Why Kendrick Lamar's Sneaker Designs Actually Mean Something

Photo: Courtesy of Reebok
When it comes to famous white kicks, there are some perennial key players. Adidas’ Stan Smiths have received all the street style star love lately; Vans got a ton of buzz recently thanks to the “Damn Daniel” video’s viral success — but then there are enduringly cool heritage white sneaks, like Nike’s Air Force 1 and Reebok Classics. When Reebok collaborated with Kendrick Lamar last year, the brand brought a heightened level of attention to their signature style.

The power of this type of alliance — a celebrity aligns with a brand, and the shoe sells — is well-documented, particularly with sportswear brands. Lamar is incredibly vocal about sociopolitical issues: take this year's incredibly powerful Grammys performance, for which he performed in handcuffs and a prison uniform, against a backdrop of jail cells. Or, virtually any song title or lyric in his most recent album, To Pimp a Butterfly, which is filled with powerful messages about race and class.

Refinery29 traveled with Lamar to London to learn more about the Reebok Classic’s heritage (Reebok was born in England). In a rad basement pub in Manchester, England, we sat down with the rapper to learn why the sneaker collaboration is really, legitimately significant to him. Could Lamar’s sophomore design effort be the most the most socially charged sneaker drop, ever?

Both of the rapper’s shoe styles reference his rough Compton, CA childhood, while simultaneously commenting on current sociopolitical issues. Kendrick Lamar x Reebok Classic Leather, his most recent Reebok design, doesn't have a specific drop date yet, but is expected to hit stores this year. It looks similar to his first shoe, the Ventilator, which debuted in 2015; both styles incorporate both the colors and words “red”, “blue”, and “neutral” in the shoe’s designs. It’s a plea for peace between the Bloods and Crips gangs, which run the streets of Compton and far beyond. The design detail could also be inferred as a larger, nationwide call for peace as well. “We have never seen the shoe that had a backstory to it more than just a color or how good it looks,” Lamar told Refinery29. “I don't think a lot of brands would let you put red, or blue, or anything that has some kind of gang significance on the back of a shoe.”
Photo: Courtesy of Reebok
Lamar is frequently talking about kids in underprivileged neighborhoods, whether in his formative stomping grounds of Compton or elsewhere. It makes sense, as his own formative years were spent trying to “make it” in a positive way, instead of turning to gang participation by default. The futures of the young and disadvantaged is a topic of tremendous importance to Lamar. The rapper believes in the immense value of a kid’s cultural currency, regardless of his or her roots — in person, it’s clear just how passionate he is about the topic. In a fashion context, Lamar perceives youth as the ultimate trendsetters. (We’re all about the taste making abilities of the younger set here at Refinery29.)

“You've always gotta look at what the next 13-year-old is wearing — the same person I was once — because these are the people who make the culture. We can't run from the kids,” Lamar says. “We throw the high cost [price tags] on shoes and clothes, to try to distract it from the kids,” he explains about the prohibitive price of brand-name sports brands and streetwear. "But [kids] make the culture, period.”

His relationship with the Reebok Classic kick goes back a long way — the shoe surrounded him during his youth, before he even owned his first pair. “Kids were wearing them heavy,” Lamar explained of the Reebok Classic’s presence in his childhood. “But prior to me actually [wearing] the shoe, I just remember my uncle and older cousins wearing them, when I was four or five years old,” he says. “It wasn’t, like, a new shoe that popped in my face once Lil Wayne and Cash Money came out; it was something that has always been in my house. By the time I was able to understand that these are some cool, classy kicks, it just so happened that some of my favorite rappers were wearing them. It just worked like that.”

Lamar wants his work with Reebok to be significant beyond simply making merchandise, and the rapper’s desire to do so comes off as authentic. Plastering red and blue onto a shoe to send a message isn’t enough for the musician — he wants to be the impetus for actual change. (Sneaker culture is an incredibly powerful thing, regardless of socioeconomic background.) Kendrick wants Reebok — plus any and all sneaker brands, really — to positively affect at-risk kids.
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Photo: Courtesy of Reebok

“I see activities, huge activities. Not just with shoes, but having Reebok getting everyone involved in something way, way, way bigger,” Lamar says. “I haven't seen it done in the magnitude that I see it in my head. It could be workshops, providing job opportunities, it could be teaching kids how to get inside of designing their own shoe from the culture itself.” It’s something Lamar would’ve really appreciated during his youth: “I never came up seeing that; nobody ever came to my school and said, ‘Here’s how you can be a part of this brand; take your creativity and apply it in a shoe.’ I think that's the ultimate goal that I'm setting for myself as of right now.”

Which brings us back full circle. “Some people use drugs or violence or whatever your vice may be — and then, you have creative people that may use music or style in expressing themselves.” In Lamar’s eyes, creative outlets are essential for underprivileged kids, since kids are culture creators.

A single shoe design isn't going to radically change the world; it can't eradicate gang violence or relieve the financial plight of an impoverished neighborhood. But it's definitely more significant than your typical shoe debut (or any sneaker design that's come along thus far, really). If the rapper (along with Reebok) eventually implements the kind of programming with children in rough neighborhoods that he dreams of doing? Now, that could be pretty radical.
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