Bridging The Gap: How Lenny Santiago's PUMA Partnership Celebrates The Established & Rising Culture Leaders
Being part of the diasporic culture conversation goes beyond a mere reshare on social media or appearing at an industry event to rub shoulders with elite strangers. No, it takes genuine effort and intrigue to understand, listen and learn who the people that are helping drive the culture forward. That’s where Lenny Santiago steps in.
The Roc Nation executive and acclaimed photographer is a fan of Black and Latin culture just as much as he’s a part of it daily. So partnering with PUMA for its "FOR ALL TIME" campaign was a natural fit. “PUMA has remained a classic brand because of how long it's sustained. I believe the 75th anniversary is coming up, obviously, that speaks for itself,” Santiago tells EDITION. “I’m in my forties and as a kid, I even submitted a photo to PUMA of an 11-year-old me on the beach with my mom at a picnic. My mom and my aunt were in a pair of PUMAs.”
He continues: “As a kid, I remember seeing artists and athletes wear the brand, and me begging my mom to get a pair. For me to be doing that as a child to now being blessed to work with or be around artists who are a part of the brand like [late rapper] Nipsey [Hussle] speaks volumes of how much the brand is embedded in our culture.”
Back in late April, PUMA launched its “FOR ALL TIME” campaign, highlighting its legacy as the classic sneaker brand. The initiative redefines the idea of “classic” through product designs, creative content, and impact created by The Collective, a group of iconic cultural tastemakers who have invigorated the sneaker game over the past five decades. Helmed by PUMA’s Basketball and Classics Creative Director, JAY-Z, and Roc Nation’s Emory Jones, each member of The Collective will handpick a burgeoning member of the next generation of leaders within their fields and support their work and development with a $20K financial grant and mentorship.
Santiago has chosen two picks: Multidisciplinary artist Jocko Graves’ portrayal of New York City nightlife has been certified by the likes of GQ, Vogue, Forbes, Def Jam, Complex and Milk Studios. Melvin Williams, also known as Mel the Traveler, is a full-time maintenance instructor on the Boeing 737NG with Delta Airlines. He is also a commercial pilot, certified flight instructor and competition aerobatic pilot.
Below, Santiago unveils the vision behind his new PUMA campaign, how he defines his legacy and mentoring two next-generation creative innovators.
What is your interpretation of the word “classic”?
Classic for me is genuine. Classic for me is longevity. Classic for me is culture. Music, art, fashion, food, anything. You go to certain restaurants because they have legendary, classic dishes. You go to see certain art shows, go to see certain plays on Broadway because they’re legendary, classic. You go to certain brands because they’re classic. I don’t care if you’re from New York and you’re rocking Timberlands, that’s classic for a New Yorker. PUMA has the Clyde [sneaker style]. It’s sustainable, cultural, and speaks for itself.
Being the director of still photography for this campaign, were there any inspirations that you got from past campaigns or from your own background in music that you brought into this?
I wanted to combine actually that. The people that are a part of the campaign, I’m all fans of. We’re talking about Rhuigi [Villaseñor], the creator of Rhude; Emory [Jones]; [NBA Hall of Famer] Walt Clyde Fraizer, Upscale Vandal [founder Mike Camargo]; June Ambrose. And there’s Dapper Dan, come on! I’m about culture. I love film, photography, sports, art, and music. And all of those things combined are culture. I’ve seen people from all walks of life wearing PUMA, in the Clydes and stuff like that. Being able to capture the different walks of life was everything that represented me. When I submitted the mood board, I saw strong, bold. All I could think about was the Clyde [sneaker]. So we did this amazing, gorgeous, beautiful blue suede wall as the background that I shot the campaign on. It just complements the sneaker so much and it looks super clean and sexy and chic.
What I enjoy most about this campaign is the angle of storytelling. I want to get your thoughts on how the work you do ties into that.
Longevity. I’ve been in this business just about three decades—for PUMA it's been almost eight decades—and I don’t plan on stopping any time soon. So I feel like that consistency, that care that I have is the same care that PUMA has for their brand and for the culture. Just being a strong representation of footwear and style and culture, it’s the same for me. For me, it’s never been about money first or anything like that. Literally, it’s been about the brand, the music, the art. And I think that’s what makes any brand sustainable: when you’re worried more about pleasing the culture and the people.
When you have the intention of solely doing it for money, people can see right through it.
I’ll be honest with you, I was waiting for [PUMA]. Not that I assumed that they would, but [because I] have such close relations with the brand and with Emory, who is a big part of the brand on the Roc side with PUMA. He’s been the bridge. This is a guy who’s loved this brand way before any of us thought we’d be working with the brand. Not really speaking for Emory, but it’s a dream come true and it’s also uncanny. Like, wow, we were kids growing up wearing this brand. We were doing anything we can, spending all the coins to put this sneaker on our foot to look cool. To be approached by the brand to work with them 30 years later, it’s an honor and a privilege.
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The campaign is also spotlighting the new generation to come, and you selected Jocko Graves and Melvin Williams to receive the grant. What was the reasoning behind choosing those two creatives?
I love both of these guys, but we’ll start with Jocko. Jocko’s a young, dope photographer/director from Brooklyn, New York. Like most people in this generation, I’ve been discovering people online and on social. I started seeing Jocko’s work on social media and I thought he had a real aggressive, but innocent approach to photography. That was me as a kid. I sent Jocko a photo of me as a teenager with the film camera hanging around my neck because that’s how I walked around in high school. I always took photos. So seeing Jocko out and about now, he literally has a film camera with the strings around his neck. I got to meet him and he was so humble. He has this—I mean this as a compliment—kind of innocent greenness like he hasn’t been tampered with, or he hasn’t been jaded by the industry. He’s a young kid from Brooklyn who loves capturing the moment. I saw myself in him and I had to meet him. We ended up working together and he was phenomenal. I took him to Coachella and there was one time we saw Justin and Hailey Bieber. If you’re in the business you know not to approach them—they have bodyguards—unless you know them. Jocko just went and cut through the people and the security and was like “Justin! Hailey!” He didn’t even think “I need to get permission” or “The security might tackle me,” or anything like that.
We’re both in this industry and have seen so many things, so we get used to it. But for him, he has a completely different perspective.
Exactly. So that’s what I loved about him. I loved that he was ambitious and forward and he sees moments. He sees legends and icons, and he’s like “Oh my god that’s XYZ I have to shoot that, I have to get them.” We’ve worked together 15 times and I’ve connected him with different people and opportunities. He’s a young legend to me, right now. I think he’s gonna make a mark in this business that’s gonna be like no other. I love that he shoots in film too. It’s like, “Why does this young kid, now with all the digital technology, go out of his way to shoot in film?” There’s something about it that he feels. There’s something about thinking about Gordon Parks or the legends from back then who shot like that. I want to make sure I do anything to help a young visual artist like that move forward.
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You also selected Melvin Williams, anything you saw in him that really grabbed your attention?
So with Melvin Williams, again, we met on social media. We were just trying to get to know each other online. We exchange numbers and met up once or twice. He’s from Atlanta and a pilot. He’s always like “When you come to Atlanta I gotta take you up in the air.” It’s these small planes, I’m adventurous, but it’s also a little scary. So a week or so ago, I got the pleasure of meeting up with him, going up in the air, and he actually let me fly the plane. I actually did pretty decently. I have footage of that.
He’s inspired me to actually try to get my license now. I would have never in a million years thought that. But that’s not even it. During the three hours we spent together, he really got to tell me his whole vision of teaching young kids of color how to fly. Pilots, in general, are scarce right now, but the percentage of pilots of color, you can imagine, it’s this [gestures small amount with his fingers]. I think [what he’s doing is] so important. His passion for what he does is incredible and unmatched. He is a great example of what I would want our kids to see. It’s not just certain things people think we can do, like sports and music. There’s so much more and his passion for wanting to teach our kids and our culture to do something like that is incredible. I had to choose him.
There’s also the importance of mentorship and giving this new generation space to learn and thrive and not gatekeep so much.
I’ll be honest with you, most people always ask me when I help them out, “Why?” or “How come?” because I don’t ask for anything. There’s never a bunch of money behind it. Like I said earlier, money is never my motive. I’m not trying to manage people, I’m not trying to cut into what they’re getting. One of my purposes in this business, not only because I love it, is to give other people opportunity. From the beginning, when I got in the game, I promised myself that I’m gonna pay it forward. I fought my way into the game and there are definitely people who have helped me, but they were people I didn’t expect. Everybody that I knew that was in the business, I didn’t get the opportunity from them. It didn’t make me upset or bitter, but it made me realize you can’t take this stuff for granted. I don’t care if it’s a job, a contact, a referral, whatever, if I can help anybody get to the next step, the way that I needed that help getting to the next step, I’m gonna do it.
I’m not gonna ask for anything in return. That’s what fulfills me: giving men and women opportunities to progress in whatever they’re doing. Cécile [Boko], one of the girls that work with me on set, is an amazing photographer that I met online. We’ve done 30 jobs now. I don’t manage her and I don’t want anything from her, except to skip the line if she could. I waited too long as a young kid coming up. I’m fine, I paid my dues and did what I had to, but we don’t all have to wait that long to get to where we’re going. Everything JAY-Z does makes it better for Drake or J. Cole to do what they’re doing sooner. Anything [Michael] Jordan did makes it easier for Lebron [James] or Steph Curry. So that’s what I’m here to do. That’s the reason why I pour into these people, whether it’s mentorship or referrals or anything like that.
You keep mentioning that you met these people online. That shows me that you are intentionally discovering new talent.
Thank you. I started out as an A&R so my job was discovering and signing new talent. I was able to give DJ Khaled his first label deal with Def Jam South. That's where We The Best Records came from. I get to work with people that I admire and actually help with the progression of their careers. Even moving out of A&R and into management…you could be an engineer, director, photographer, a barber, it doesn’t matter to me. I see the talent and I just try to help you get to the next level.
How do you think the work that you do fits within the ideal of being "classic"?
Only because you said it, I want my work to be here when I’m gone. When I was a kid, I would see photos of certain people, icons, and celebrities, it doesn’t matter. It could be a photo Gordon Parks took of a bunch of kids in Harlem. I’m just talking about classic moments. Moments that people you see every day, but sometimes take for granted. Seeing happy kids in conditions that maybe aren’t the greatest. We both, and I’m sure way older than you, grew up in the Bronx where there were living conditions that weren’t the best. We bounced on mattresses that were on the street. Think about that now, you’ll never touch a mattress. But, as a kid that was the conditions we had and that was fun for us and that was our happy place.
We didn’t think about green parks with brand new swings—we didn’t have that. So seeing photos like that and of Sam Cook with Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali in Harlem at a diner to me was like “What?” That was one of the reasons I stuck with photography as a hobby. I was around all these amazing talents that I work with. For me it was like “Wow, JAY-Z is talking to DMX while [founder/CEO of 300 Entertainment] Kevin Liles is giving him advice on the next album release date.” I would capture those moments—that’s classic to me. I would think, “Maybe in 20, 30 years, this could be something.” Again, just wishing for the best.
But now, 25 years later, people are like, “Oh my god I can’t believe you captured Jay and Biggie at the Apollo” or “Oh my god you photographed a young Kevin Hart at his third comedy show 18 years ago.” I’m actually working on a book now with Random House and that’ll again be something I can leave behind for the culture. I’m a reporter for the culture. I’m the regular guy who they let in the door and they gave this access to because of the trust that we have [with each other]. I’ve never exploited anyone and that’s why people trust me. I’m able to capture moments that you couldn’t pay to catch. The fact that those photographs will live on way after I’m gone says a lot to me. It’s nuts.
I don’t want to speak for you, but me being someone who tries to absorb the culture as much as possible, the legacy that you’re creating is showing the human side of everyone. It doesn't matter if you’re photographing JAY-Z or an up-and-comer, I think the work that you do breaks down any facades and preconceived notions and shows the person as they are. How do you want your legacy to be defined?
I’ve always thought about it in my head, and nobody’s asked the question like that. I’m a fan first. As I mentioned earlier, the entertainment business letting me in the door and allowing me to be their ears and eyes is a privilege to me. Most of the people online, on social media, they’ll never get to experience the things that I do. I don’t mean that in a funny way. This is something I worked hard for and I wanted to get into, but the number of people in those rooms is limited. So I feel privileged to be in these rooms. I feel it’s my duty and my responsibility to capture these images and moments where the people watching are like, “Man I wonder what’s going on in there. We saw cameras catch them going in there, but what’s going on inside?”
You make it accessible.
Yeah, I give them a glimpse. With a little bit of mysterious nature there, which is why I prefer photos over video any day. I love them both, but I’m a still photography guy. A picture says it right, a thousand words. Video almost takes away from things, whereas in a photo you really don’t know what the conversation was. You just see expressions. I just wanted to be the one to report because I’m a fan first. I view these photos the way the outside world views them. So I make sure I capture it and then I give them a little bit of intel inside. I know I’m doing something right, 700 of my comments will be “Thank you for letting us into this world,” and “Thank you for always allowing us to capture what we would have never seen.” So I feel like I am a capturer of the culture.