Illustration by Noa Emberson
Compton, California. A 17-year-old — we’ll call him Quentin — rolls west down Rosecrans Avenue toward Manhattan Beach in a ’72 Cutlass convertible. Its hydraulic lifted trunk spills out a surfboard with Pam Grier’s Afro silhouette painted on the deck. Kendrick Lamar’s “Swimming Pools (Drank)” thumps loud on the Oldsmobile sound system:
First you get a swimming pool full of liquor, then you dive in it…
As Quentin pulls into the parking lot at El Porto, he’s greeted by the usual commotion of friends and family deep in barbecue mode. Clean, overhead sets detonate in the background. Ever pleased, he cranks up the knob, lets the music blast and shakes out a fullsuit.
Oh, wait. Black people don’t surf. We don’t even swim. We play hoops and football and, if necessary, baseball. Why? Because the ocean has sharks. And f–k that. Because we’re a concrete culture. And because surf towns are too expensive, too far away, too wet, too…white.
Cut back to the Beach. The actual beach, dominated by tatted white dudes in pickups and their leather-faced girlfriends with raspy, three-day-old Cancun voices. Let’s be real — the only thing black about surfing is the wetsuits.
Years ago, I was surfing a slow-rolling left along Sunset Cliffs in San Diego. Between sets, a woman paddled up to me and enthusiastically urged me to join the Black Surfers Association. Which was confusing, because she wasn’t black.
That made me wonder: are we in the surfing equivalent of the pre-Jackie Robinson era? Imagine the caliber of athletes that have yet to sniff the sea. My cousin Desmond, a linebacker for the Green Bay Packers, got married last summer in San Francisco. Many of his teammates were in attendance, and since I’d surfed in Pacifica the day before, I couldn’t help but imagine all of them out there with me. Sure, pro football players bear no resemblance to the average light, sinewy surfer. But so what? I’ve split peaks with Troy Polamalu before at 5-foot Pacific Beach, and he made it look as easy as anyone out there. Because that’s what great athletes do. When I close my eyes and imagine the future of surfing, I see many dark faces. But how the hell are we going to get there?
First, we need more black kids in the ocean. A Bad News Bears-style surf team flick with Cedric the Entertainer in the Walter Matthau role would help. (OK, maybe it’d be more like Cool Runnings.)
Second, we need a black ambassador — other than Obama — to endorse surfing. And it would help to see this person actually riding waves.
I nominate Allen Iverson.
The original “A.I.” is among the most adored, marketable and freakishly gifted athletes in American history. Now retired and only 37, I’d bet that a few months straight of two-session days would make him ambassador-ready.
Third, we need to get rappers involved. The bottom line is that hip-hop combined with anything is a good match. It’s like that sugar daddy who skips through the ‘hood leaving behind a trail of money. Picture it. Hip-hop plus surf plus fashion…A perfect marriage. No prenup. No therapy. No nothing. This shit’s gonna last.
And perhaps the movement already has leaders. Frank Ocean’s “Swim Good” video — directed by Aussie surfer and surf photographer Nabil Elderkin — provides a kaleidoscope of possibilities for the future of black surfing. It’s a trademark oceanic stew of emotion: stylish and dreamy and violent and cathartic and erotic. Everything surfing should be. And all with the backdrop of waves crashing along the California coast.
But that’s just the tip. Imagine b-boys like Storyboard P turning a 9’6” into a canvas for breakdancing. Toprock…FLOAT…headspin…FREEZE! (Alex Knost, this has everything to do with you.) And the women that would come out to the beach? Give me a Sherane and a Keisha and in three weeks I’ll give you some provocative new wetsuit designs and enough bait to reel in those who might otherwise be skeptical of the ocean. Ah, the future is so bright. And so dark. Can you hear the stereo bumping?
I wave a few bottles, then I watch ‘em all flock, all the girls wanna play Baywatch, I got a swimming pool full of liquor and they dive in it…
Be on the lookout for young Quentin and his beachside family to make the transition from hypothetical to real. Look for South Los Angeles to become surf culture’s shot in the arm: the first great breeding ground for black riders. Look for an exhaustive “surf rap” Wikipedia page in about a decade. It’s only a matter of time before one of the most athletically and artistically prosperous regions in America takes advantage of a brand-new playing field.
Like the oil wells in Baldwin Hills, there’s potential bubbling beneath the surface — just east of those pretty South Bay breaks — that merely needs to be tapped into. And thousands of young kids searching for a new way to become the illest motherf–ker alive. —Keith Reams