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Q&A: DJ Set Free Richardson

The popular artist/filmmaker speaks on how this summer's social justice movements and his friendships with NBA players inspired his 'Play For Change' logo

Sekou Smith

Sekou Smith

ORLANDO, Fla. — Long after the final buzzer goes off in the NBA bubble, a champion is crowned and we close the curtain on the longest season in the history of the league, the movement will go on.

The decision to restart and complete the 2019-20 season wasn’t as much about basketball for the players as it was about staying vigilant and amplifying the social justice messages they championed in the wake of the George Floyd murder.

How do you maintain momentum when the ball stops bouncing and the cameras are on longer pointed in your direction?

What can you do to leverage your power and influence to affect meaningful change in communities far from this basketball ecosystem that served for months as an incubator for the initiatives?

For the players, you forge relationships outside of the basketball world and you join forces with other members of that coalition seeking to impact change.

You align yourself with people like DJ Set Free Richardson, the inspiration and the individual behind the development of the new Play for Change” campaign and logo, an idea from his creative group — The Compound — in partnership with the NBPA.

Richardson, a noted artist/filmmaker/marketing guru and gallery owner (frequented by Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony among many others), is also the creator of the AND 1 Mixtapes. He’s also a celebrated music DJ and fashion designer (see popular number 7 caps) who served as the lead on creative ad campaigns for Nike, adidas, New Era and EA Sports.

Given his history with players past and present, he knew the time was right for something more than just a symbolic gesture to capture this moment in history — whatever comes next.

Richardson took time out of his busy schedule editing a major sports and culture documentary to share some history, insights, observations and much more in this conversation with NBA.com‘s Sekou Smith.

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Sekou Smith: Being down here in Florida, my senses are heightened. I’m observing every little thing, so when I see logos on T-shirts and sweatshirts, I’m wondering what the genesis was for the “Play for Change” logo and name?

Set Free Richardson: Well, it started with COVID, right? COVID came and then the league was like, should we play, should we not play? And I was like, “Wow.” I always think, “How can something be made to address something?” Then I was like, “Okay.” So the first thing was just making a logo to represent the league because the Jerry West logo is legendary. It is what it is, but it just only speaks to basketball. And then, I was like, “It’s not like a player logo that can address problems when they happen.” And then George Floyd happened. So I was like, “Wow.” Players was protesting, but they still didn’t have a mark. And, of course, we connected with players and just everybody, we all connected with Black Lives Matter. But I just thought the athletes, they didn’t have a mark.

So it was heavily influenced by what you saw and heard from the players?

I loved what LeBron [James] was saying, and just everybody I’m talking of, the players, from Carmelo to Kevin, just all the players that I’m friends with. And I was like, “You know what? I’m going to create a logo.” And it was combined from the ideology of the NBA logo, the Jump Man logo, and then the Olympics, when [John Carlos and Tommie Smith] raised those fists in the air that said Black Power.

Is there some significance to the silhouette logo, something that gives it a certain kind of recognition as a logo?

Silhouette logos are just … from Nike to the Rasheed Wallace, to LeBron even, has the silhouette logo. So it was just the powerful DNA, silhouette logos, to the history of logos. So then, Kyrie Irving was getting a lot of press and he was like, “You know, we don’t feel we should play right now..” So the first idea of the logo, when I thought about the silhouette and then the fist raised, I had the saying like, “Hold the rock” and “Don’t stop the rock,” because Kyrie basically said, “Let’s hold the rock and deal with what’s going on in the streets right now.”

Once they decided to come here to Orlando and restart the season you shifted again?

Yes, there are always two sides to things. If they were going to play and use their voices for to amplify a message about change, I wanted to capture that as well. Now I’ve got both sides If you’re not going to play, you hold the rock. If you do play, the fist represents your voice and it’s speaking you to give truth for what you believe in and what’s going on. And that’s when the slogan “Play for Change” came from, because now I felt like I can represent both sides of the ball, both sides of the players’ views, and I have the logo that combines everything. And not just social justice, because I see it can go broader. It started because of social justice, but if players want to voice something about breast cancer, they want to voice something about healthcare, or police brutality, now there’s a logo that we can connect to all these things.

It sounds like you felt the need to find something to help focus all these different perspectives and energies into something easier for people to absorb and comprehend?

Yeah. For me, I totally felt like it, you know. A lot of these players are my friends. A magnifying glass was on their voices and what they were saying, but there wasn’t an image for them. If you look at the image in Play for Change, you get it from just looking at it. You’ll understand it, like, “Oh, I get what this is about.” So I definitely felt like, and if I could be the one that come up with something to help magnify their voices, I feel like I’m pointing in the direction of doing a good job.

I know this is one of multiple partnerships you’ve had with the NBPA in terms of your working with them. What is it about these guys, and you mentioned that some of them are your friends, but what is about this generation of players and how they’ve connected to the culture that has served an inspiration for you as an artist and creator?

I think just this generation of players has found technology. So I’ll put it under the bubble of technology, because what happened with the players from the ’60s to the super early 2000s, where we only got to see them on the court. In the the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, a lot of NBA games weren’t even broadcast. So now, we got phone technology, we got social media technology, we have fashion. I swear it’s been meaningful, the runway in and out of games of what just all the players are wearing fashion-wise. Every T-shirt is a message or statement. I just think that technology has exposed the 360 degrees of a player.

These guys are so specific about what they wear and what type of statement they are making with their attire. They know everybody’s watching them. Do you think this is more about them being mindful, especially in these sensitive times, of how responsible they have to be with what they have on their chests or on their backs?

Yeah. I think one is, they all wearing what they believe in, you know? When you just watch the games now, look at the messages that’s on the back of the jersey and then think about the player. Some of them got education reform, unity. So it’s the individuality. If we’re seeing it on the court from the names, if they already took it that far on the court, you definitely know they’re thinking about what they’re wearing off the court. And also, it still ties in with fashion. I’ve seen some of the greatest messages on TV, but still mashed up with the latest Nikes, with the hats and all. So I definitely think they’re aware. I think they’re wearing them in a way that’s noticeable, fashionable, and it represents who they are.

What did you think of the league’s rule allowing certain slogans and statements on jerseys? I know there was a big debate about that when it was being discussed before we got down here to Orlando, whether or not that was a smart idea, whether or not it would turn people away or turn people off, seeing it. Did you agree with that? And what do you think the impact has been of that?

I mean, well, first the impact. Let’s say, to me, the NBA is the number one trailblazer in sports in the universe. So literally we have seen two weeks ago that the NFL has put sayings on the back of their helmets after the NBA do that. Then I think certain soccer teams also did it, but for doing that, it’s, to me, 99.9% good. I can’t see nothing wrong with voicing a message.

I can’t even say anything bad about it. I think it was great that they gave a selection of quotes and sayings. I think it was important that they let players from all races, colors, creeds, age groups pick what fit them. I just think that that DNA should be across sports. I’m talking hospital uniforms, restaurants. I think that everybody could take a page out of that book.

I thought it was really cool too, that some of the international players had the expressions in their native languages. You talk about the league being influential around the world and the culture, I thought that was really something that set it apart. And as you mentioned trailblazing, the WNBA has been right there at the forefront of it as well.

Totally. I didn’t mean to forget about the WNBA. They’ve been unbelievable. Totally committed to the fight for change. And that’s another silhouette logo I love, and I’m mad I can’t find one of those orange hoodies. That WNBA orange hoodie with the silhouette, that was another thing that I saw that made me feel like I was on the right track.

We’re going to get some distance from 2020 at some point. And when we do, what do you think this will all look like to us in hindsight? It feels like this was part of an awakening that happened for the younger generation and really for all of us.

This year, it put a lot of people in self-reflection through quarantine. I think that’s where it started. This is the most we ever looked in the mirror because we’ve been in the house this much in 2020. So a lot of self-reflection, and then, through the quarantine, connected to the social justice and the incidents that happened, it exposed a lot of things. And one of the things that I feel that it brought on, a positive, is a lot of unity in a lot of different cultures, races, and in the sports world, it just did so much in magnifying the players voices, the messaging, the unity, and camaraderie of team on and off the court, and just that team aspect of just people in general. And that, to me, brought a great surge of unity. Everybody’s exploring for change, and people are looking to fight and work towards change, and not just sit back and accept the same old standards.

At a time when it seems so easy to focus on the divisions, “Play for Change” seems like it’s asking people to dive deeper into the message. You wanted it to be comprehensive and welcoming, as opposed to just a mass statement, something that brought people together?

Yeah. Totally. And I think that’s what I was saying earlier about, hearing Kyrie’s message but also taking into consideration LeBron’s message of talking to President [Barack] Obama, of talking to Carmelo and using the platform they had. So in life, in my marketing world, I always look at everything. In life, you got your left hand and you got your right hand. And I wanted to make sure that “Play for Change” could sit the middle on both sides, but both sides respect the other side, you know? So when people see it, they can say, “I’m not playing, but I respect that.” Or they can say, “I am playing, but I can respect the other side on that.” At the end of the day, we’re all in this together.

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Sekou Smith is a veteran NBA reporter and NBA TV analyst. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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