INTERVIEW

19 Feb

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Do you care that some people feel you hide behind the shield of racism, that you’re quick to call people racists to deflect criticism of yourself?

No [Yawns] That doesn’t bother me at all.

Let me bring up two instances, quite specifically. When you opened up your shop in Brooklyn, some dude from MTV asked you, “Spike, what are you going to do with the profits from this store?” And in what didn’t get bleeped out, you said you don’t ask Robert De Niro what he does with the profits from his restaurant. So you were assuming he was asking you because you’re black and you were opening up your own business. I won’t come to his defense – because I don’t know what was in his mind, asking the question – but look, Robert De Niro is not at all a political guy, but there are white artists who…

That is bullshit. That is complete bullshit. No white person who’s opened up a motherfucking business has ever been asked, “What are you gonna do with your profits?”

But people like Sting and Bono, who are political…

That is bullshit, that is bullshit. You’re telling me people ask Sting if his album goes triple platinum, “What are you going to do with your profits?” This is motherfucking America. When black people start to make some money, then it becomes a fucking problem. [Very upset, yelling] Tell me a time when a white artist was asked, “What are you going to do with your profits?”

I’ve asked white…

That is bullshit! No one would ever come to someone’s restaurant opening or book coming out and say, “Mr White Person, what are you going to do with your profits?” I don’t care what you say, that shit don’t happen.

I’m telling you. I’ve asked white artists who have political points of view, okay, whether it be the rain forest or the Irish problem, if they’re going to do something about it, I’ve asked them.

That is not the same thing, David. I’m talking about the first day the store is open, and he has a microphone in my face, “What are you going to do with your profits?” It was a racist question. The night the motherfucking Tribeca Grill opened, they did not ask Robert De Niro, “What are you gonna do with your profits?” It’s plain and simple.

Got it. The other controversy involved kids being killed for expensive sneakers such as Air Jordans. The you wrote in “The National” that the criticism of you was racially motivated. Do you feel it’s possible to be concerned about what’s going on – kids being killed for sneakers – and not have it be racist?

I don’t believe that shit. [Jumps up and acts this out] You go around Chicago and look for some motherfucker that wears the same size Air Jordans you have and boom…

It seems illogical to me too, but Michael Jordan reacted in a very different way than you did. Maybe he has a different program than you do. But I know there were black groups that actually picketed Chicago Stadium and put out leaflets…

And Operation PUSH is behind that.

…about Michael and Nike, and the creation of status symbols in the community. Your reaction was very defensive. I’m not blaming you. You have a right to defend yourself…

You don’t think I should defend myself when they’re saying that the blood of young black America is on my hands and Spike Lee is responsible for black kids killing each other?

No. I would hope that you would. It was the manner in which you defended yourself that suggested anyone who cared about that problem was a racist, because they didn’t really care about black kids anyway. To me, if it was white kids that were getting killed and someone screamed bloody hell, that you could say was racist – the only reason they care is ’cause it’s white kids getting killed; if it were black kids in the the inner-city, no one would care.

Wrong. Wrong. The emphasis is wrong. The emphasis should not be on the sneakers. The emphasis should not be on the sneakers or the Starter jackets. The emphasis should not be on the sheepskin coats or the gold chains. The emphasis should be on: What are the conditions among young black males that are making them put that much emphasis on material things? What is it that makes the acquisition of a pair of sneakers or a gold chain that gives them their worth in life, that makes them feel like a human being? That’s where the motherfucking emphasis should be.

The causes, not the symptoms.

Exactly.

I understand that. But don’t you feel, in creating those ads, that you increased the level of status attached to a particular product, Air Jordans, so that it became something more desirable? Don’t you feel you increased peoples’ desire for the product? Isn’t that what a good commercial does? Makes them salivate, makes them want?

Yes, but at the same time I believe that young black Americans are not going to kill each other over a pair of sneakers. That is my belief. I don’t think a motherfucker is going to shoot somebody because he has a pair of sneakers. And if that’s the case, then… then let’s not sell cars. Let’s get rid of the whole capitalist system as a whole! I mean, you can’t just harp on the sneakers. If people want to be so righteous, let’s do away with the shit-across-the-board. Just don’t jump on me, Michael Jordan and [Georgetown basketball coach] John Thompson.

Are you comfortable saying you’re a capitalist?

[Pause] Am I a capitalist? [Pause] We all are, over here. And I’m just trying to get some power to do what I have to do. To get that power, you have to accumulate some type of bank. And that’s what I’ve done. I’ve always tried to be in an entrepreneurial mode of thinking. Ownership is what’s need amongst Afro-Americans. Ownership. Own stuff.

Spike Lee interviewed by David Breskin
Rolling Stone magazine
July 11, 1991.

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