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Do Nike and LeBron James reduce Maya Angelou’s words to “trash talk and gamesmanship?”
In her guest post for Mike Chasar’s Poetry and Popular Culture blog, Liz Jones-Dilworth deconstructs the use of poetry in LeBron James’ commercial for Nike. As both a VP of operations for a public relations firm and someone who did her dissertation on 21st century performance poetry, Jones-Dilworth is uniquely qualified to comment on the intersection of poetry and commerce and where the line should be drawn.
The commercial portrays James as many things, a seeker of his true self trying on different identities before he winds up back on the basketball court. Somewhere along his existential journey, he ends up as a poet and it becomes more difficult to discern whether these are actually different facets of LeBron— this being his “soulful” side—or whether Nike is making fun of the idea that there’s any more to James than basketball (or any more to poetry than bongos). The “soulful poem” in question is Maya Angelou’s “Still I Rise,” a selection that might plant the commercial firmly in sincere. inspirational territory—if it weren’t for how easily its words could be transposed to basketball jargon.
In its attachment to Nike and LeBron, the power of Angelou’s original poem is diminished if not entirely undercut. “Shoot” and “cut” acquire basketball and advertising connotations (shoot a basketball, shoot a commercial, cut across court, cut to a closeup) that reduce the social and gendered violence of “shoot me with your words” and “cut me with your eyes” to simple trash talk and gamesmanship. Similarly, “air” becomes a brand name, an act of commercial broadcasting, and a basketball style, not a figure for woman’s survival and triumph. Admittedly, the ad is a really savvy, thought-out deployment of Angelou’s poem; Nike obviously has a poetry critic (albeit a cynical one) on staff. But one nevertheless can’t help wondering, how can the poem be soulful if it’s really all about basketball and shoes?… As a brand, Nike creates heroes—performer-athletes with strong personalities. Nike is the poet, not LeBron.