When talking about individuals that are both creating new black history and impacting sneaker culture, few are more worthy of mentioning than Nigel Sylvester. The pro BMX rider and Jordan Brand collaborator is out there blazing trails in more ways than one. He's currently one of the biggest names in BMX, a sport that's historically known as predominantly white. He's also the very first BMX rider—of any color—to receive his own Jordan Brand collaboration after releasing his pre-distressed take on the Air Jordan 1 in 2018.
We had the pleasure of sitting with Nigel to talk growing up in Queens, black history, and of course, sneakers. Watch the video and read the full interview below.
All right, so just a brief introduction. Tell us your name, where you're from, and what you do.
Nigel Sylvester: My name is Nigel Sylvester, originally from Queensland, New York and I'm a pro BMX rider.
What's your background, tell us a little bit about your journey.
NS: I'm originally from Queens, New York. Immigrant parents. Both of my parents are from Grenada. Came over here when they were in their early twenties in the pursuit of a better life, more opportunity.
I discovered bike riding when I was young, probably like four or five years old, and I instantly fell in love. There was no feeling like it, like being on my bicycle, riding on the sidewalk super fast, hitting a curb cut, or one of those little cracks in the sidewalk and getting some air. That was the best feeling. My summers were full with that. My weekends were full with that. After school, the first thing I did was I dropped my bag and grabbed my bike.
The obsession with bike riding and the feeling it gave me, I continued to do it as I got older and older, and discovered there was actual industry around it. And that intrigued me. I was like, man, like I need to figure out how to get myself inserted into this. It became a dream of mine to become a professional BMX athlete.
What does black history mean to you?
NS: To me, black history is one of our greatest teachers. There's been so much that has happened throughout this time that we've been on this planet. You know, so many amazing black heroes and figures who've done things that are groundbreaking, unprecedented things to pave the way for generations to come. So I always look at it all, like when I reference black history, just to understand where we've been will hopefully help me with where I'm going.
And what about the new black history?
NS: The new black history is the right now. It's all the folks around the world who are pursuing their dreams, working hard to achieve their goals, bringing their passions to life. Those with the ideas of doing great things, and putting the necessary work in to achieve those things. Being bold, being fearless, being smart, being dedicated to whatever it is that your heart desires.
That's one of the main reasons why we wanted you to be a part of this, because I see you lead by example, not just with words.
NS: For sure, man. Words without actions, it's just nothing. It's fluff, man. You know? I grew up in a household where my mother was the breadwinner. (She was) a black woman in America fighting every single day to achieve the things that she set herself out to achieve, to provide for herself and for her family. Not just her family here in New York, but her family back home in Grenada. So I saw it every day.
I saw every day (how) she put forward that action. Every single day she got up, went to work, worked seven days a week, sacrificed everything. I grew up seeing that my entire childhood. So for me it was like, if I had this idea of becoming a professional BMX athlete, I need to dedicate myself in the same exact way. If I don't, then I'm wasting time and all the work that my mom was putting in, all the sacrifice that she's put in, that was for nothing. So every day I tried to do at least one thing to take the step in the direction of the things I want to achieve, not just for myself, but for those around me, as well.
Do you feel like you're a part of black history and helping to create or shape it in any way?
I definitely feel that I'm a small part of black history. You think about BMX as a sport, and for the longest time it was a predominantly white sport. So there were times growing up and there were times after turning pro that I felt that. That motivated me even more to leave a mark, an imprint on the sport of BMX, and in the world of sports in general. There was so many black heroes and athletes that I look up to growing up, and I want it to be like those dudes. You think about the Jordans and Deions, the Kobes—you know, R.I.P.—even people like Serena Williams and Tiger Woods. I want to model myself after that. So within my sport, I wanted to have that same kind of impact.
Like growing up for me, I didn't see many black faces in action sports. It just wasn't something that was popular amongst the black community. At times I questioned myself like, “Man, do I really want to do this?”, when I was younger. And I think just the love I had for it. I say for like the love I had for riding bicycles. That made me stick with it. Like there's nothing that anyone could say, and I've heard all types of hate. I've heard all types of slander and everything, memes across the board. But none of that deterred me from pursuing my dream and from riding my bicycle.
It's just a place that I feel freedom. I feel empowered. It's a tool for me to create, to get my ideas out. A lot of times I'm riding my bicycle, I have my headphones in, and I'm coming down Broadway in between traffic. Come around a cab. Close to a bus. You know what I mean? Like peddling super fast, like gripping the handlebars so tight, man. And it's just the bicycle and myself and nothing else in the world matters. And when I'm in that space, I feel like that's when I can accomplish anything. I truly believe that I can accomplish anything I put my mind to, and the bike is that tool that allows me to. The bike is that tool that helps me do that.
How are sneakers a part of your identity?
NS: Growing up, sneakers have always been something that's really important to myself and my community. I always think about back to school shopping, or saving up my allowance to go to Custom Kicks, or going to the Colosseum block and seeing all the kicks lined up in certain sneaker stores. Man, I wished I could get every pair.
I think when dressing became important—whether I was going to school, or going out, or on my bicycle—sneakers really became important to me. The kicks have to be on point. When it comes to bike riding in particular, when I started to film clips for different videos and video parts, I wanted my bike to look a certain way. I wanted my fit to look a certain way, my kicks to look a certain way. And I wanted all those things to complement one another.
So at that point I was like, the kicks always got to be on point. And I remember leaving my crib in Jamaica, Queens, riding to the E train on Jamaica Avenue, taking a train down to downtown and going to SoHo, going to different stores. I'm just looking at kicks like, “I need to get those,” or copping certain pairs.
How does your creative process inspire the sneakers you wear?
NS: When I design a sneaker, I want to tell a real story. I want it to be authentic to me. So the SB Dunk High, the Jordan 1, the Air Force One, those are very personal to me. Those are different points in my life, but at those points in my life, that's how I was feeling. That's what my creative process was. I think like everything that I do, I put myself into it. Different parts of myself, of course, but I try to put myself into it so that I know that I'm connecting with that product, I'm connecting with what I'm making in the purest way possible.