certain things. I always say I am who I am because of Clarence Avant.”

The film will have a limited release in theaters and will begin streaming on Netflix on June 7. The story of Avant and the Coca-Cola deal is one of many shared in the documentary, which was directed by Reginald Hudlin. Monday’s premiere brought out an impressive amount of star power, nearly rivaling those featured in the film itself, which includes former presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton. Also in the documentary are Oscar winner Jamie Foxx, music mogul Sean (Diddy) Combs, Bill Withers, Quincy Jones, Babyface, Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and others. Much of the focus of the documentary — which is produced by Avant’s daughter, Nicole, an ambassador to the Bahamas in the Obama administration — is on Avant’s influence in the music industry. But he also made an impact in the political world, fundraising for Clinton and Young and advising them and Obama.

On Monday, Avant gathered with Pharrell, Foxx, Ava DuVernay, Snoop Dogg, Chadwick Boseman, Leonardo DiCaprio and others inside a small theater on Paramount Pictures’ lot to watch a film that felt like a love letter to a man who has been shaping pop culture behind the scenes for decades. (And, in many ways, still is. Several people said in the documentary that they’re distraught at the idea of who they’ll call once Avant is gone.)

Nicole Avant says she’s been thinking of telling her father’s story since she was 8 years old. She remembers the day well; she was at a Dodgers game with dugout seats, gifts from Aaron.

“I was like, ‘How did you do business with Hank Aaron? Why did you do business with Hank Aaron?’ And he told me the story … of how he got him endorsement deals and why it was a big deal at the time. I knew when I left that day, something clicked in my brain and said there’s something different here. These stories need to be told. This is over 40-something years ago,” she said in an interview before the premiere.

“What’s so amazing is that he did deals for Jim Brown, Hank Aaron, Muhammad Ali, three of the greatest athletes ever in three different sports. … Here is this guy there at the crucial moment of them transforming their careers.” — director Reginald Hudlin on Clarence Avant

That understanding that her father’s work transcended what he was doing in music and in Hollywood, and that it was her dad who helped three of the most prominent athletes of all time, made her as an adult want to bring this project to light.

“What’s so amazing,” Hudlin said before the premiere, “is that he did deals for Jim Brown, Hank Aaron, Muhammad Ali, three of the greatest athletes ever in three different sports. … Here is this guy there at the crucial moment of them transforming their careers.

“He took Jim Brown from being a professional athlete to being an actor. At the time when Hank Aaron is worried about whether someone is going to shoot him on the field if he breaks Babe Ruth’s record, here’s this guy who got him endorsement deals when no one would touch him. With Muhammad Ali, here he is nearing the end of his career, he steps in and makes sure that Muhammad makes a transition into being a personality beyond simply being an athlete. Really important for all three of these great athletes in that really challenging time in their careers. Can you transition? Can you go to that next place? In all three cases, Clarence was there for them.”

Will Smith, a pioneering black nerd, helped raise and change rap music Smith’s music career reveals an artist who believed in an Afrocentric American dream based on ambition, hustle and black pride

It was 2017, and Will Smith’s career seemed to have come full circle.

That’s when a sneak peek video surfaced featuring the world-famous entertainer performing a hip-hop version of the theme from Aladdin, a Disney musical, which opens in movie theaters Friday, featuring Smith in the role of the genie. For fans, the tune conjured memories of Smith’s career-launching hit “Girls Ain’t Nothing But Trouble,” which sampled the theme from I Dream of Jeannie, a 1960s sitcom about a genie.

The coincidence was eerily appropriate. With four Grammys, six American Music Awards, four NAACP Image Awards and two Oscar nominations, Smith’s career has seemed like a magic carpet ride, almost as if a wizard granted his wish of becoming one of history’s most successful entertainers. But while his big-screen achievements have been exhaustively examined, Smith’s musical accomplishments have received shorter critical shrift. From PTA-approved hits such as “Parents Just Don’t Understand” and “A Nightmare on My Street” to party-starting jams such as “Summertime” and “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It,” Smith’s songs are so cursedly simple that some might argue they’re undeserving of serious critical scrutiny. We’re here to argue otherwise.

Smith’s career has seemed like a magic carpet ride, almost as if a wizard granted his wish of becoming one of history’s most successful entertainers.

Take, for example, the aforementioned Aladdin rap. Like most songs from Smith’s canon, the tune is a bouncy urban jam with lyrics of nursery rhyme simplicity.

“One fine day the bazaar was at peace, when the guards started running through the Agrabah streets

They were lookin’ for a lad and a beast, ’cause they was nabbin’ some yeast

The thickest of thieves in the Wild, Wild East …”

Notice how Smith sets up a story, stoking your desire to learn more. From his very first 1980s hits, he has repeatedly woven fablelike narratives into his songs, a creative device that makes listeners hang onto his every word. In this regard, he has just as much in common with legendary country and western songwriters such as Hank Williams, Johnny Cash and Dolly Parton as with his rapping peers.

Next, note how the line “a lad and” is a subliminal reference to the title Aladdin, while the phrase “Wild, Wild East” alludes to Smith’s 1999 hit “Wild Wild West.” Rap music is a narcissistic genre in which artists’ skills are largely judged by the ingenuity of their boasts. In the Aladdin song, Smith triumphantly toots his own horn while never once name-checking himself, which makes him appear both humble and confident. That’s the kind of skill that helped the Philadelphia native nab the first best rap song Grammy Award in 1989.

The Aladdin promo music video harks back to Smith’s 1990s heyday, when he triumphantly sampled old rhythm and blues and TV theme song tunes packed with sentimental value (Aladdin samples Alan Menken’s theme from the 1992 animated version of the Middle Eastern folk tale). Smith’s rap also marks a return to the days when his songs were movie promotions, and it’s tempting to view his lucrative music career as a byproduct of his movie fame: safe-as-milk family entertainment concealed beneath a fashionable urban disguise. Indeed, Smith’s gentlemanly, glad-handing public image contrasts sharply with prevailing rap iconography, which has become so hard-nosed that most rappers wouldn’t be caught dead smiling in their promotional photos.

But a closer inspection of Smith’s music career reveals an artist who gambled on a personal belief in an Afrocentric American dream, one based on ambition, hustle, black pride and monogamy. His decidedly nerdy worldview has drawn its share of hilarious ridicule and attacks from peers, but in hindsight his ’90s hits now seem almost heroic in their contrarian niceness. What follows is an examination of Smith’s music career, an exploration that reveals how he remained true to his principles at the risk of being labeled a corporate sellout … and in the process became one of the best-selling hip-hop artists of all time.

The Plain Brown Rapper

It was 1988, and Smith was bombing.

Better known by his alias “The Fresh Prince,” Smith and musical partner DJ Jazzy Jeff were onstage at the Greek Theatre in Hollywood, California, opening for the Beastie Boys and Public Enemy. At the time, Smith and DJ Jazzy Jeff (real name Jeff Townes) were savoring the success of “Parents Just Don’t Understand,” the breakthrough single from their multimillion-selling album He’s the DJ, I’m the Rapper. They were 19-year-old millionaires, the darlings of radio and MTV. So why were they being jeered on a Los Angeles stage?

Despite their critics, DJ Jazzy Jeff (left) and The Fresh Prince (right) were the darlings of radio and MTV in 1988, savoring the success of their hit song “Parents Just Don’t Understand.”

Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

The reason was simple — Smith and Townes’ set was a disaster. This writer attended that night, and I recall being agog at Smith’s attempts to transform his performance into an interactive experience, appealing for audience participation as he emulated childhood games. Had smartphone cameras and YouTube existed back then, Smith and Townes might have become instant laughingstocks. Compared with the Beastie Boys’ beer-swilling rowdyism and Public Enemy’s fist-thrusting black militancy, Smith and Townes’ slapstick performance was embarrassingly naive and out of touch.

Other rappers might have taken the hostile crowd response as a cue to change course toward an edgier sound. But not Smith and Townes. They seemed creatively beholden to the early days of hip-hop, when the scene was dominated by boogie-down jams such as “I Can’t Live Without My Radio” and “Big Mouth.” As hip-hop legend William “Flavor Flav” Drayton told MTV in 1999: “I remember rap music. We used to party and dance off of it.”

But the dancing came to an abrupt halt in 1988. It was the final year of Ronald Reagan’s presidency, an eight-year term that saw black communities devastated by a federal escalation of the war on drugs. Nationwide, African American neighborhoods had watched in dismay as a blighting influx of crack cocaine gripped the areas where they lived. In mostly black South Central Los Angeles, police were using military-grade weaponry to confront young black suspects, while East Coast neighborhoods such as Roosevelt, New York, went from middle-class prosperity to abject desolation. “Mostly every household had somebody that was strung out,” said Public Enemy producer Hank Shocklee. “Even my brother had a brief moment being addicted, so it resonated very close to me.”

As if in response to Reagan’s hard-line conservatism, hip-hop got deadly serious. Hard-core rap subgenres that had been gestating underground suddenly began garnering widespread radio and consumer attention. Whether it was the political hip-hop of Public Enemy, the desperado “gangsta rap” of N.W.A. and Ice-T or the Afrocentric “conscious rap” of Gang Starr and the Jungle Brothers, 1988 marked a paradigm shift. Just as the Beatles proved rock music could make broader sociopolitical statements, rap’s Class of ’88 seized on hip-hop’s thematic potential, sowing the seeds of a musical revolution.

Into this chaotic musical fray entered Smith. His initial recordings helped transform rap into a lucrative crossover genre, yet he was already at risk of becoming a has-been. In 1989, he and Townes issued yet another collection of teen-targeted novelty tunes entitled And in This Corner …. The album and its spinoff singles flopped. “It was a tragedy,” Smith recalled in 2018. “[The album] went, like, double-plastic.”

The LP’s failure sent Smith into a downward spiral. Like many nouveau riche overnight successes, he had blown through his fortune while neglecting to pay his taxes, and now the IRS was knocking. “Being famous and broke is a s—– combination,” he would later say, “because you’re still famous and people recognize you, but they recognize you while you’re sitting next to them on the bus.”

Then, fate intervened. Hoping to keep his career afloat, Smith began appearing on The Arsenio Hall Show, a new late-night talk show that was an instant hit with the MTV generation. Backstage during one of his appearances, Smith was introduced to Benny Medina, who along with entertainment legend Quincy Jones was developing a sitcom about his childhood experience growing up with a wealthy Hollywood family. Smith aced his audition, and within months of its 1990 premiere, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air was the top-rated sitcom of the year.

In one fell swoop, Smith was rescued from near irrelevance, and he would make the best of his second chance. Cautiously embarking on a movie career, he earned all-important Hollywood cred by starring in acclaimed, low-budget art house films such as Six Degrees of Separation and Where the Day Takes You. He was craftily starting with modest projects, methodically inching his way up the Hollywood ladder, demonstrating the shrewdness that would make him a megastar.

Triumph of the Will

It had been years since the sales disappointment of And in This Corner…, but now it was 1991 and Smith was appearing on a talk show touting the imminent release of his first single of the new decade. “May 20, we’ll be premiering our video,” he earnestly told Byron Allen. “We’ve been away for a while, and we’re coming at you spankin’ new.”

Will Smith (left) and Benny Medina (right) attend the premiere of Disney’s Aladdin at El Capitan Theatre on May 21 in Los Angeles. A chance meeting with Medina helped launch The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, which changed the trajectory of Smith’s career.

Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images

The music video Smith alluded to was “Summertime,” a mellow head-bobber that deviated from the madcap mold of previous Fresh Prince/Jazzy Jeff tunes. Featuring a “slightly transformed” sample of Kool & The Gang’s seductive ’70s jam “Summer Madness,” Smith’s retooled version perfectly captured the soulful essence of a midsummer day in the ’hood.

“The temperature’s about 88
Hop in the water plug just for old time’s sake
Break to ya’ crib, change your clothes once more
Cause you’re invited to a barbecue that’s starting at 4
Sitting with your friends cause y’all reminisce
About the days growing up and the first person you kiss
And as I think back makes me wonder how
The smell from a grill could spark up nostalgia …”

Call it a comeback. “Summertime” dramatically reversed Smith’s flagging musical fortunes, selling more than 1 million copies and nabbing the Grammy for best rap performance by a duo or group. But for Smith, the single’s importance went beyond accolades and peer honors. “Summertime” seemed to establish a template for the rapper’s subsequent singles. He would eventually part ways with Townes, embarking on a solo career in which he would apply his rhymes to samples of R&B radio favorites from the post-Motown era, including tracks by Luther Vandross, Stevie Wonder, Sister Sledge, Roy Ayers Ubiquity and others.

His music evinced a sense of elegance and upward social mobility. While he wasn’t above sampling the occasional gutbucket stomp, his biggest singles were assembled mostly from R&B songs produced north of the Mason-Dixon Line, lavish funk hits that lent his music the upscale appeal of a Versace collection. Perhaps the best example of this was “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It,” the gold-certified hit from Smith’s high-stakes 1997 solo debut album, Big Willie Style. The tune sampled “He’s the Greatest Dancer,” the disco classic that name-checks elite clothing brands such as Halston, Gucci and Fiorucci.

Smith’s musical choices couldn’t have been more perfectly timed. He was launching his solo career in the late ’90s, a period of tremendous economic growth and conspicuous consumption. To underscore the notion that he was a musical status symbol, he crammed Big Willie Style with broadly appealing, expensive-sounding samples. “Men in Black” appropriated Patrice Rushen’s luxurious ’80s shuffle “Forget Me Nots,” while subsequent singles “Miami” and “Just the Two of Us” borrowed from The Whispers’ “And The Beat Goes On” and Bill Withers’ satiny 1981 ballad “Just the Two of Us.” Yet, while his tony, aspirational music matched your Cartier ensemble, Smith’s songs were still down-home enough to be played at the neighborhood block party.

His music may have conveyed sophistication, but his lyrics were pure, old-fashioned hip-hop egomania. Big Willie Style found Smith boasting constantly about his boffo film career while flipping off his detractors (“Player haters been hatin’ all my playin’ for years / Now they seein’ they worst fears as I bathe in cheers”). Yet despite all his Tarzanlike chest-thumping, Smith was careful to promote himself as hip-hop’s resident straight arrow. Where his gangsta rap rivals were dismissing women as “b—-es” and worse, the females in Smith’s songs were “ladies” and “hot mamis.” He trumpeted the joys of fatherhood and celebrated his romance with soon-to-be wife Jada Pinkett (“Finally found a person, worthy of all / Instead of pushin’ me down, you want to cushion my fall / Your eyes could make the sun rise, all the birds sing / Seal it with a kiss, bind it with a ring”).

While his tony, aspirational music matched your Cartier ensemble, Smith’s songs were still down-home enough to be played at the neighborhood block party.

This reconciliation of bravado and gee-whiz humility is classic Smith, and he would be rewarded handsomely for his bluster. Boosted by its status as the theme song from the Smith movie of the same name, “Men in Black” topped singles charts throughout Europe and Australia, capturing the 1998 Grammy Award for best rap solo performance. By the time its initial sales run was through, Big Willie Style had moved 9 million copies, making it one of the best-selling hip-hop albums of all time. In the midst of gangsta rap’s blood-splattered heyday, Smith was topping the charts with obscenity-free songs about clubbing, chivalry … and himself.

Seizing on the momentum of his blockbuster performances in movies such as Independence Day and Bad Boys, Smith released his second solo album in 1999. Willennium spawned the debut single “Wild Wild West,” another movie tie-in featuring a sample of Stevie Wonder’s percolating single “I Wish.” The follow-up single “Will 2K” was built from The Clash’s 1983 funky post-punk classic “Rock the Casbah,” while “Freakin’ It” bummed its beat from Diana Ross’ ritzy disco classic “Love Hangover.” Though not quite the sales bulldozer its predecessor was, Willennium nonetheless penetrated Billboard‘s Top 5 and sold more than 5 million copies.

It doesn’t take an Einstein to see that Smith was trading on musical nostalgia to make his songs broadly appealing, but was that so bad? He had already proved with his movie career that he was a shameless, crowd-pleasing capitalist, so why would his music goals be any different? Black songwriters such as Rushen, Nile Rodgers and Kool & The Gang certainly weren’t complaining about Smith’s sentimental hip-hop — his samples were plumping their bank accounts. He was so good at tapping prime funk hits that an associate of mine described him as an “archivist,” a man who heedfully selects stylish baby boomer jams, then gently contemporizes them for posterity (and lucrative Gen X consumption). Asked about Smith and others sampling his songs, Kool & The Gang’s Robert Bell said, “We feel honored! People are listening to our music.”

Will Smith (left) and Tommy Lee Jones (right) in a scene from the film Men in Black in 1997. Smith’s single “Men in Black” captured the 1998 Grammy Award for best rap solo performance.

Photo by Columbia Pictures/Getty Images

But while millions were buying into Smith’s retrograde rap, others were calling him out. It was rumored that he didn’t write his own songs, although Smith’s collaborators attested to his lyric writing/composing skills. Others attributed his musical fame to his soaring movie career, while others criticized him for trafficking in “nonstop pop-rap clichés.” Worst of all, hip-hop purists viewed him as the grievous poster child for corporate rap, exhuming crossover R&B classics to stroke MTV and Top 40 radio programmers. “Just because a song was fun when I was a kid doesn’t mean the guy who made it isn’t a bit of a crossover clown and has made some of the most embarrassing singles of all time,” wrote one contributor on an online forum.

Comments like these would dog Smith throughout his heyday, making him one of rap’s most controversial artists, and you’d still be hard-pressed to find a hip-hop artist who drives purists crazier. Rap music had always prided itself on salting wounds, whether through its automated, minimalist sound, its uncompromising political stances or its embrace of outlaw stereotypes. But then along came Smith with his “nice, clean rap,” and some folks became unglued.

He was resented for not buying into the myth that black hooliganism is somehow authentic (or “real,” to use the parlance of the ’hood). Smith had chosen to become a symbol of the black middle class, a millions-strong group of gainfully employed, law-abiding African Americans who paid their taxes, maybe attended church on given Sundays, and preferred Calvin Klein and FUBU to gangbanger bandannas. His sampling of opulent funk was a subtle shout-out to a black bourgeoisie the media largely ignored. “It’s real important to have balance of the imagery,” Smith told Billboard magazine in 2005. “Yes, there are people who fire guns in the street, but there’s also doctors who go to work in those areas to feed their children.”

But Smith’s critics were raising even broader questions about crossover and hip-hop’s plagiaristic roots. Why was it a crime for Smith to tap the sentimental value of old funk and pop tunes? After all, The Sugarhill Gang established the cannibalistic rules for hip-hop in 1979 when they executed a verbatim lift of Chic’s “Good Times” for their tune “Rapper’s Delight,” the first rap tune of any consequence. Moreover, amid current debates about cultural appropriation, were rap acts such as Smith, Run-D.M.C. and Public Enemy conducting artistic larceny when they sampled white rock bands such as The Clash, Aerosmith and Slayer? Or were these and other rappers simply flipping the bird at segregationist radio programmers who persisted in compartmentalizing white and black music? Whatever the case, it seemed Smith was being held to a harder standard than many of his peers.

His detractors didn’t seem to take into account that sampling is a statement. During hip-hop’s hypercompetitive golden age, the best rap acts used samples partly as a way to align themselves with certain musicians, philosophies and movements. When Dr. Dre heavily sampled Parliament-Funkadelic on his 1991 magnum opus The Chronic, he was establishing an attitudinal connection between his own laid-back jams and George Clinton’s weed-scented stoner funk. Similarly, Smith’s appropriation of post-Motown R&B seemed like a rational choice, an honest reflection of his middle-class upbringing.

The son of a refrigeration engineer and a school administrator, Willard Carroll Smith II was a Baptist who attended a West Philly Catholic middle school. By all accounts, his was a grassroots upbringing that had little, if anything, to do with hoodlums and black militancy. He was 12 years old when his devoutly Christian grandmother discovered a book of his rhymes, many of them peppered with vulgarities. “Dear Will,” she wrote inside the notebook, “truly intelligent people don’t have to use words like this to express themselves. Please show the world that you’re as smart as we think you are.”

That scribbled rebuke changed Smith. “She made me realize that I wasn’t creating only for me,” he said in 2016. “The things I created were going to have an effect on her and were going to have an effect on everyone who came into contact with my artistry.”

Smith took his grandmom’s advice, and if one examines his music, one will discover a positivist philosophy encapsulated by the title track of his 2002 album Born to Reign:

“I believe in God, I believe in destiny

Not destiny in the sense of all of our actions being predetermined

But destiny in the sense of … our ability to choose who we are, and who we are supposed to be …”

He had molded himself into a massively popular polymath entertainer, a man so sure of his rapping dominance that he flamboyantly christened the 2000s the “Willennium.” His hip-hop future seemed bright and unstoppable.

Then he faded from the music scene.

The smartest dude

In 2005, after a three-year absence, Smith returned to the recording fold with an album entitled Lost and Found. Its cover featured Smith at the make-believe intersection of “West Philly” and “Hollywood” streets, an image that suggested he was at a musical crossroads. That notion was underscored by new songs in which he ditched his vintage funk samples for original beats. Although it spawned the Top 10 single “Switch,” the album ultimately sold 500,000 units, not even close to the performance of his multimillion-selling 1990s CDs.

Though he hasn’t released an album in nearly 15 years, Smith hasn’t vanished into obscurity. To the contrary, he’s leveraging his fame to become a digital influencer. He recently used his Instagram account (30 million followers and counting) to hawk branded merchandise, including a sold-out limited run of Fresh Prince of Bel-Air accessories. More than 5 million subscribers visit his YouTube channel to keep up with him and his family. Smith’s songs are still played across the broad spectrum of African American life: at the club, at parties, at backyard barbecues and family get-togethers. Get a real gangsta liquored up enough and he might confess that Smith jams like “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It” and “Miami” are on his personal mixtape.

Smith is 50 now, and as he enters the elder statesman period of his career, his legacy seems more wide-ranging than many would imagine. He exists as a genre unto himself, a rapper whose austere lyrics and uncomplicated samples are unique in hip-hop. Although he’s never confessed to such, he was a pioneering black nerd well before the empowering phrase “blerd” was even coined. He played a role in unseating rock ’n’ roll as the favored music of youth worldwide, then helped raise rap music’s international stature by becoming a multimedia megastar.

He recently made a surprise guest appearance at Coachella, arguably the world’s most popular and lucrative music and arts festival. Popping onstage during his son Jaden’s performance, the old man reportedly stole the show, lending credence to his lifelong theory that nice guys finish first. “I’m trying to present … a more sound approach to survival,” he said in 2005. “It’s a more long-term approach based on intellect and skills that can’t be taken away from you.

“The smartest dude survives the best.”

WNBA Kicks proving female players are sneakerheads too Meet the two visionaries behind the premier sneaker platform of the WNBA

The idea popped into Bria Janelle’s head in an unlikely place, but it didn’t come out of nowhere.

“I was in the shower one day and thought to myself, ‘WNBA Kicks,’ ” recalled Janelle, a former Division II college basketball player turned professional entertainment emcee and in-arena host. She envisioned a platform that, for some reason, had never been created — one dedicated to women, the WNBA and sneakers.

“People say out of frustration comes creation,” said Janelle, a native of Snellville, Georgia, which is about 35 minutes east of Atlanta. “I’ve always had an interest in shoes and the whole aspect of seeing what different outlets have done with sneakers. But I realized it was so saturated on the male side, and NBA side, of sneakers. I’m like, ‘Everybody is doing the same exact thing … how can I do something so far-fetched, so different that no one is even thinking about?’ ”

An injury ended Janelle’s playing career after three years at Mars Hill University in North Carolina, leading her to transfer to Georgia Southern University, where she graduated in 2011 with a degree in radio and television broadcasting. On-air campus appearances led to opportunities in Atlanta radio, and eventually a career. Over the past several years, Janelle has toured as emcee with WWE, worked with the Atlanta Hawks on a monthly web show and served as a host for the McDonald’s All American Game. Success in the field provided Janelle the means to grow her sneaker collection, which now checks in at about 130 pairs. Eventually, she wanted to find a way to represent a subculture of people like her: female sneakerheads.

Janelle was inspired by the WNBA’s biggest sneakerhead, Tamera “Ty” Young, who in 2008 became the first draft pick in the history of the Atlanta Dream franchise. Young, who now plays for the Las Vegas Aces but keeps her primary residence in Atlanta, has a massive sneaker collection that exceeds 600 pairs, even though she’s never had an endorsement deal with a sportswear brand.

“Ty Young being in Atlanta for years, you peep her at different events and it was like, ‘Yo, I’ve never seen her double up on a pair of sneakers,’ ” Janelle said. In the lead-up to the 2018 WNBA season, she ran into Young and told her she had something in the works. Janelle also hit up one of her close friends in the league, Alex Bentley, a member of the Connecticut Sun at the time who was playing overseas during the WNBA’s offseason.

“I never forget. It was like 3 o’clock in the morning in Russia and I said, ‘Hey, I got an idea. What do you think about this?’ ” Janelle recalled of her conversation with Bentley, who now plays for the Dream. “She said, ‘That’s dope. No one’s covered the WNBA’s sneaker culture. … Go for it. You’ve got my support.’ ”

But to make this thing work, Janelle needed help. So she reached out to Melani Carter, a sports producer who shared a similar frustration about the lack of WNBA coverage, having spent four years working at Turner Sports on NBA TV and NBA League Pass. The two friends remember meeting at a restaurant one night in Atlanta and talking for hours.

“As we started strategizing, I was saying, ‘This could be a segue into really showcasing women in another light,’ ” said Carter, who’s been collecting shoes since the early 2000s. “And what better way to start … than with sneaker culture?”

In February 2018, Janelle and Carter co-founded @WNBAKicks. And for the past year, the platform’s Instagram and Twitter accounts have served as the authoritative voice of sneakers in the WNBA despite not being officially affiliated with the league. Original video, interviews and, most notably, exclusive photos and videos of shoes players are copping and lacing up on and off the court — WNBA Kicks offers all this and more.

“We’ve never really had anything like WNBA Kicks,” said Seattle Storm point guard Sue Bird, a 17-year veteran and three-time league champion, in April at the 2019 WNBA draft. “Yeah, the WNBA page can post our shoes, but sometimes you need people on the outside, different voices, to show people what’s what. To have this separate page that’s completely independent, showing the sneakers that we wear and really our personalities, it’s crucial.”

WNBA Kicks has amassed more than 20,000 followers on Instagram and another 2,300 on Twitter. It’s an operation that quickly transformed into a legit media outlet after establishing a network of contributors in WNBA markets across the country and expanding its staff to include a head of marketing and digital strategist. Now, the start of the 2019 WNBA season brings the launch of wnbakicks.com, marking the next chapter for a platform that’s evolved from the unique vision of its two co-founders.

“WNBA Kicks has become that safe haven for WNBA players,” Janelle said. “We told them, ‘Trust us to tell your story and show how dope you are, and we won’t steer you wrong.’ … It’s not about athletic ability, sexuality or the themes you always see talked about surrounding the WNBA. It’s about the fact that these players have sneaker collections just as good as some of the guys, if not better. And here’s a platform — just for them.”

What makes WNBA Kicks so authentic is players in the league support the platform 100% by providing daily content.

“Whenever they need a photo of my shoes, I’m always open to sending it to them,” said Phoenix Mercury guard Essence Carson. “The check-ins, they’re great, especially when a lot of players are gone and playing abroad in the offseason. It’s a good way to keep the fans’ attention and have them interact with the players.”

When Young uploads a picture of the sneakers she’s wearing to her Instagram Stories, she often tags @WNBAKicks. Janelle will then reach out for the original image to post on the page. Sometimes, Young even sends photos to the account via direct message so the platform can exclusively share the latest shoes she’s picked up.

“The cool thing is you have players taking pictures and videos of their own shoes or their teammates’ shoes to post on that page,” said retired WNBA Hall of Famer and ESPN analyst Rebecca Lobo. “It’s not like they’re always posting themselves. The players are doing it for WNBA Kicks. I think that’s a really, really cool thing. It’s a partnership in a way.”

Sneaker culture in the WNBA has evolved quite a bit since Lobo played in the league from 1997 to 2003 and received her own signature shoe from Reebok, called The Lobo, during her rookie season.

“The only sneakers that were really covered back then were the Nike Air Swoopes, because Cheryl Swoopes was the first woman to have a signature shoe. That was a really big deal,” Lobo said. “In my generation, they didn’t even make women’s basketball sneakers. You figured out which men’s size you wore, because they didn’t even have them in women’s sizes. Sneakers in the WNBA weren’t really a thing. For the most part, everybody in the league wore the same style of shoe.”

The landscape has also changed since Carson and Young entered the WNBA more than a decade ago after being taken back-to-back with the seventh and eighth overall picks, respectively, in the 2008 draft. At the time, the WNBA was sponsored by Adidas, and strict uniform guidelines required players to wear league-approved shoes that were either predominantly white or black. Two years later in 2010, Instagram was founded as a social network that fostered creativity and expression while helping people transform into their own brands. And in the realm of style and fashion, Instagram became a place where both men and women could put on a display of their passion for sneakers.

“In previous years, women weren’t really looked at as sneakerheads,” Carson said. “But over the course of time, in the sneaker community, you’ve seen that change. As women move forward, so does the WNBA, because we’re women first and basketball players second. And now we have the platform to showcase that we can push sneaker culture even further.”

There’s a new era in the WNBA of players wearing whatever sneakers they want, whenever they want, due in large part to the emergence of WNBA Kicks in 2018.

@WNBAKicks co-founders Bria Janelle (left) and Melani Carter (right).

Simeon Kelley

“Last year, because of WNBA Kicks, people wanted to have more heat for games,” Young said. “They wanted to get that notoriety on social media. Like, ‘Oh, look what shoes she’s wearing!’ It made people who weren’t sneakerheads before want to bring out exclusive shoes or stuff that was more cool to show out. It became a popular trend, something to do.”

The latest and hottest releases, retros, customs, player exclusives. Basically, every shoe imaginable graced the hardwood of arenas across the league last season on the feet of WNBA players.

“The most unique thing we’ve did is attract the brands to the players,” Carter said. “So if brands said, ‘We don’t know if she has a following … we don’t know if she could help sell a product,’ we were showing them that they can. … It’s really about more than just sneakers.”

Janelle recalls a conversation she and Carter had with a sportswear company (the identity of which they chose not to disclose) in which they learned that the brand had sent out more pairs of sneakers to WNBA players last season than it did in the past 10 years. “Players were requesting shoes,” Janelle said, “because they wanted to be on the page.”

In the early days of the platform, Janelle and Carter wanted to ensure they acknowledged the players in the league with the hottest shoes. So last May, WNBA Kicks dropped its 2018 “Top 10 Sneakerheads List.”

“We really didn’t think it was going to be controversial,” Carter said. “It was more so like, ‘Let’s get this out there. Let’s let people know we’re here.’ When we released the list, people were like, ‘I didn’t make it? How am I No. 10? How am I No. 8? Why is she No. 1?’ Some players were mad. This was league news at this point. So it was like, ‘OK. This has to be our staple.’ That Top 10 list was the point that we can say the players really started paying attention, and the fans did too.”

The full list:

10. Monique Currie, Washington Mystics (now retired)

9. Elena Delle Donne, Washington Mystics

8. Breanna Stewart, Seattle Storm

7. Alex Bentley, Connecticut Sun (now of the Atlanta Dream)

6. Sue Bird, Seattle Storm

5. Erica Wheeler, Indiana Fever

4. Seimone Augustus, Minnesota Lynx

3. Epiphanny Prince, New York Liberty

2. Cappie Pondexter, Los Angeles Sparks/Indiana Fever (now retired)

1. Tamera Young, Las Vegas Aces

“When it got to No. 1, a lot of people didn’t expect it to be me,” Young said. “People didn’t know at the time how many kicks I had or how much I was into this. But it was a great feeling to know that something I’ve always loved I got notoriety for — even without having a shoe deal. I did this on my own. This is a hobby. I love sneakers. And I’ve always been that way, even since I was a little girl. I’m not just a collector. I wear all my kicks. So I thought it was superdope.”

Will she defend her crown in 2019?

“Of course. Not much has really changed. People have been showing all of their sneakers, but I don’t think anybody is topping me,” said Young, who in 2018, for the first time in her career, was posted on mainstream sneaker platforms such as @brkicks and @slamkicks. “WNBA Kicks started bringing different attention to us. I’ve never been a signed athlete, so people didn’t even know the type of heat I had.”

Hoping to capitalize on the trend of viral online challenges, the platform launched the #WNBAKicksChallenge, which encouraged players, broadcasters, coaches, fans and others to take a video showing off their collections, then dare others to do the same. The Minnesota Lynx’s Seimone Augustus, Indiana Fever’s Erica Wheeler, Chicago Sky’s Diamond DeShields and more active players partook, while retired WNBA stars such as Lobo, Tina Thompson, Dawn Staley and Lisa Leslie also got involved. ESPN sideline reporter Holly Rowe even did the challenge and showed off her favorite pair of sneakers, which were given to her by WNBA sisters Nneka and Chiney Ogwumike when Rowe was first diagnosed with cancer.

“WNBA Kicks is showing we got sneakers like P.J. Tucker, James Harden or Kyrie Irving,” said Seattle Storm guard Shavonte Zellous. “To showcase what we have is a blessing, so everybody can stop putting us in a box and expand their brains a little bit.”

WNBA Kicks has even put the NBA on notice. Tucker, Harden and their Houston Rockets teammate Chris Paul have all been interviewed by the platform, and Irving has reposted one of its videos to his Instagram. Future NBA Hall of Famer Dwyane Wade posted a picture of Young after she became the first WNBA player to wear a pair of his signature Li-Ning Way of Wades, ending the caption with @wnbakicks.

On Christmas Day in 2018, under the familiar-sounding handle, the NBA debuted its own Twitter and Instagram accounts dedicated to the sneakers that players wear on the court.

“We randomly saw the page, and it was verified,” Carter said. “I was tryna figure out who made it, and if it was an independent site like ours.”

That’s right — @WNBAKicks launched nine months before @NBAKicks. “A coincidence? I don’t know,” Janelle said. “The NBA has been around for so long. We started WNBA Kicks, then NBA Kicks pops up. It was like, ‘All right, well, somebody’s paying attention.’ ”

Yet, Janelle and Carter truly knew they had created something special when Lobo showed WNBA Kicks some love live on air during the 2018 WNBA All-Star Game.

“I’d been following them for a while and really enjoyed their content,” Lobo said. “In a production meeting, we said we were gonna come out of a commercial break and show some of the players’ shoes … so I knew I was gonna give them a shout. It feels to me that they’re the ones leading the charge in terms of exposing the fans to what the WNBA women are wearing. It seemed fair and only right that we let people know about them.”

So, heading into season two, what’s next for WNBA Kicks? The strategy seems to revolve around the platform’s newly launched website.

“Being a social media page is only going to get you so far,” Janelle said. “For us, the dot-com is what everyone respects. It was about wanting to have that next level. We wanted to be able to explain that we’re not just a fan page. We’re a full-fledged, running site.”

WNBA sneakerheads such as Young and Wheeler hope to see a stronger backing of the platform from the league.

“I don’t think the WNBA shines a light on WNBA Kicks as much as they should. I don’t think they give them enough credit,” Wheeler said. “WNBA Kicks knows what they’re doing. They’re up to date, they’re with the times. And they’re with us as players.”

WNBA Kicks has come a long way since Janelle paired those two words.

“To this day, I tell Bria, ‘Keep this going,’ ” Zellous said. “It’s really helping us … and it’s crazy because it’s kicks that are helping people get in tune with our league.”

Yet, if there’s one thing that the two co-founders of WNBA Kicks have never seemed to lose sight of, it’s that the platform is about much more than sneakers.

“Our whole purpose is to leave the league better than we found it,” Janelle said. “If we do our part, then we’re on the right track. How do we get more fans into seats? How do we get arenas full? If sneakers is the way, or at least a starting point, I think we can feel like we did something right.”