“We the North” and the Marketing of Blackness

In my latest sports column for Canadian Dimension, I deconstruct the rebranding of the Toronto Raptors–with a big shout out to  Gamel Abdel-Shehid.

The Raptors are hot. Toronto’s professional basketball team sits atop the Eastern Conference and are arguably the NBA’s most exciting team to watch. But the on-court swagger has been paired with a slick rebranding, the centerpiece of which is the “We The North” campaign.

The campaign’s lead commercial intersperses Raptors’ highlight reel dunks with shots of amateur ballers —primarily young black men—on street blacktops and in gymnasiums. Some of the city’s racialized, working class neighbourhoods—Jane-Finch, Regent Park, St. James Town—act as backdrop. There are graffitied walls, tattooed (black) bodies, and imposing apartment blocks. According to Raptors’ exec, the sixty second spot portrays Toronto’s “authentic basketball culture”. Only two days after its release, the ad had garnered 500,000 views on YouTube.

Last year, the Raptor’s named Toronto-born hip hop star, Drake, the franchise’s “global ambassador”.  But Drake didn’t lead the rebranding efforts; that task fell to a multi-million dollar creative agency called Sid Lee.

The Raps “redefined brand identity”, as the agency calls it, fits an NBA history of on the one hand commodifying blackness—black culture, style, music—while on the other policing black identity and black political expression. For example, ex- NBA commissioner David Stern devised a dress code to prevent players from wearing hip hop fashions like baggy jeans, fitted baseball caps, and chains. As Dave Zirin noted, this move “reflected fears that profit margins would shrink if NBA brass did not show upscale white fans who was in charge of this majority Black league, all with an eye on the green.”

When NBA players recently warmed up wearing “I Can’t Breathe” t-shirts in solidarity with the family of Eric Garner and the #BlackLivesMatter movement, Stern’s successor, Adam Silver, responded by saying: “I respect our players for voicing their personal views on important issues, but my preference would be for them to abide by our on-court attire rules.”

As We The North and the Raps embrace of hip hop culture suggests, the franchise see profits to be made from marketing a certain kind blackness. In a 2005 essay, “Who Got Next? Raptor Morality and Black Public Masculinity in Toronto”, York University prof Gamel Abdel-Shehid argues that “as an almost all-black league in a racist culture”, the NBA has had to market “a certain kind of blackness as entertainment”. When the Raptors came to Toronto in 1995, the franchise confronted white Canada’s association of basketball with hip hop, gangs, and school violence. To be a commercial success, the team had to “market a certain version of black public masculinity that accords with rigid (essentialist) caricatures of black masculinity in the racist realm of American popular culture.”

What Abdel-Shehid called “Raptor Morality” hinged on an aesthetic that tied together basketball, black masculinity, capitalism, the failed nuclear family, and a mythologized “inner city”. It played on individualistic narratives of young Black men working hard, staying out of trouble, and “making it” through pro sport.  “In place of a collective struggle to combat the nightmares of racism, police brutality, and class exploitation,” Abdel-Shehid writes, “the Raptors offer a Hoop Dream.”

For Abdel-Shehid, the Raptors’ success “attests to the ways in which forms of capital have relied on pop cultural notions of blackness to sell an image to everyone, regardless of the average level of consciousness of ‘race’ and racism … It is important to pay attention to the kind of blackness that the Raptors attempt to narrate, and to locate this process within the history of Canadian attempts to write black experiences out of the nation.”

So back to We The North, the Raptors and TO in 2015. While people of African descent make up 8.3 per cent of Toronto’s population, they account for 25 per cent of the civilians stopped and documented by the police. Black men are up to ten times more likely to be stopped than their white counterparts. In the city’s high schools, Black students are three times more likely to be suspended than whites.

In the interests of profit, the Raptors market a commodified blackness while as a franchise remaining silent on the policing, state-sanctioned violence, and other forms of institutionalized racism to which Black bodies are subject to in the city on a daily basis. There are some aspects of the Black experience in Toronto that just don’t fit the Raptors “redefined brand identity.” To paraphrase legendary comedian Paul Mooney, “everybody wanna be black, but nobody wants to be black”.

A version of this article was published in Canadian Dimension magazine Volume 49 No. 1 Jan/Feb 2015

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