Walk this way: Jersey City show highlights 50-year fusion of hip-hop and sneaker culture
Sean Williams expected sneakerheads and hip-hop fanatics alike would come out to see the new exhibit he’s curated in Jersey City. But there’s an audience that he is especially looking forward to seeing.
“Our best visitor to this exhibition is going to be someone who knows absolutely nothing about sneakers because they walk in with a clean and fresh palate, and they get to walk all the way around,” Williams said. “When they leave, they have a perspective they had no clue they were going to leave with.”
“Every show in here tells a story,” said the Brooklyn-born curator, who drew on his own collection of 4,000 pairs of sneaks to fill out the displays.
Story continues after gallery.
The show at 888 Newark Avenue starts with a glimpse of a dangling pair of Nike Cortez sneakers from 1972, favored by breakdancing B-boys. That’s followed by a pair of Pony Starters from 1975 that got heavy use on New York City’s basketball courts.
They are the beginning of a visual timeline of 50 pairs of kicks, some hanging from the ceiling, others set in display cases like fine art, that trace the half-century relationship between sneakers and hip-hop, whose origin is generally dated back to a 1973 party in the Bronx. Accompanying each pair of footwear are QR codes that visitors can scan to get more information.
For the the collectors known as sneakerheads, it’s an opportunity to see the shoes that made them fans. For music fans, or just casual observers, it’s a look at the interplay between music and fashion that helped spawn a cultural revolution.
“There are so many moments in this room,” said Williams 51, in a recent interview at the gallery. “People will be able, once you scan the QR codes, to get the full road map of the journey and significance and story behind every sneaker.”
Hip-hop and sneakers: ‘inseparable’
The first stories were practical, the exhibit explains.
“If you were a B-boy, you liked the Nike Cortez because it was lightweight and flexible,” Williams said. “If you were a graffiti artist, you liked Adidas and you liked Puma because when you went to the train yards and you’re messing with the tracks, you need traction and basketball shoes represented the ultimate in traction.”
“Hip-hop culture and sneaker culture are inseparable,” he added. “They both have been together from the very beginning.”
The rap trio Run-D.M.C. famously bragged, “My Adidas touch the sand of a foreign land/With mic in hand, I cold took command.”
The group’s signature Adidas El Dorado X High Top Model, the fruit of the first-ever non-athletic endorsement with a global sportswear brand, is on display at Mana Contemporary. The lyrics from 1986’s “My Adidas” are sprawled on an adjoining wall with other lines paying homage to rap’s favorite footwear.
Of course, no sneaker exhibit would be complete without the most famous athletic shoe in history, Nike’s Air basketball brand, inspired by Michael Jordan. Several pairs are represented in the show including the Air Jordan 11 Concord from 1995, which, Williams pointed out, did not win over Nike executives until Jordan correctly predicted they would be a hit when worn with formal attire. Philly R&B group Boyz II Men proved him right by wearing the shoes with tuxedos at the 1996 Grammys.
Also on display are one of the first work-out sneakers to be designed for women, the Reebok Freestyle from 1982, and the Adidas Classic Deluxe X Missy Elliott from 2004, the sneaker bearing the name of the rapper who was the first female non-athlete to receive a sneaker deal. Williams said the Elliott shoes spawned other female-centered and -endorsed sneakers that are also part of the exhibit.
“That was made for [Elliott] and for women in general,” he said. “Without that, you don’t get the Rihanna Puma over there, and you don’t have the Beyonce Ivy Park.”
Athletic wear as art
Williams, who has lived with his family in Jersey City since 2016, said he was inspired by past visits to the arts center to start his own exhibit there. He joked he had been a “pest” to Mana Contemporary spokesperson Kristin DeAngelis about holding a show at Mana.
Williams was co-curator in 2019 of the first hip-hop apparel and sneaker exhibition at New York City’s Port Authority Bus Terminal. He’s also been a consultant to Nike, Adidas and other brands.
He began creating the Jersey City show in February, working with a small team at Mana. Over two months, they transformed a first-floor room into an exhibit space holding not just the sneakers but also a display case to show off items that played a role in the evolution of sneaker design, like the 1979 Nike Air Heel unit that introduced air cushioning technology.
A room next door was turned into a screening space for a 2015 documentary on sneaker culture, “Laced Up,” which Williams produced.
Choosing the sneakers to display was “easily the hardest part,” Williams added. Williams, 51, bought his first pair at age 13 and has owned thousands. The bulk of the display came from his personal collection.
“I still have a clear recollection of a lot of the pairs of shoes that I had. So when you tell me now that we have to find 50, the easy part is a set timeline; the hard part is which ones make it versus which ones don’t.”
Other sets in the show came from fellow collectors, Marcus “Gatsby” Edmonds and Ryan Soney, as well as from sustainable footwear brands Allbirds and Veja. One pair was created for the exhibit out of recyclable material by artist Bradley Hart, who has previously shown work at Mana.
Mana Contemporary’s director, Kele McComsey, said the gallery was eager to bring in Williams as an artistic partner since it also plans to launch a fashion program.
“I feel like sneakers are a great combination of everything that we have done here,” McComsey said. “I feel like after speaking to Sean, and more and more getting to know about sneakers, you realize that it is the ultimate collaboration between several different people.”
While the exhibit is listed as ongoing, McComsey expects it to run into June when the gallery closes for construction work.
Also excited about the exhibit is Dupre Kelly, who hosted a VIP Ball on April 28 to kick off the show. Kelly rose to fame as DoItAll, a member of the Newark-based rap group Lords of the Underground. Now, he’s a councilman for Newark’s West Ward. A committed sneakerhead, Kelly had a pair of DoItAll sneakers designed for him to wear when he ran for council.
“I love how the collection goes from Bally to Puma to Adidas to Nike,” he said on a recent tour of the exhibit. “It tells a story. We call them feet pieces. With no pun intended, it tells the incredible footprint of hip-hop.”
Ricardo Kaulessar is a culture reporter for the USA TODAY Network’s Atlantic Region How We Live team. For unlimited access to the most important news, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.