MINNEAPOLIS — Pharrell Williams will not be denied. The 44-year-old Virginia Beach native has been making his impact on music and culture felt for more than 25 years, and in 2018, his presence is as strong as ever. February’s run of major sporting events is as much proof as you need.
The NBA’s All-Star Weekend felt like a career retrospective, as Williams and his group N*E*R*D popped by the adidas 747 Warehouse event for a performance before bringing out a marching band, cars, dancers, and Migos for one of the better All-Star halftime shows in recent memory. But he started a whirlwind three-week stretch in Minnesota with the debut of his LIBERTY + JUSTICE cleats, hand delivering pairs to Von Miller, DeAndre Hopkins, Chad Johnson, and others, as Williams and Snoop Dogg held court at the adidas suite during Super Bowl weekend.
In a dizzying pair of weekends filled with activations, celebrity sightings, pop-ups, and Mad Libs fill-in-the-blank events (Coach K spotted at the Beats by Dre party before 2 Chainz performed, no really, this is true), Pharrell still managed to cut through the noise to deliver a balance of style and societal commentary.
The cleats (from adidas’ SPEEDFACTORY) are a strong embodiment of that. The pair that he passed out the day before the Super Bowl were white with black lettering, and the original concept featured the words liberty and justice on the bottom – so people could see them while players were kneeling.
The final message went on the upper and made an even bigger statement.
“These guys are risking everything: Mind, body, and soul,” Williams told us. “And they have to endure this verbal environment while doing this. My idea was very simple, it’s liberty and justice for all? Then that’s what needs to be on their feet every step that they take.”
Williams expressed that he was touched by the punishment players put themselves through to play the game they love, and the shots they’re willing to take publicly to defend their rights and protest peacefully.
“There’s no Molotov cocktails,” Williams added. “There’s no placards. They’re not holding up signs. They’re not throwing rocks. They’re just exercising their liberty and their justice for all.”
The message was simple for Pharrell: Use the Pledge of Allegiance to reflect inward. That and the national anthem are spoken or sang almost automatically, with little thought to the words or what they mean. By isolating the words “liberty” and “justice,” it was easy to point back to the spirit and the message of the pledge and bring it to the present.
This isn’t the first time Williams has used art and style to express a strong opinion. He dropped his quiet please tennis campaign in fall 2017, with the belief that sometimes it takes a lot of noise to create change.
For Williams, the words on the cleats aren’t a protest at all. Rather, they’re a celebration of progress and the possibility for something better. It’s his focus on the now – not the past or the future – that he wants to emphasize through these shoes.
“Your greatest power is in the present, so now is a gift,” Williams says. “No matter how hard it’s raining today, that’s just today. We just keep going, don’t we bro? We just keep going. […] You’ve gotta just take advantage of this moment right now, that’s what this is all about.”
In the current political climate, Williams believes it’s the younger generation that’s going to lead the charge. It’s up to the older generation to realize their time has passed and allow that new energy to transfer.
Athletes have always had a voice, and they’ve used that voice in impactful moments — whether it’s Tommie Smith and John Carlos, the Ali Summit, Colin Kaepernick, or LeBron James.
“I wish that older generation the absolute best in terms to enlightenment,” Williams says. “But if not, get out the way. Because the kids are here and they have things to say, they have feelings, and they’re not going to hold back. […] The youth is taking over and the women are taking over. And you know what? Either get with it or get out the way.”
Uproxx was invited on a hosted trip by adidas during Super Bowl weekend.