Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly is one of the most nuanced and insightful portraits of contemporary America: a brutal indictment of American class and race relations, and an emotional call to arms against injustice and bigotry wherever it may appear. It’s an album that speaks truth to power, and with the political events of last year, its relevance is not waning.
However, it appears that Kendrick has had a new revelation. Apparently if we want to see change in our communities, we also have to buy really expensive shoes. Specifically, the Reebok X Kendrick Lamar Club C, out this month, ‘designed’ conveniently by Kendrick himself, priced at a mere $110.
As Kendrick helpfully explains: “Now more than ever it is important for individuals to come together as one. This sneaker represents that call for unity and equality, while also pushing people to look beneath the surface and uncover the hidden messages. This is something I try to do with my music, and now here with the Club C.” Of course, this harks back to the famous Karl Marx quote, “Workers of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but dollar for some sweet kicks!”
If you’re wondering how the most artful and thoughtful rapper of a generation can come out with such obvious rubbish, I’m guessing that the answer comes in the form of six or seven figures. How can a shoe possibly represent an abstract concept like equality? Of course, there’s nothing in the design to suggest such a thing. If you were to naïvely give Kendrick the benefit of the doubt, you could speculate that, because the colour palate is black and white, it represents a call for racial integration. But if we follow that shady logic, an Oreo is a bastion of civil rights.
However, this insult to our intelligence is the least of the problems. I’m willing to bet that the people who made these shoes can’t even dream of being able to buy them — let alone the residents of Compton, California, whom Kendrick so passionately claims to represent. Adidas (of which Reebok are a subsidiary) are criticised for operating sweatshops so frequently that everyone’s stopped noticing. Presumably, then, Kendrick and Reebok’s notion of unity and equality doesn’t stretch to child labourers in third world countries.
Ironically, Kendrick says that these shoes challenge us to, “look beneath the surface and uncover the hidden messages.” But don’t look too closely, for otherwise you’ll see that these shoes represent little more than a crude commodification of a powerful political message. I almost admire the ingenuity of this solution to the ills of the world. In the good old days of pure capitalist consumerism you had to feel guilty when you bought a pair of expensive shoes. But now you can feel good about it because the act of charity and political action is built into the ‘message’ of the shoe itself! It’s an example of ‘ethical capitalism’ taken to its extreme. The Reebok Club C is not a call for unity and equality. On the contrary, it’s a call to stop thinking about the complexity of such issues, and to buy them away instead. Why actively make your community a more equal and united environment when Reebok and K Dot can do it for you? I hope this doesn’t become a trend for politically conscious musicians and celebrities. Whatever next? The Jeremy Corbyn Emporio Armani Fragrance For Men? Priced at a modest £250? “Fight the privatisation of the NHS with the alluring musk of Jezza himself”? No thanks.
It’s bad enough when artists sell out by compromising their sound to appeal to a wider audience. But to reduce the nuance and truth of your message to a shoe is just tragic. The title of Kendrick’s last album, To Pimp A Butterfly, alludes to his resistance to the exploitation of his celebrity and black culture for commercial ends. The greatest irony is that what these shoes ultimately represent is the pimping of that sentiment itself.