Rapper Mos Def and Oakland chanteuse Goapele may have yanked a few heartstrings during their New Year's Eve gala at the swank SOMA gallery, La Terra, but sneakers were definitely the main star. Billed as a "sneaker couture" show, the event felt like an ultra-hip gallery opening or industry party. Buffet tables served sliced fajita burritos, gooey macaroni, and Spanish rice, and a lavish photo booth allowed people to get prom-style portraits in front of a "Sneakers Required" logo. A sneaker display dominated the far wall, comprising stacks of vintage designer tennis shoes — everything from turquoise shell-toed Adidas to rainbow New Balance to Nike Air Jordans. The idea, it seemed, was to memorialize '80s-era hip-hop in a "members only" setting where everyone could pretend to be a VIP.
While that setup made for a slick aesthetic backdrop, it also felt voyeuristic, given the emphasis on haute couture and the museum-like presentation of the sneakers. Still, Mos Def and Goapele killed. Goapele, who opened by belting a Sam Cooke lyric over the UGK radio hit, "International Players Anthem (I Choose You)," sounded like her usual purring, whispering, seductive self. Flanked by video screens that projected high-resolution shots of her sneakers, she sang a medley of album cuts, including "First Love" and "Different." Goapele closed with a call-and-response from her 2002 radio hit "Closer," which evaporated when the clock struck midnight.
Mos came on forthwith, wearing a white T-shirt, blue baseball cap, muttonchop sideburns, and, of course, sneakers. He opened with a couple of reggae-style throwbacks from his 1998 Black Star album and then delved into some more imaginative new material, rapping over spy-movie horn samples. One of the few hip-hop emcees who's stretching the boundaries of the genre, Mos Def frequently associates with Blue Note cats like pianist Robert Glasper. His gravelly baritone bore the command of a truly gifted performer, though even he couldn't quite manhandle the audience. People seemed distracted, as though they'd come not for the music but the hype.
Granted, commercialism was built into "Sneakers Required" from its conception. The event was a collaboration between SkyBlaze Music, Ankh Marketing, and hot Bay Area sneaker boutiques HUF, True, FTC, and Verse. What resulted was a big fashion show where most people came to see, be seen. Given the general superficiality of New Year's, it all seemed apropos.
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