… and his poem „Please Don’t Take My Air Jordans Away From Me“. The reason for this new category on my blog is simple: First and foremost, one of the most frequent searches that lead people to visting this page is something like „reg e gaines don’t take my air jordans away interpretation“. Well, as a service to the visitors looking desperately for an interpretation of this poem I just decided some time ago that I will dedicate an entry to some helpful remarks concerning this piece from the album with the same title released in 1994. Well, as I finally found the time to put something together, here it is…
To start this thing off, some remarks concerning spoken word poetry in general, especially in relation to contemporary avant-garde poetry as it is produced, for example, by the so-called language poets. It can be said that spoken word poetry by and large is much more conservative in its poetic approach than much of the avant-garde poetry. This is due to some factors, mainly the central role that the speaker’s voice usually plays in spoken word poetry (after all, it is SPOKEN – so the speaker should play an important role), and the importance that is ascribed to setting. Furthermore – and this is something that is not highly academic and absolutely generalizing – spoken word poetry very often deals with much more concrete matters and expresses them more explicitely than, say, language poetry does. Note: This is not a value judgement, but rather simply a general introduction to spoken word poetry for readers unfamiliar with the field of poetry and poetics. And now, let us begin with „Please Don’t Take My Air Jordans Away From Me“…
As I don’t want to attempt an overall interpretation in the sense of a paraphrasing of the whole poem (a la „the poem is about this and that“ – greetings to the New Critics and their heresy of paraphrase), I will start off with some guiding questions for those readers that want to interpret the piece:
– What is the role of the „gear“ mentioned in the first two stanzas? First of all, the Air Jordans and the Starter jacket with the Raiders logo on the back, the adidas baseball cap and the Gucci backpack all play important roles in two respects: first, they introduce the speaker and help to locate him in the social space, and secondly, they are vital in creating the very setting (place, milieu) that the poem’s story takes place in. All the „gear“ mentioned by the poem’s speaker signifies urban African-American culture from the late 80s/early 90s, strongly influenced by hip hop culture and the then dominant strain of gangsta rap.
– The third stanza underscores the point made in the first two (namely, the introduction of the speaker and the setting) by further characterizing the speaker: jobless, poor, ready to steal – with the almost apologetic „gots ta do what i can to make sure i look good“, reminding one of the „a man gotta do what a man gotta do“ ethos that can be found in much of hardcore and gangsta rap.
– The fourth stanza then reveals the speaker’s motivation for his struggles to „look good“. While he doesn’t really know why that is so essential to him, he guesses that „fly gear“ makes him „feel special inside“. The „i don’t have to hide“ can be read as an allusion to a superficial social environment and the construction of identity by means of status symbols, a/k/a „fly gear“.
– The following three stanzas of „Please Don’t Take My Air Jordans Away From Me“ show the determination and need of the speaker to „get some new gear soon“, because if he doesn’t „[his] cre’s laughing at [him]“ because he’s „sportin‘ torn Jordans“. The importance of „fly gear“ as a means of getting respect and constructing a positive identity is underlined.
– The next three stanzas again describe the setting and advance the story that is told by the speaker – in this urban environment he is looking for his „prey“ (social darwinism, anyone?), packing his gun and finding exactly what he is looking for so desperately: brand new Air Jordans.
– The next stanza consists of three verses that dedicated to describing these brand new shoes, with “ the red emblem of michael look[ing] as if it could fly“. Fly, interestingly, can be read as having multiple layers of meaning – one might think of the „fly gear“, of Michael Jordan „flying“ towards the hoop in a game, and also of „flying“ as rising (in the social hierarchy, for example). Fly, undoubtedly, is a very central word in this poem. The last line of this stanza then introduces the action that is about to happen in the following three stanzas.
– This action presents us with the climax of the poem’s story: armed robbery turned into cold-blooded murder. A few things are remarkable here: First, the speaker does not show any hesitation or second thoughts about killing the victim. What is usually regarded as „humanity“ does simply not exist when it comes to getting „fly gear“. Secondly, the victim, „while laying there dying“, does not care about his life. Which is actually not true, if one takes into account that he pleads with the speaker to not take his Air Jordans away from him – it could be inferred, then, that the shoes do represent life for him, as he has nothing else (much like the speaker, in that respect).
– The final stanza of the poem presents us with the following day: The speaker walks into school with his new shoes, feels great and is respected again as a person: „man was i cool“. He doesn’t regret having to kill, and instead orients his thoughts towards the future: „cuz now. . . i needs a new jacket to wear“.
This analysis leads to some central points that Reg E. Gaines makes in his poem „Don’t Take My Air Jordans Away From Me“. First of all, he describes a superficial world, in which nothing but the exterior and its „freshness“ matters. The human being is non-existent in the world as it is presented by the speaker of the poem, it is rather as Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five have put it in their classic „The Message“: „It‘ like a jungle sometimes, it makes me wonder, how I keep from going under“. With the notable difference that the reflective instance from the song (expressed by ‚makes me wonder‘) does not appear in the world that the poem presents. There is no wonder, no questioning, there is only one guiding aim: wearing „fly gear“, whatever the cost may be (and cost in this instance does refer to anything BUT financial cost).
The question remains whether „Please Don’t Take My Air Jordans Away From Me“ is glorifying, merely descriptive, or critical of the attitude expressed by the poem’s speaker. Following a normative approach one might argue that a poet should not glorify an attitude such as this. However, we are not normativists (if that word even exists). At least I am not one. So, there has to be another way of answering that question. One approach might be to look at the tone of the poem. But: This is a job that I leave to y’all. Because honestly, I think I did enough of a job – especially when regarding that this is mainly a service to all the desperate souls looking for anything similar to an interpretation of Reg E. Gaines‘ poem. So, I hope it was at least a bit helpful. If you disagree, just let me know. If you think this is helpful, you may also leave a comment – I’ll appreciate positive as well as negative feedback.
That’s it. Peace, I’m out… 😉