Sneakerhead culture is a ubiquitous motif in rap music and streetwear. When hip-hop the first arrived on the scene in the 1980s, sample-driven beats (and music videos to showcase them) were now being played by giants like Bad Boy Records, but sneaker branding and promotions was still being carried out by resellers and independent retailers like Sneaker Market, located in the heart of Pimlico High School in Baltimore.
For decades, the owner of Sneaker Market, Tyrone Westley, had championed African-American creativity with vintage sneakers at a time when the sneaker game was overwhelmingly dominated by White heads. Sneaker culture, in turn, was then an essential component in the evolving brand of hip-hop.
“While I was down with Tupac in the 1990s, it wasn’t until he passed away that he really became the face of a White male market,” Westley said in the video.
Now Westley, who has been at Sneaker Market for 30 years, is a rarity in an industry built by White men: He doesn’t want to sell.
His reasoning is simple: Sneaker culture is “all over.” He has a point. You don’t have to spend a huge amount of money to be a part of the sneaker community, so when you are buying a pair of Air Jordans, or a shoe on eBay, you’re interacting with people of many races and genders, engaging in a universal language. It’s proof, in his view, that the sneaker culture he created belongs to the people, and not the marketers or brands who take inordinate financial gain from it.
For this, he’s sorry.
“I’m really remorseful. I’m sorry that I’m standing here as a 72-year-old man that didn’t buy into what White men owned for decades and years. That’s what I’m sorry for.”
As Westley explained to me, he is a farmer’s son who has invested his life savings into running his original sneaker business. He and his wife, Gloria, have raised six children, who all became entrepreneurs, too. He’s retiring to enjoy his grandchildren. And Westley said Sneaker Market is operating on a budget he once set for himself, but no longer has. As of Tuesday night, he still owes over $150,000.
“It’s the same mentality for a long time — we were just different in America,” he says. “Back then, they had the same attitude: ‘If you’re Black, Black equals bad. If you’re White, White equals good. If you’re a Jew, Jew equals good.’”
That mindset, Westley says, is what Black creativity was “treated like” from the very beginning. Sneaker culture is a time capsule created by a group of Black men who work as equals — just like the Black men, like Westley, who still strive to provide the highest-quality footwear possible.
“I can find shoes on my own,” he said. “I can find them anywhere. So why would I choose to not sell them on my own? That’s greed.”