While many young African American athletes living in the nation's inner-cities aspire to become professional athletes in the NBA or NFL, you rarely hear professional skateboarding enter the conversation.
Meet professional skateboarder Darren Harper (aka "D-Streets"). Born and raised in the rough parts of Southeast D.C., Harper defies many of the stereotypes, as he is one of the few premier African American skaters. As Barack Obama recently became the first African American President-elect and has inspired many young African Americans to follow in his footsteps, Harper also hopes to one day make skateboarding a popular career choice among his younger brethren.
Harper experienced a tough childhood in a low-income neighborhood rife with drugs, poverty, and violence. His father was a dope dealer who was in and out of jail and never around much. Harper's mother, along with his step-dad, turned to drugs, and Harper was left caring for his little brother and two younger sisters (from his step-dad) at a young age. At times, things got so bad that Darren's step-dad would shoplift just to put food on the table for his family.
When times were tough, Harper turned to skateboarding for solace.
"Skating would always keep me out of trouble because when all the drama was going on in my neighborhood, most of the time, I wouldn't even be around. I would be downtown skateboarding."
Harper was introduced to skateboarding by chance when he found his first skateboard in a pile of belongings from an evicted family. In the beginning, he would only skate around his neighborhood, but later he branched out and began meeting up with other local skaters at Pulaksi Park (located in downtown D.C). Harper was a sponge and excelled quickly at the sport, as he took pointers from his friends, watched their feet, and observed their slightest movements.
It seemed as though Harper's love for skateboarding was taking him in the right direction, but the streets would soon take control of his life. Harper started hustling and made his first drug sale at the age of 12 after he found a bag of crack on the steps by his house. With the help of his friend, he chopped it up and sold it.
At 18, Harper stopped skating altogether and officially started pushing drugs. From that point on, Harper sold drugs non-stop and became a product of his environment.
As the only African American skater in his neighborhood with nobody else around him doing what he was doing, feelings of isolation and peer pressure set in and led Harper to abandon the sport that he loved. It was not acceptable to be seen by his peers on a metro bus or the subway with a skateboard. "It would be very embarrassing to return to school the next day with peers telling each other that 'they saw Darren with a skateboard downtown doing that white boy shit,'" said Harper.
When it appeared that Harper had come to accept the unpopularity of skateboarding on the urban scene and would be doomed by the unforgiving drug culture, his love affair with skateboarding resurfaced and became his lifesaver. Harper reached a crossroads in his life and knew that if he didn't change his path quickly, he would either end up dead or in prison like many of his friends.
Harper turned to skateboarding again, and this time, there was no looking back.
While he always knew he was a talented skater, he never pursued it seriously because he felt African Americans were not marketable in a sport dominated by affluent, suburban white kids. This belief changed one day when he was playing Tony Hawk's American Wasteland video game, and Stevie Williams, a black pro-skater from Philadelphia who he had skated with growing up, was featured in the game. This inspired Harper and made him realize that selling drugs wasn't the only way he could make a living and there was a chance he could make it too.
Harper was now a man on a mission and nothing was going to stop him from becoming a pro-skater. He was featured in a skate video filmed by Chris Hall, a former pro-skater from D.C., and immediately caught the eye of a few local sponsors — East Coast Clothing and Pitcrew Skateshop. It did not take long before his raw, edgy, and trendsetting skating style, combined with his hip-hop lifestyle, attracted several national sponsorships.
Harper boasts a very impressive list of sponsors, including some of the biggest names in the business — DC Shoe Company, Dirty Ghetto Kids (DGK) Skateboard Company, Travis Barker's (former member of rock/pop band Blink-182) Famous Stars and Straps Clothing Company, Venture Truck Company, Diamond Supply Company, Gold Wheels, KMC Wheels, Kicker Car Audio, and Fully Loaded Custom Car Shop.
What is even more impressive is that he secured these sponsorships all on his own, without the assistance of an agent or other representatives.
When asked what made him so attractive to sponsors, Harper responded, "All I know is I'm everything all in one — hip-hop and hardcore skater and even more." It wasn't just the nasty backside heel flips that captured the sponsors' interest; it was the whole package that Harper brings to the table. The self-professed "real individual from the streets" turned his street credibility, which had previously served as his major stumbling block, into his biggest asset.
Harper has leveraged his biggest asset to do more than just simply land sponsors. He uses his unique story and wide appeal to give back to the community that made him what he is today. As a role model for inner-city youth, Harper does charity work with organizations such as "Make-A-Wish" Foundation and ROOT Inc. (Reaching Out to Others Together). ROOT Inc. is a Washington, D.C. based nonprofit organization, committed to advocacy and intervention on behalf of homicide victims and their families.
Harper is equally as passionate about his philanthropic efforts as he is about making a name for himself as a pro-skater:
"I love to do charity work because I love to give back. I came from nothing and I'm still trying to turn that into something. So I know what it's like. What I enjoy the most about it all are the kids. I have kids of my own, so there is nothing like putting a smile on their faces."
One of the driving forces behind Harper's charitable contributions is his desire to change the current landscape of skateboarding by encouraging more African American youth to emulate him and pick up the sport. I asked Harper what changes he believes need to be made to attract more African Americans.
"They just need to see more of it. When it's shown in a rap video, it encourages them. Kids love to follow trends, so when they see their favorite involved, they want to do the same. In other words, it's all about Darren Harper promotion and getting with the right companies who can help me push [my message]."
He presents the option of becoming a pro-skater as a viable alternative career path for inner-city African Americans. He usually gives kids examples of how becoming a pro-skater can be just as promising as a playing career in other professional sports.
"All athletes make money through sponsorship/endorsement deals. From thousands to millions, it's all in what you make your self-worth. So now, I really need to focus on making skating hotter than it already is in the hood."
Harper never forgot where he came from and has managed to stay humble and continue down the path of giving back to the community.
"I love my city. I could never be Hollywood even if I lived there and I was making millions of dollars. I love the thought of being able to say I did it and still be living in the very place where it all started. I'm not a celebrity. I'm just one to look up to. I'm just blessed."
His sincerity and loyalty to his roots is truly refreshing to hear.
Harper told us that he would be starting his own foundation real soon. His foundation will most likely be involved in building skate parks in urban areas and encouraging skateboard companies to donate skateboards to underprivileged kids. Through his foundation, Harper will have an official vehicle to spread his message and promote "Darren Harper" as more than a brand, but as an identity that inner-city kids can embrace.
Harper's message transcends skateboarding. It is more about giving underprivileged kids hope by opening their eyes to the opportunities that a sport like skateboarding can offer them if they set goals and believe in themselves.
"You have to stay focused and can't let anyone stand in between you and your goals. With hard work and dedication, you control your destiny."
Although the streets will always be a part of Harper, it was his love for skateboarding that allowed him to break away from them and turn himself into a household name.
On behalf of AccessAthletes, we would like to thank Darren for taking time out of his busy schedule to do an interview with The Real Athlete Blog. Matthew Allinson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.