The Iconic Kaepernick Afro Will Be Commodified

14 min readJan 9, 2021

Extract From Book #Take A Knee A Collection of Essays Influenced By The Political Awakening of Colin Kaepernick By Delroy Constantine-Simms

When Colin Kaepernick first began sitting and then later kneeled during the national anthem to protest police violence, the quarterback wore his hair cropped close to his head. MacDonald (2018) observed like many others, that as the spotlight on his activism grew, so too did his locks, first into a mass of short curls, then cornrows, then a bigger crown of still-defined curls and, finally, a billowing, uncontrolled, woolly, seemingly semi-sentient mass that doubled as a silent trigger of white fragility. MacDonald’s (2018) observation is echoed by Steele (2016) who noticed that two months after Colin Kaepernick protests during the national anthem, critics began to focus on his Afro. In contrast, Golding (2016) explains that Colin Kaepernick accrued a massive amount of “Black and Woke” points from his supporters, the moment he entered Qualcomm Stadium, on September 1st 2016 at the home of the San Diego Chargers, sporting one of the NFL’s most luminous and luxurious Afros, with the Sun rays highlighting his beautiful tresses, it appears as if Kaepernick dipped not only his whole head, but his life, into a bottle of coconut oil. Golding (2016) enthusiastically contents that Kaepernick’s supporters on Black Twitter just couldn’t let his ‘fro go to waste without documenting it in traditional Black Twitter fashion, which is how #KapSoBlack was birthed.

The ‘Fro Is A Lightning Rod

Let’s be clear, the Afro has always been a lightning rod for those who fear black protest. And Kaepernick knows it, and according to Steel (2016) he’s never had to say it, he simply displayed, it loud and proud for the whole world to see. To many, Kaepernick’s Afro has been as effective, if not more effective a silent gesture than his kneeling through the national anthem could ever be. His ‘fro has been a trigger for those who oppose him, yet previously refrained from openly expressing feelings that were construed as distasteful. But once the objections moved from patriotism and disrespect for troops or law enforcement to his ‘fro, the underlying yet previously restrained offense reveals itself in the form of open abuse, death threats[1] and a range of racist social media memes. Steel (2016) says that Kaepernick did not have to wait long or look far to see condemnations of him and his protest, which included mentions of his big, fluffy, throwback Afro, which many consider to be crude and insulting, not-even-subtly racist reference. If you doubt the words of Steel (2016) search “Kaepernick stupid hair” on Twitter. In response to the vitriol, from his most often racist detractors. The ironic beauty of his hair choice, of course, is that the very first criticisms made of Kaepernick’s stance, by professionals and the general public, were of his racial makeup and history: his mother is white, and he was raised by a white family. These factors were used as weapons against him, his sincerity and credibility (Steel 2016). They were able to use this strategy, because Kaepernick who is mixed raced, and often not considered black enough by many to understand what it’s like to be black in America, let alone complain about police brutality, racial oppression. With extreme glee, Steel (2016) asserts that speculation regarding his racial identity ended in an instant, as soon as Kaepernick appeared with that ‘fro. Even at his most elusive, he couldn’t have changed direction as fast as that narrative did. Steel (2016) reminds us that none of this is a new phenomenon, any more than it’s a new hairdo. At the same time, of course, those who are in line with Kaepernick’s cause and actions reacted instantly and instinctively to the Afro from the moment they saw it. In fact, it fair to suggest that the display of Kaepernick’s Afro possibly did more to galvanize his support and his supporters more than his actual kneeling did.

Commodification of The Afro

The commodification of civil-rights activism and elements of the Black Panther movement may appear revolutionary. Grundy (2018) explains that it can undermine the basic tenets of these and other social movements. Colin Kaepernick’s Nike campaign illustrates this conundrum perfectly. “It is both humiliating and humbling to discover that a single generation after the events that constructed me as a public personality, I am remembered as a hairdo.”

These are words from the Black Power icon and lifelong activist Angela Davis’s 1994 essay, “Afro Images: Politics, Fashion, and Nostalgia .” In the years following her emergence as a Communist, a revolutionary for black freedom, an enemy of the state, and an enduring voice of prison abolition, Davis’s image — one that is considered by many to be synonymous with black liberation and the social-resistance movements of the 1960s and ’70s — has been slapped onto endless memorabilia , such as apparel and collectibles, in which the entirety of her scholarship, activism, and the larger political effort she represents are mostly reduced to a logo like image of her Afro. Grundy’s (2018) concerns regarding the commodification of black pain has been retrospectively reflected by Davis (1994) who expressed with great agitation by how her likeness was used as a backdrop for advertising, and by how little control she had over her own image. In her writings, she laments in (Synder 1994)360 that she was reinterpreted as a “fashion influencer,” and the ways this undermined her message, her activism, and her anti-capitalist principles. Davis is, for many, a living legend, but for others she is the blueprint for how to merchandise a movement. Grundy’s (2018) examples of the contemporary commodification of black pain manifests itself in the release of Nike’s 30th-anniversary “Just Do It” ad campaign featuring a tightly cropped still of Colin Kaepernick’s face and Afro, beckoning us to “believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.” If Nike’s imagery of Kaepernick in a black turtleneck and Afro conjures a dorm-room poster of yore, that is quite intentional. In his latest role as an outspoken celebrity voice against police brutality, Kaepernick has been routinely photographed (Editors, 2017) wearing an Afro signals the Black Power movement of which Davis and other revolutionaries were a part. Grundy (2018) contends that the commercialization of social-justice activism has long required the market-ready iconography of its most visible individuals. Nike’s images are meant to recall Davis — not as a person, but as a moment — and the resistance as fashion that came out of her image. In teaming up with Nike, Kaepernick voluntarily lends his image — and any contemporary vestiges of Black Power to corporate commodification.

Iconographic Branding

The branding that requires this type of iconography according to Grundy (2018) is, of course, highly profitable Walker (2000). Research-marketing teams and advertisers spend entire careers trying to successfully manufacture the authenticity that draws consumers to a product, voters to a politician, or demographics to a brand. However, Grundy (2018) avows that manufactured movements are easily detectable as fraudulent. The real game is usurping an organic, organized resistance, and by ingesting the images of black protest while pruning off any of its actual political goals, the Kaepernick campaign has already led to Nike’s online sales ballooning 31 percent since its launch (White, 2018).

The background of Kaepernick’s image against the foreground of Nike’s copy, slogan, and logo are meant to compel audiences to believe that individual determination, in the context of social resistance, can overcome all odds, and that membership in this movement can be procured with the purchase of Nike shoes and apparel (Grundy 2018). This narrative of independent perseverance as a solution for toppling odds stacked against those who are disenfranchised not only fails to achieve the reform for which Kaepernick is pushing, but as argued by Grundy (2018) also undermines it. For one, consumers are to believe that this Nike nation is helmed by a business that can act as human beings have throughout history to change injustices. Nike’s brand identity angles toward rebellion, (Grundy, 2018) but there is no actuality to that in its corporate structure, which comprises the same basic anatomy of its Fortune 500 peers. Publicly traded entities, as many seem to have forgotten in their rush to applaud Nike, have a fiduciary responsibility to their shareholders and cannot by law perform the selfless sacrifices that are capitalized upon in this campaign.

Secondly, Grundy (2018) contends that the reductive commodification of Kaepernick’s political track record to an ad spot about personal will sabotages his message of withholding his national allegiance in the face of glaring racial disparities. Through his already established, authentic image that embodies pro-black politics and aspirational masculinity, Grundy (2018) declares that viewers are invited into a myth that the end of structural racism can be brought about by essentially the same perseverance required to master a kick flip on a skateboard. In this seductive appeal to a doggedly American sense of individuality, social change is only a matter of marginalized people sticking it out. Those who benefit collectively from the subjugation of others are not required to give up anything, least of all their fly new sneakers. To be clear, one may look at all of this and argue that by teaming up with Nike, Kaepernick is making the smart move of controlling the narrative of his own image, which, if Davis is any lesson, will be commodified anyway hence Grundy’s (2018) faultless assertion, that Kaepernick has no control over the way his image is received by Nike consumers. In this instance, he is a proxy — a window-dressing model for the larger project of packaging and commodifying Black Power images, which is jarringly similar to the cultural reimagining that deemed Davis’s style and the black leather jackets and berets of her contemporaries irresistibly and undeniably cool. In offering himself as a campaign spokesperson, Grundy (2018) contends that Kaepernick is validating (and, thus, making more profitable) a form of social-justice capitalism that compromises a large-scale political protest’s longevity and efficacy.

Trade Marking The ‘fro

Unlike Angela Davis, Kaepernick has seen how the image of her Afro has been exploited for commercial purposes and has decided to take as much commercial control as possible (Grundy 2018). Kaepernick’s company Inked Flash, has applied to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) to use the image in several categories such as clothing, toys, candy and mugs. The Inked Flash company has also applied to use the image in “selfempowerment” workshops and on social activism websites, as well as in the production of TV shows and movies. Kaepernick founded “Know Your Rights” camps to teach young people how to interact with police officers, with profits from some of his merchandise going toward the initiative. Kaepernick’s company also applied to trademark “I’m with Kap,” which appeared on jerseys and t-shirts in September 2018. The logic behind Kaepernick is clear, he intends to capitalise on the commercial exploitation of his image, beyond his current relationship with Nike.

McDonald (2018) challenges commodification concerns expressed by Grundy’s (2018) by explaining that Kaepernick’s trademark application functions as a defiant embrace of militancy, the sort you would expect of Stokely Carmichael. It’s not an image interested in acquiescing to white guilt or discomfort. McDonald (2018) contends that Kaepernick is not here to make anyone feel better about racism and fatal police violence. He is demanding to be taken seriously. It’s a departure from his in-person demeanour, says McDonald (2018) which is warm and often accompanied by an easy smile. It’s the most conclusive evidence thus far which accentuates the point that Kaepernick understands and embraced his evolution from man to symbol.

When called out in public, say, at the US Open 2018 , Kaepernick raises a single fist, the salute to black power (Brown, 2016). The image, when accompanied by a raised fist, falls along a continuum of black radicalism — from Carmichael’s quest for Black Power to Angela Davis’ defiant Marxism to Kathleen Cleaver and Dorothy Pitman Hughes’ calls for revolution to Tommie Smith and John Carlos’ silent protest at the 1968 Olympics. His Afro is cut and shaped into a retro sphere that frames Kapp’s head like an irrepressible halo. McDonald (2018) noted that soon after the debut of his Afro, his hair inspired gushing headlines: Colin Kaepernick’s hair sees me, wrote Kara Brown (2016) at Jezebel, while Nick Brown (2016) at Essence explained Why Colin Kaepernick’s Glorious Afro Is Significant. Kaepernick’s ‘fro is a studious departure from modern permutations, which tend to be more textured and less obviously manicured — think Jordan Carlos, Seaton Smith, Solange or even the illustration of Starr Carter on the book jacket of The Hate U Give.367

Kaepernick’s Afro may lack the wiry, mad-professor quality associated with Cornel West. Rather, McDonald (2018) states that it’s a throwback to George E. Johnson’s Afro Sheen blowout kit, to Anthony R. Romani’s clenched fist Afro pick, to blaxploitation, to Black is Beautiful, to Nelson Stevens’ Uhuru screen-print of a black woman carrying the freedom of an entire people atop her head. Kaepernick’s jersey may have said San Francisco, but his hair screamed Oakland. In his quest to draw attention to the injustice of lethal state violence exacted on unarmed black people, Kaepernick has become something of a walking museum exhibition, carrying 70 years of history, politics, resistance and symbolism within a few inches of black keratin emerging from his head (McDonald 2018). Kaepernick’s Afro, and the politics that inspired it, call back to the birthplace of the Black Panthers, just a 30-minute drive across the Bay from San Francisco. The money he’s raised for charity has gone toward community building and empowerment and eliminating police brutality. Echoes of the principles of the Black Panthers’ Ten-Point Program lurk in the 10-Point System of Kaepernick’s Know Your Rights Camp . Touches like these indicate a fluency in the language and history of black American radicalism. And Kaepernick’s particular brand of it has been contagious. He’s been able to call on the financial resources and star power of other celebrities, including Joey Bada$$, Serena Williams, Meek Mill, Zendaya Coleman, Jesse Williams, Yara Shahidi, Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry to further his causes. Kaepernick’s bended knee, raised fist and picked-out follicles have fomented an explosion of artistic interpretations and, in the wake of a new Nike campaign, copycat memes . One of the most ubiquitous illustrations of Kap374 depicts the athlete-activist kneeling, his hair curled atop his head like Elizabeth Catlett’s Black Unity sculpture of a black power fist carved out of mahogany. McDonald (2015, 2018) stresses that if there’s a downside to widely recognized symbolism, it’s that it becomes ripe for co-opting. Loss of control is part of the price of ubiquity, which is how the same song that greets visitors to the Soul of a Nation exhibition, Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good,” can also double3 as an anthem for shilling weight loss products. McDonald (2018) goes on to highlight how the revolutionary politics of Che Guevara became twisted and diluted the more his image became well-known. Eventually, that single image of a wild-haired, bearded and beret-wearing Guevara became less associated with the overthrow of capitalism and more the province of causeless rebels who could barely articulate who Guevara was or what he stood for — but knew that image looked cool. Capitalism’s funny that way.

Snyder (1994) reminds us that Davis is a revolutionary who actually lived long enough to take umbrage with her own iconography’s descent into semiotic mishmash. “I am remembered as a hairdo,” Davis told a Baltimore crowd in 1994. “It is humiliating because it reduces a politics of liberation to a politics of fashion. … The pertinent history of my legal case is empty of all content so it can be made into a commodity for the advertising industry.” Perhaps Kaepernick will be able to avoid such a fate, although history suggests otherwise. His cause has already been wilfully misinterpreted and truncated into the deceptively named “anthem protest” despite the fact that Kap was never protesting the national anthem itself, racist though its lyrics may be (Johnson, 2016). And so, via the Patent and Trademark Office, Kaepernick is seeking a measure of self-determination from the same entity that for many years functioned as a tool to deny that very thing to black people: the U.S. government.


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Extract From Book #Take A Knee A Collection of Essays Influenced By The Political Awakening of Colin Kaepernick By Delroy Constantine-Simms