Wednesday night, those of you in the New York City area should hit up the Irondale Center—at 85 South Oxford St. between Fulton St. and Lafayette Ave in Brooklyn—to the see the BK premiere of County of Kings, a stage memoir by the great Lemon Andersen. Hit beatbrooklyn.com/Lemon for tickets, and read our feature on the spoken word artist and renowned sneakerhead from KICKS 15 below. —Ed.
by Alvin Blanco / @Aqua174
For Lemon Andersen, a major turning point in his life’s story started with Air Jordans. Seriously.
“[The] greatest poem ever was by Reg E. Gaines, called ‘Please Don’t Take My Air Jordans,’” says Lemon, rocking a crispy pair of Chicago boutique Leaders’ x adidas Forums collab. “It was so ill because he rhymed, it was all iambic pentameter and it was the first poem—10 years before Def Poetry—on MTV. No music, just him spitting live. Outside of it rhyming, him being black and being hip to street culture, it was also a real story about a kid getting robbed over ego.”
Andersen was so moved by Gaines’ piece, which aired on MTV’s Unplugged in ’93, that when he later decided to pursue the arts, Lemon sought out the acclaimed poet as a mentor. Under Gaines’ tutelage, Lemon furthered his own writing skills to the point of being cast in Broadway’s version of Def Poetry Jam, for which he won a Tony Award.
Def Poetry is where most people recognize the Brooklyn-born Andersen from. But that’s only a small part of the eternal b-boy’s résumé. Not coincidentally, while earning his credentials—on local and international stages performing his acclaimed, Spike Lee-produced one-man show County Of Kings, teaching at the Stella Adler Studio or helping Nike to sign LeBron James by performing a biographical poem for the reigning NBA Champ—Andersen stays freshly dipped in dope sneakers.
While narrative certainly guides his storytelling, a relentless dedication to freshness (“Easter Sunday every day,” he calls it) inevitably creeps into his work. On stage, his uniform is usually a pair of well-worn Nike Dunks. “I try not to be so flashy because you don’t want to tell the story when you got some bright-ass joints on,” explains Lemon. “The denim Dunks are usually the stage sneakers I wear. They’re not as comfortable to roll around with, but they take it down a little bit. Your storytelling is everything, not necessarily the wardrobe.”
Nike is key to some of Lemon’s recent endeavors, but believe it or not, it wasn’t always so. “I probably [had] a pair of Ponys early, real early. I think I had a pair of Nikes, I had the Cortezes before they became big,” he recalls. “It was the last of the triple threat, you had adidas on top, Pumas and then Nike was last. I was able to afford Nike, so I had Nike when everyone was rocking Puma and adidas. I had Pony up from b-boy culture.”
After running the streets and train tracks of BK as a kid, Andersen did a few jail bids for drug dealing charges in his late teens. Hustling words instead of drugs stopped him from becoming another talented kid to never make it out of the hood. The gregarious rhymer of Puerto Rican heritage must have surely been focused on his craft since it hampered his sneaker game. Artists don’t make much paper in the beginning, if ever, making it tough to afford pricey kicks.
“I started doing theater, poetry, which wasn’t part of street culture,” he says. “In order to make a living, I had to stop hustling and do things that couldn’t afford me to keep up with Js.”
But by the time Def Poetry Jam was poppin’, he was back in the groove. He admits he started getting blessed with free kicks but still plucks down cash when need be. But even that comes with its own trepidations.
“You don’t want to be on a train with a pair of Yeezys,” rationalizes Andersen. “Even though I live deep in Bushwick, I walk like I own the street, I still have that. But it doesn’t fit the bill to be on the train with a pair of $2,000 sneakers you actually paid $2,000 for. I ain’t have the Yeezy hook up. I just ran into a good wardrobe budget.”
Lemon doesn’t always stunt for the sake of stuntin’. He ended up giving those aforementioned Yeezys away in ’09. A trip back to Rikers under far different circumstances than his initial visits reiterated that there is a time and place for displaying sneaker dominance.
“I taught at Rikers Island and wore the first Spizikes, and I played myself,” recalls Lemon. “It’s not fair; they’re poor, young people who are struggling. Most of them are there because they want a pair of
Jordans, and here I am rocking the first Spizikes, the Italian joints. They didn’t hear anything I said. They were too busy looking at my joints.”
He adds, “You live and learn. I’ll never do that to kids again, especially those kids.”
There are, however, certain situations when a sick pair of kicks may fit the bill. “Sometimes when I do colleges, yeah I fucking try to break ’em,” admits Lemon, devilishly. “I try to let the young cats know I keep it fresh. Because you’re a poet and not a rapper, they might take you more serious because you got a pair of Js on. Instead of being the other poet who’s wearing a pair of moccasins he found hoboing the country.”
Lemon’s play, ToasT, was one of eight projects chosen out of 900 for the 2012 Sundance Institute Theatre Lab in Park City, UT, where he will continue to develop the project. Getting such details out of Lemon, like the Russell Simmons/Stan Lathan-produced documentary, Lemon, of which he’s the subject, are tough because he’d rather set up the complete picture than pinpoint his own accolades. Ironic, considering he usually can’t help being the focus on stage. It’s a duality he deals with constantly, right down to his feet, which will stay properly outfitted no matter what.
“I try to keep stuff that you can kind of keep it low key, but still be fresh, ’cause I’ll feel uncomfortable if I’m not fresh,” he explains. “I came up like that, at least my feet gear. I’m part of this culture. It’s hard to let go. How do I let go of kicks? How do I do that? I’m in my 30s, and I can’t let it go.”
Nor should he.