Meet Chris & Franklin From ‘Tough Talks’, The Sneaker-Loving Podcast With An Aim For Change


Words: James Keith
Photographer: Rosko Studios

Inarguably, sneaker culture is bigger now than it's ever been. What was once confined to the U.S. (and a few niche enclaves in other countries) has now broken out into the mainstream and become a fully-fledged UK subculture. The fire was first lit in the 1980s when hip-hop culture formally adopted the sneaker as part of its uniform. Sneakers were no longer simply functional, they were now a part of the cultural lexicon—a way to identify yourself and to achieve status. Now everyone has their brand of choice. The iconic PUMA Suede, for example, is synonymous with the days of breakdancing, favoured by B-boys and B-girls for their stylishness, their grip, and their ability to withstand a bit of punishment.

Fast forward to 2020 and things have changed a little. Like all aspects of art and culture, our increasingly chaotic and divisive times have made it impossible to separate issues of race, politics and injustice from our daily lives. After the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery (among far too many others), there was an online scramble for brands and individuals alike to register their horror at the situation and pledge their support for change. Not only that, but the Black community's role in the rise of sneaker culture and its current ubiquity means that big brands like PUMA have a duty of care to the paying customers who made them what they are.

We sat down with Chris 'The Word On The Feet' Chang and Franklin 'The King Of Trainers' Boateng, who run the flourishing Tough Talks podcast with PUMA's support, to discuss how this change can manifest. Ultimately, they explain, it has to come on a number of different fronts. Unlike a lot of brands who have gone quiet after their initial outpourings, PUMA have made genuine progress in continuing those conversations and putting into practice measures to boost diversity and stamp out prejudice and intolerance, however subtle. In order to force others to catch up, Franklin and Chris remain committed to calling out this hypocrisy and to keep pushing for change, no matter the backlash.

TRENCH caught up with the pair for a chat.

You're obviously both big sneakerheads. What are your earliest memories of getting interested in sneakers and when did you realise you had the bug?

Franklin: For me, it was my mum. She used to love tennis. It was around the time when Boris Becker won his first Wimbledon championship and tennis was the elite sport. So they had the best trainers and from the time he won, my mum would buy me whatever tennis players used to wear. That's how my nickname came about. Back in those days when you wore a branded pair of trainers, it was special. So, my friends would be like, "You're the king! You've got the latest shoes."

Chris: For me, it was my older brother who was into all that. He drove a BMW, he had tracksuits. It was the Gazelle and PUMA Suede times, so tracksuits, gold chains, gold rings, all that kind of stuff. He was the first person I really knew who had ten pairs or more, lined up how people do now. My parents came from the Caribbean and they didn't see the value in an expensive pair of shoes. I had a few pairs and I was lucky to have family in the States so you used to get little presents from them now and again, but it was more my teenage years where I could buy some of the kicks myself.

Now we have the internet, podcasts like yours and all these ways for people to connect over sneakers. What was the equivalent for you guys?

Franklin: I was fortunate enough to go to the States a lot in the early '90s. Before that, there was Right On! Magazine and it had all the pictures of celebrities like a gossip magazine. That was kind of our first point of call. Then The Source magazine came around and that's where I would see a lot of that stuff.

Chris: For me, the streets was where the information was. It was the guys who had money in my area or they had links to the States—they're how you knew what was hot. Despite not having all the things they have nowadays in terms of information, you knew what was top of the range. It was Air Maxes at the time. Things like that were hard to get, but they carried the most respect.

And what was your route into podcasting?

Franklin: We were actually the first people to have a sneaker podcast in the UK, which was called Sneaker Radio. We started that when we first met, but back then people weren't ready for what we were doing. Then with the whole Black Lives Matter movement, we decided we wanted Tough Talks to continue the conversation because a lot of people have stopped talking about it.

Chris: That's probably why a lot of things gelled, because we're always looking for ways to give back to the community. The things that happened this year showed that issues of racism surround everything. We've constantly used our platforms to raise awareness about different issues and this year was no different; it's just much more intensified. We wanted to be part of a discussion which we felt affected us and our communities. We also see that now, after initial posts from big brands, that it's gone very quiet. This situation goes far beyond an Instagram post. For some of us, it's something that we can't escape because we live it. It's not easy for us to get back to posting our trainers on Instagram.

I saw in one episode Chris was wearing a T-shirt that said, "Let's just say diversity and inclusion and they'll forget all about it".

Chris: [Laughs] I bought that one in LA, actually. It's a Gucci knockoff from a dope streetwear brand that was exhibiting at last year's ComplexCon. The reality is things aren't perfect in the creative fields, or any field. Diversity and inclusion are words that are thrown about when a lot of us don't benefit from that very much.

How do we get brands to not just pay lip service and make more long-term, lasting changes?

Franklin: Well, you got to call them out. A lot of these companies have pledged hundreds of millions, so how do we access it? If we can't find access and they're ignoring us, we're not standing for that. People know I call out every single brand for everything they do wrong. If you can find a link to someone in there, obviously communicate with them, but at some stage you've got to embarrass them. You have to have that fearlessness to make change.

Chris: The UK doesn't have a culture of calling out, even as consumers, because there's something that's been created that is attached to exclusivity. It's all about being one of the few people who has that pair of shoes. We always get people complaining about brands in our DMs, but they won't say it publicly because of that fear of losing that place in an exclusive club. People are wary of saying bad things about a brand. We're saying to people, "Yo, is this brand more important than what's happening to our people? If you don't want to make an Instagram post or make a statement, what's that saying about us and the community? Is consumerism that valuable that it means we won't stand up for the things that are that are important?"

What can we as consumers do to further this change?

Franklin: Let's be honest: money is everything. The unfortunate thing is because of the hype generation, people still just want to be included. We have more power than we give ourselves credit for. We just have to say, "You know what? We're not buying into you lot no more. The same way people cancel individuals, we need to start cancelling brands. If they're not doing the right things we need to stop buying until they fix up and sort things out.

Chris: We have seen people power this year. Maybe it hasn't brought all the change that we wanted, but after the death of George Floyd, we saw people stand up all around the world and put the police and governments under pressure. We're not going to tolerate what happened and we stood in solidarity with people in the States. This has been the year for us, in all aspects of our lives, to realise what's important and to try to act on it.

How do you think UK and US sneaker culture differs?

Franklin: US culture, in my eyes, was an actual movement. If you look at the history of the US sneaker culture from the '80s, when Run-DMC partnered with Adidas, sneaker culture was a whole community. It's like a religion in the States. It's more embedded into society. Here, we adopted the culture from what America did. We do have a culture here, though, in some respect, but nowadays it's more about people buying the latest trainer. Where's your actual love? In America, when they get into something, they proper get into it.

How did you get PUMA involved with the podcast?

Chris: We've had a long-standing relationship with PUMA around content creation. We both have a very strong lean towards storytelling through the work that we do and PUMA have been behind us on that. We wanted to have a discussion series and they put some backing behind us and supporting the idea of it. It was cool because it was all done without too much fanfare. There was a will from their perspective to continue the conversation and we had enough of a relationship with them that they understood our history outside this sneaker world as well like all the work that Franklin's done in the community. I've worked for ten years in the field of human rights and criminal justice, so they definitely recognise the kind of voices that we have in this world.

Franklin: Chris, don't skip over that. Just to let you know, Chris is the person they call when someone gets locked up in Guantanamo Bay. That's how important Chris is. When someone's on death row, they call Chris.

Yeah, let's hear more about that.

Chris: So I worked on high-profile cases where there have been wrongful convictions and human rights violations. The work I've been involved with has led to the release of over 60 prisoners from Guantanamo who were held there wrongfully. We've been involved in cases of guys who were facing the death penalty, but we've been able to change their situations. Basically, I worked for an organisation for like six or seven years before I left. I'd been trying to get funding for my own organisation and I was completing these huge application forms, which really take you all the way to the wire emotionally, and then when you're not successful and you don't get the money it can be super frustrating. Meanwhile, people had been on my case for a long time to do something in sneakers. Eventually, I connected with Franklin and we were getting approached to do paid work for different brands and I used that money to put into my organisation so I could buy plane tickets to go to conferences about human rights. One day we're at a sneaker event and the next day I'm in Washington at a conference about human rights.

It showed me these worlds are not necessarily unconnected; it's just finding ways to connect them. That's why I have a lot more perspective on what's happening sometimes. When you see people complaining they didn't get a certain pair of kicks, it's like bruv, there's a lot more happening in the world. Change is possible, but we need to harness that power that we have as a community. It's not that hard because there are people like Franklin who do stand up and what we can do as a community is support him and amplify his voice.

Do you think the sneaker community is getting a bit more vocal?

Franklin: Yeah, but there's still a long way to go. I definitely think people are only vocal as a trend sometimes. Even the whole Nigeria #EndSARS thing, I've worked for an organisation that was doing community work ten years ago about these different problems happening in Nigeria. Now it's on the forefront, people feel like they have to say something so people know they're a part of the change. Why weren't they doing it before? Not just Nigeria, but Black Lives Matter as well? This is not something that's just happened in the past year, so why now? Because it's trendy? The minute it stops being trendy, everyone goes quiet.

Chris: We have to realise these issues affect us every day. I appreciate the support from those who have more influence in amplifying the message, but why do we always have to wait for a celebrity to do something? The other thing is this culture of competition that we have. People want to be the best. There isn't enough commending people. That's still going on to some extent. It's hard to see where the pathways are for us to be united a bit more. It's been a really tough year, but we have to look at how we make change happen for real.

Are you hopeful about the future of the community?

Franklin: Yeah, I'm hopeful if people just grow some balls and start speaking out more. This is not the time for us to be timid. We've got to say it how it is. Change needs to happen and we need to all come together and make it happen. On Tough Talks, we spoke to four young men in London who play football and they feel that there is racism on the football pitch. They're Chris' nephews, and they're only teenagers, but one of them wants to be the first Black manager of England. How is it that you're noticing racism on the football pitch by coaches and by referees? This needs to be called out. It just can't happen. Change will happen when we start getting more passionate and start really saying things in clear black and white. People say I'm too militant and I get in trouble, but we've got to grab the bull by the horns because it's not going to change otherwise.

Chris: To echo everything Frank's saying, this is our opportunity to be vocal because brands have come out to say they support this so now it's our time to say, "Yes, you said this. So what are you doing about this?" Like Frank says, we had a young man on Tough Talks and he wants to be the first Black England manager. Let's go! If the pathway doesn't exist to make that happen, why not? We can be the star players on the pitch or on the court, but how do we get them in the boardroom? What can we do to make them managers or coaches or physios? How much is being done to get people into the guts of the organisation? But discussion is the first step and that's impressive to hear young men talking about that.

What are your hopes or your plans for the podcast?

Chris: We have another two episodes planned. Me and Franklin could have sat down for six episodes and just talked amongst ourselves, but we wanted to be able to give the platform to others and it's been so powerful just to listen to other people. The episode before this one is with some folks we know from from the sneaker world in the States, and it was super moving hearing from people who've really been touched by what's been happening on the streets there. We're hoping to finish out the six episodes in style, but that won't be the end: next year, we want to do some more physical episodes or events and just keep the discussion going, and act on some of the things that we've discussed.

Posted on November 09, 2020