• Shantee Rosado

Commercializing Afro-Latinidad: A Reebok & Nike Case Study

By Y. Cabrera

In an age of growing black diasporic consciousness, Afro-Latinidad has become a widespread phenomenon. As an Afro-Latina of Dominican heritage, it has been wonderful to see this rise in Afro-Latinx representation both online and in broader media. But oddly, representation of Afro-Latinidad has been sensationalized by corporate interests. Thus, I will use Nike & Reebok’s independent Afro-Latinx-centered campaigns to demonstrate the commodification and simplification of Afro-Latinidad in a corporate context. As I see it, despite its rising visibility, Afro-Latinx representation fails to challenge white power structures (especially as it relates to skin color and beauty standards) and instead affirms cultural stereotypes. More explicitly, Afro-Latinx media portrayals succumb to poor color politics, meaning, they often fail to showcase diversity in skin-tone complexion, phenotype, and hair. I will analyze Nike’s & Reebok’s Afro-Latinx sneaker campaigns to show that corporate interests and popular culture offer greater Afro-Latinx visibility as a means of appealing to a modern urban demographic. I argue that in its rising commercialization, Afro-Latinidad is oversimplified as a means to commodify an Afro-Latinx aesthetic.

I have chosen Nike & Reebok as they are two leaders within the sneaker industry. Interestingly, both brands within the past year have released Afro-Latinx-inspired merchandise. As such, they are fairly comparable corporate firms across their product lines and marketing content. Both brands aim to represent Afro-Latinx consumers in their represective sneaker launches. My question, however, is how successful are they in these pursuits? The inclusion of Nike is of particular interest, as in recent years, they have embraced the politicization of their brand through their support of Colin Kaepernick; a black NFL football player that lost his position on the San Francisco 49ers in 2016 after kneeling during the national anthem to protest police brutality. Thus, it is interesting that as a brand, Nike has now chosen to embrace Afro-Latinidad. But more importantly, as consumers, it is imperative that shoppers think critically about what brands they endorse through their purchasing power. Therefore, this Nike and Reebok case study aims to question if and how Afro-Latinidad is adequately and/or appropriately represented by two powerhouse brands that market to these communities of color.

In the summer of 2019, Reebok launched its Cardi B sneaker collection. Cardi B is a New York-born rapper and music mogul of Dominican and Trinidadian descent. Her campaign with Reebok pays tribute to her cultural upbringing and heritage growing up in the South Bronx, New York. The Reebok x Cardi B campaign images showcase the rapper wearing her Reebok collection in a beauty salon and on the streets of New York City.

The Reebok x Cardi B collection can be found online on Reebok's site or in major stores like Urban Outfitters and Footlocker. The entire collection has a total of 128 pieces with a wide selection of apparel, sneakers, and accessories for both men and women. Her collection offers re-released retro styles like the 1993 Reebok Aztrek, along with other sneakers like the ‘85 Reebok Club C. Importantly, these sneakers have been updated with vibrant color combinations to offer a new twist on classic styles.

The campaign has various advertisements that showcase Cardi B in tracksuits or other streetwear, wearing pieces from her collection in New York City. However, most notably, the campaign features a prominent commercial meant to market Reebok x Cardi B products. The commercial takes place within a beauty salon and features Cardi B as its star. The video begins with a still camera shot of the salon’s exterior and its exterior advertises nail and hair extension services. Interestingly, its glass display, showcases two Grecian busts, one of a full body nude statue and the other solely a head placed on top of a column. Below the Grecian bust, on a slightly raised platform, is a curly-haired wig on a tan and/or beige-toned mannequin head.

The door opens and the camera captures a wide-lens shot of the salon's interior. By the positioning of the actors, only straight-haired textures are visible, but there is a wide array of skin complexions. Audiences find Cardi B under a hooded dryer, her hair is in a roller set, as she talks to her friend about her love life. Cardi is wearing a Reebok logo t-shirt and sneakers from the Reebok x Cardi B line.

The salon becomes eerily silent after customers realize that one of Cardi B’s Reebok shoelaces are untied. Cardi notices everyone’s stares and looks down at her feet to discover her sneakers are untied. She says, “Hold up” and places her hands with hot-pink acrylic nails on her lap. Magically, her nails grow, extending beyond her legs to tie her shoelaces. The camera pans to different customers across the salon. It is in this moment that we see diversity in clientele as the salon serves both men and women who have visible differences in hair lengths and textures, from loose to kinkier curls, as well as a diversity of skin tones. Most of the customers are mesmerized by Cardi B and her nails. The camera returns to Cardi B, now with tied shoelaces, and her nails revert to their normal length. Cardi B lifts her hands up and says "Nailed it” to the camera. The salon and its customers return to their natural rhythm as the camera exits the shop. A sign at the salon door that once said "open" flips to reveal a message that says “Sport the unexpected - Reebok” where the commercial ends.

The Reebok x Cardi B commercial, while vastly entertaining, is rife with flaws. The video is complacent in its subliminal messaging of inherent white power structures. Implicitly, the commercial glorifies Eurocentric standards of beauty among a predominantly non-white cast. The star, Cardi B is found under a hooded dryer, where she remains for the entirety of the commercial. Roller sets are a classic hair-styling technique within Dominican communities to straighten one’s hair. Cardi's homage to Dominican culture and Afro-Latinx heritage promotes a tool adopted by Latinxs to conform to whiteness. Several clients, like Cardi, are also receiving hair straightening services.

In no way am I trying to villainize women that choose to straighten their hair. However, I am critical of media portrayals, like Reebok x Cardi B, that subliminally convey messaging to younger audiences that natural hair is undesirable or that straight hair signifies beauty. Inherently, the commercial does this; it takes place in a beauty salon (despite the purpose of the video being the promotion of an athletic product line) and most clients, including the video’s starlet, Cardi B, have opted to straighten their hair. In her article “Aesthetic Resistance to Commercial Influences: The Impact of the Eurocentric Beauty Standard on Black College Women,” Dia Sekayi explains, “In terms of commercial messages, issues of beauty seem to focus on skin tone, hair texture, and body type . . . . [Black women] struggle with physical features that are considered to be more African than European” (Sekayi, 469). Thus, it seems that the centering of straight hair in Cardi’s commercial perpetuates pre-existing power relations that place straight hair or European-like textures as superior to textured, curly, more African-like hair textures.

I will note, that Cardi B’s commercial does offer visibility to curly-headed men and women. However, it fails to give curly textures the same prominence as straight hair. For example, in the wide-lens shot of the salon’s interior, there is only one visibly curly client. However, that curly client and her afro were blurred in the background due to her physical placement in the salon. Spatially, she was seated in the farthest possible salon chair, placed at the back of the salon. Similarly, we later see curly-haired clients under the hooded dryers setting their natural hairstyles. However, those individuals were invisibilized in the wide-lens shot of the entire salon. Instead, who we do see is Cardi B and her friend in their roller sets and, to the right of them, another young woman getting her hair flat ironed.

Additionally, the client with the kinkiest curl texture is not at the beauty salon for her hair, but rather to do her nails. In juxtaposition, the nail-technician assisting her has bleached blonde hair. All of these cues, beg the question, who and, specifically, which hair textures does this salon serve? In what ways are its clients or even their stylist conforming to Eurocentric beauty standards? Even subliminally, the curly-haired wig in the salon’s glass display is placed below the Grecian sculptures on a slightly raised platform. White Grecian sculptures are the very embodiment of European identity, and have little relevance in a beauty salon, yet they tower above the wigged mannequin, an actual product/service offered by the salon. It seems that even the spatiality of the salon’s decor and products, too, favor Eurocentric hairstyles as represented by the placement of the Grecian sculptures. Unfortunately, the Reebok x Cardi B commercial fails to center curly-hair textures to the same prominence as straight hair and by doing so the commercial promotes white, Eurocentric beauty standards. The commercial reinforces the trend that Sekayi identifies, in which commercial messaging repeatedly degrades African features.

In contrast, the prominence of Cardi B’s acrylic nails within the commercial highlight and exaggerate Black aesthetics. Acrylic nails are common fashionable accessories used in Black communities and other communities of color as a means of self-expression. Socially, in professional spaces in particular, they are viewed as distracting and improper. However, in the commercial, the acrylic nails save Cardi from having untied shoes. The nails are also a point of fascination for the clients—one client is even getting their nails done in a similar fashion to Cardi. Thus, the Reebok x Cardi-B commercial has moments such as this one, where black cultural practices are not degraded but instead are celebrated. I think it's equally as important to highlight these moments as it is to offer my personal criticisms.

The Reebok x Cardi B commercial features predominantly actors of color, and the star of the collection is an Afro-Latinx woman, yet its content still subliminally perpetuates white superiority. The commercial commodifies Black/Afro-Latinx cultural expressions, like the hooded dryer, in an attempt to represent Dominican culture in order to sell more shoes. However, this seemingly harmless act fails to consider the politics behind representation and the ways that such imagery can be linked to systems of oppression relevant to the Black/Afro-Latinx experience (Yousman, 2003). Scholar Joe Feagin asserts that such commodified imagery of black cultural expressions are meant to perpetuate white supremacy (Feagin, 2006). He explains that black representation in dominant white structures, like that of the media industry, fail to deconstruct anti-black prejudices, and instead reinforces such attitudes (in its audiences) (Feagin, 2006). Feagin’s point is best exemplified by the Cardi B commercial, given the prominence of straight hair and its favorability over curlier textures. Despite having visible curly-headed clients, the commercial’s star, and the actors most prominent in the video all have straight hair. Thus, the visibility or “black representation” provided within the commercial of curly hair was manipulated to assert the superiority of straight and loser curl textures. Therefore, as explained by Feagin, the commodification of black representation operates to innately sustain white structures of superiority.

Similar to Reebok, Nike released its Afro-Latinx collaboration in 2019. Their collaboration was designed by New York-based artists Tony Peralta (of Dominican descendant) and Jose Morales. Peralta and Morales designed a limited edition Air Force 1 sneaker. Their version, referred to as the De Lo Mío Air Force 1s, aims to celebrate Dominican identity and Dominican cultural influences in New York City. “De Lo Mío” is a Spanish phrase that translates to “of mine,” and is a common Dominican phrase used to identify fellow Dominicans. Uniquely, their campaign employed notable Afro-Latinx photographers and Afro-Latinx subjects to market their sneakers.

The De Lo Mío Air Force 1s features the classic Air Force 1 design with its all-white base. However, the shoe includes red laces and its Nike Swoop intermingles the colors blue and red. The color selection is intended to represent the three main colors of the Dominican flag. Additionally, the shoe’s bottom sole has “De Lo Mío” in blue-colored script under a clear rubber protective lining. The sneaker retails for $165.

The most prominent Dominican signal of the shoe, its namesake, “De Lo Mío,” is placed at the bottom sole of the shoe. Which, over time and though wear, will grow to be dirty and likely illegible. It seems that if the shoe really meant to celebrate Dominican identity its most prominent Dominican feature wouldn’t be hidden or be the most susceptible to tarnishing over time. Additionally, the shoe’s tri-color palette features the most common colors of any flag, it could even represent the U.S. with its red, white, and blue colors. As such, its color palette is not inherently representative of Dominican culture. Therefore, in terms of design, it seems that the De Lo Mío shoe misses the mark in terms of functionality and clear signaling of its Afro-Latinx inspiration.

Interestingly, to promote the shoe, Nike enlisted the help of six “Dominican-Yorkers,” all up-and-coming photographers of Dominican descendant. These photographers were hired by Nike to creatively direct, style, and photograph the De Lo Mío campaign. The recognition of Dominican artistry and the promotion of young talent on such a major platform like Nike’s truly demonstrates Afro-Latinidad’s heightened exposure. More importantly, by hiring New York-raised photographers of Dominican descent, Nike demonstrates a commitment to an authentic and representative launch of the De Lo Mío Air Force 1s.

Given complete creative liberty, each artist brought themselves into their work. The campaign highlights the inter-generational familial ties within Dominican households--it captures an authentic depiction of New York urban living and centers ordinary people, using campaign models with a variety of identities to demonstrate the diversity among Dominican people.

The first featured artist, Juan Veloz, of Dominican descent and raised in Brooklyn, has over 30K followers on Instagram. He has photographed the likes of Diggy Simons, H.E.R., and TV-series Insecure’s very own Jay Ellis. Proudly Afro-Latino, Veloz’s campaign images for De Lo Mío centers his familial matriarch, his grandmother, endearingly called Welita. In an interview with People en Español, Veloz explains that his inspiration for the campaign was to honor pioneers that, like Welita, moved from the Dominican Republic to the United States. He acknowledges, “Most Dominican-Americans wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for our grandparents. It felt right to include the person that brought us to this country.” His photographs showcase his grandmother lying in bed wearing a gray tracksuit in her De Lo Mío sneakers. The casual outfit is a practical motherly style, while shoes on the bed are likely the antithesis of Dominican etiquette. The bed Welita lays on is covered in a light, muted, floral pattern. Welita has a brown rosary positioned on the bed by her shoes. Your eyes can’t help but be drawn to the baby blue background of the portrait above the headboard, a framed picture of Jesus Christ. The subtle rosary and more obvious religious portrait display the prevalence of Catholic principles and faith within Dominican households. Uniquely, the Dominican Republic is the only country in the world to feature a bible on its flag. Therefore, the inclusion of Jesus as a religious figure does adequately portray the significance of the Catholic faith to many Dominicans. While to the left of the portrait, is another photo that arguably holds the same importance, a wedding picture of Juan Veloz’s parents. Through such subtle gestures, Veloz asserts a Dominican core value, the family, while also reinforcing the inter-generational familial structures commonly present in Dominican households. Juan Veloz’s photography for the De Lo Mío campaign demonstrates successful Afro-Latinx and, specifically, Dominican representation. He had a clear vision and offers literal, obvious, and subtle visual reminders to center the notion of the Dominican family.

I would also be remiss if I failed to mention that out of all photographers in the De Lo Mío campaign, Juan Veloz is one of two artists to picture a model of a darker skin tone. This is rather important considering Dominican Republic’s long and traumatic histories of anti-blackness and antihaitianismo. Thus, Veloz offers a refreshing and diverse depiction of Dominican culture in a New York City context.

In contrast, photographer Adeline Lulo of Washington Heights, centers her campaign images on the sisterly love among three cousins. Her images focus on three women, often wearing bright red, white, and blue streetwear alongside their De Lo Mío sneakers. She, too, has a campaign image with these women laying on a floral patterned bedspread; beside them hangs the Dominican flag. Lulo makes reference to strong familial ties that extend beyond one’s nuclear family within Dominican culture. Another campaign image centers just two of the cousins, one is seated on the floor leaning her head to the right as her cousin, seated in an armchair, begins to cornrow her hair. Beside the young lady getting her hair done, wearing bright blue track pants, is a red Country Club soda. This beverage pays homage to an iconic Dominican beverage, the Country Club’s raspberry soda is equivalent to Coca-Cola in the states. Both cousins are light in complexion and have loose curl patterns. The act of sitting on the floor while a motherly figure styles your hair is a classic rite of passage for many Dominican woman. However, we cannot escape the politics of hair and the ways in which their curl patterns fail to capture the richness of kinkier textures that exist within Afro-Latinx and Dominican-specific diasporas. Importantly, hairstyles like cornrows are common heat-less protective styles for many women and men of color, especially those with tighter curl patterns than the models depicted in these campaign images. While Adeline Lulo offers explicit and subtle references to Dominican culture, I would have preferred to see more diversity in skin tone and hair textures to fully represent the Dominican diaspora. Additionally, her use of red, white, and blue in the styling of her models does not inherently represent the Dominican Republic and seem to make her visuals far too staged.

Finally, Bronx’s own Cheril Sanchez captures the De Lo Mío shoe inside a hair salon. Her photographs show a Dominican model seated near the salon sink. Behind her is the reflection of two visible hooded dryers. The model’s hair is in a silk press and, therefore, straight. Like the Reebok commercial, Dominican hair salons are portrayed as a pinnacle of Dominican culture. The visual of the hooded dryer is revisited here and appears as a common theme between both campaigns. Again, I think it is critical that we question what this symbol of Dominicanness signifies. For me, and for many other Dominican women, it is a tool that constantly reinforces what hair “should” be. It is used to manipulate natural [curly] textures to be something they are not—straight. Importantly, the De Lo Mío campaign did not feature any models with kinky curly hair. This further speaks to a bias toward light-skinned, mestizo/mulato (that is, racially mixed) representations of Afro-Latinidad, and, in this instance, of Dominican culture. Aside from the images provided by Juan Veloz, their models were predominantly light-skinned.

Another flaw visible within this campaign is the lack of body diversity in its models. In an era of body positivity, when attempting to reference the breadth of Dominican experiences, all the young models featured were thin. Stereotypically, Dominicans and many other Latinas are known for having curvaceous bodies. While problematic as a trope, it does speak to the diversity of physiques that exist within Latinidad. Therefore, the absence of full-figured women and plus-sized models fails to capture the whole Dominican experience, in its literal physical form.

Overall, the Nike campaign offers important visibility of Dominican artistry. However, its images capitalize on racial ambiguity. Specifically, there's an apparent absence of darker skin-tone complexions. All visuals with the exception of Juan Veloz’s photos center light-skinned models. Racial capital, as explained by scholar Molina-Guzmán, “is a heuristic device to think through the ways ethnic and racial minority actors and the roles they perform are culturally commodified and accumulate cultural capital” (Guzmán, 2013). Therefore, to capitalize on race is to commodify culture. The very embodiment of racial capital is the De Lo Mío sneaker, as it's meant to represent and commercialize Dominican culture.

However, the Nike De Lo Mío launch drastically fails to offer sufficient skin-tone representation of its ethnic subjects, Dominicans. My color critique further solidifies this act of racial capitalization, which recognizes that often it is “hypothesized that lighter-skinned people are more likely to do well in the entertainment industry and obtain more media coverage because they possess more cultural capital” (Medvedeva et al. 2017). Due to this logic, it is easy to see how and why Nike and these Dominican artists leaned toward more light-skinned representation. Essentially, Afro-Latinidad is a newly commodified Blackness, commercialized for its profitability and revenue potential. Historically, there has been a precedent of light-skinned favoritism that has been perceived as more profitable than darker skin-tone representation.

In conclusion, both the Reebok x Cardi B and Nike’s De Lo Mío sneaker releases provide complex imagery of Afro-Latinx representation. I do not believe that either is particularly successful in their mission to represent the breadth of experiences and diversity apparent within the Afro-Latinx community. In particular my criticism centers on the commodification of an Afro-Latinx aesthetic used to inadvertently promote Eurocentric beauty standards, in addition to the absence of representation as it pertains to hair texture and skin-tone complexion. In the end, both brands empowered Afro-Latinx artists as the featured curators and subjects of each product release. However, as made evident by critics, the rising visibility of Afro-Latinidad and its commercialization does in fact oversimplify the diversity present in such a vibrant and complex demographic. Therefore, it seems that in the future, corporate firms wanting to represent the Afro-Latinx experience should not only empower individuals of that identity to tailor its content, but also aim to attain more breadth in their attempts at Afro-Latinx representation.

Works Cited

Feagin, Joe. Systemic Racism: A Theory of Oppression. Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group. 2013, doi:10.4324/9781315880938

Medvedeva, Yulia, et al. “Celebrity Capital of Actresses of Color: A Mixed Methods Study.” Advances in Journalism and Communication, vol. 5, no. 3, 2017, pp. 183–203, doi:10.4236/ajc.2017.53011

Molina-Guzmán, Isabel. “Commodifying Black Latinidad in US Film and Television.” Popular Communication, vol. 11, no. 3, 2013, pp. 211–226, doi:10.1080/15405702.2013.810071

Sekayi, Dia. “Aesthetic Resistance to Commercial Influences: The Impact of the Eurocentric Beauty Standard on Black College Women.” The Journal of Negro Education, vol. 72, no. 4, 2003, p. 467, doi:10.2307/3211197

Yousman, Bill. “Blackophilia and Blackophobia: White youth, the consumption of rap music, and White supremacy.” Communication Theory, vol. 13, no. 4, 2003, pp. 366-391, doi:10.1111/j.1468-2885.2003.tb00297.x


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