ST. PAUL — University of Minnesota student Taoheed Bayo was catching up on some assignments this fall when a roommate messaged him about a design challenge that Bayo could not pass up.
Nike had put the word out it was seeking designers to deliver a unique riff on the company’s classic sneaker. Weeks later, the Nigeria native and model was among three dozen across the country chosen to compete in the Nike BY You X Cultivator contest.
Each had two weeks to create their own Nike shoe and develop a unique backstory that could appeal to consumers. Once that was done, they had to market and sell their custom sneaker.
Bayo, 21, reached back to his Nigerian roots and youth for inspiration, creating a shoe grounded in his heritage. The result: the Afro-Yute Air Max 1. The Afro-Yute’s been selling, but it’s also delivered something else Bayo had wanted — it’s teaching others about Africa.
“The most intense part, it was the designing,” said Bayo, who also goes by TBuzz. “The most integral part I think was having a story that resonates with a lot of people and making sure that it’s authentic as possible. But, you’re also trying to design a shoe that you want everybody to buy, not just something you like.”
Bayo settled on green for the shoe base because it represented Earth and Africa. Like the Nigerian flag, he chose white as a compliment to the earthy color.
Bayo wanted a classic gold gum on the bottom of his Afro-Yutes, which he felt added another element of flair to the shoe. It was also an homage to the history of gold in Africa.
Bayo chose suede leather, a material he felt represented the tenacity of Afro-descendants.
“Leather lasts longer, and it’s metaphorical in the fact that we Africans can endure,” said Bayo. “We last long. It’s almost like we can withstand time. We can adapt and endure multiple and numerous situations.”
While the sneakers were attractive, they still required an origin story.
Bayo thought about how an “alien system” of slavery, colonialism and foreign influence has made it challenging for African countries to develop as quickly as the rest of the world. In that, he found the grist for his story.
“Africa is the centre of the world, we are no third world. The yute are now equipped to fight the alien system that plagued our ancestors,” Bayo writes on the Afro-Yute website.
“You know, ever since I was born, Africa has always referred to as a third world continent or a third world country or Nigeria has been referred to that,” said Bayo. “By the ‘yute is equipped,’ I’m not saying we have gone to go fight. I’m just saying we’re able to educate ourselves.”
Bayo said the project helped him push back on popular misconceptions of Africa and build connections among Afro-descendants.
He built a diverse team of creatives that included photographers, videographers, models and poets — many had never met — to promote the sale and message of Afro-Yute.
The effort produced a documentary and numerous social media posts that engaged with hundreds of Afro-youth throughout Minnesota and across the country.
In the comment sections, young people shared their enthusiasm for Bayo’s project, while others visited Nike’s website to purchase his Nike Air Max 1s.
With the Nike Challenge over for now, Bayo is back focusing on finishing his degree in actuarial science, a study that combines math, statistics and insurance.
He said he isn’t overly concerned about his shoe sales. By the end of the year he’ll know how Afro-Yute did compared to his fellow Nike creatives.
For now, he is more concerned that young people learn about their history and talk to their parents about their family ancestry.
“I was born in Africa. I was born out of my roots,” he said. “For all the people that was born in the United States, it’s your duty, whether you like it or not to seek your truth and, you know, find your heritage.”