Raheem Sterling is taking his narrative into his own hands. After suffering years of petty, pejorative and prejudiced treatment from the media, the England star broke rank last year and called out newspapers for how they’ve portrayed young black athletes in this country.
Sterling’s takedown—eloquent, thoughtful, and passionate—came just days after he was racially abused in Manchester City’s away game at Premier League rivals Chelsea. The 24-year-old’s response to the incident, and the way he challenged prejudice in the media, has forced the world to recognise the type of person he actually is. The ironic thing is that the “new Raheem Sterling” isn’t actually new at all.
Raheem Sterling has always cared about community. He made a substantial donation to those who were affected by the Grenfell tragedy in 2017, and last year he invested in a football academy for disadvantaged children in his home of North London. Sterling is an athlete who pushes culture forward, and he’s finally getting his props.
We caught up with Raheem as he linked up with Nike to launch the new Air Max 720, to talk about his impact on the culture and dripping excellence on and off the pitch.
COMPLEX: What are you making of the new Air Max 720? And what do you like about them?
Raheem Sterling: They’re cool—I like the colours and the way the tones gradually change across the shoe. And they look pretty neat on the feet. The blue and turquoise is my favourite colourway right now.
Are you a big sneakerhead and how big is your collection?
I wouldn’t really say I’m a sneakerhead; I just try to pick the right trainers for me. It’s about quality rather than quantity.
The Air Max 720 has the biggest air unit yet. With that in mind, what is your biggest achievement so far on or off the pitch?
Being able to achieve what I set my mind to. From a young age I had always wanted to play in the Premier League, so to be able to say I’m doing what I wanted to do from young is the thing I am most proud of.
We saw you in Dave’s video for “Black” recently. How did that connection come about?
It came about through a mutual relationship. I was asked if I wanted to be in Dave’s new video as we share the connection to London and relate to the lyrics. Then, after listening to the song, it all made sense. It was something powerful and something that I couldn’t say no to... It felt powerful to be part of it.
The song talks about the black experience and race identity, which is something you’ve become vocal about recently. Do you think it is important for professional athletes and musicians to have a voice in these conversations?
I don’t think it is our job, per se, but at the same time we have a massive part to play through sharing our opinions and talking about the things we’ve been through. This can open people’s eyes up; not everyone would think that I’ve been through certain situations in the past.
I can show people a point of view from someone successful and doing well in their field, but still I have to face struggles like the majority of the BAME community. I can help to speak up for others and make people understand what they’re experiencing on a daily basis.
“It is all well and good becoming a professional football player, but what are you giving back to the 8 or 10-year-old Raheems?”
There were similarities between your Nike ad with the one the brand did for Colin Kaepernick—were you proud to be represented in this campaign?
It was something that I wasn’t looking to be a voice for—I was just speaking on things that have happened to me in the past and the things that I see. There was never a point that I thought this would be good for myself, it was just something that I thought I needed to address and make people aware of.
Colin’s story is massive and inspirational. He had to take on a fight, but he believed in something he wanted to stand up for and he went all the way. That is a credit to him, and he’s a true role model.
You’ve also raised awareness of issues with council-funded sports facilities for young Londoners. Do you think it is important to stay connected to your community?
I think it’s really important to play a part in your community. It’s all well and good becoming a professional football player, but what are you giving back to the 8 or 10-year-old Raheems? Just like I had, they’ve got big dreams and probably don’t know their path in life. But, you know, with your small experience you can try to give back. It is important to help people who are living the same sort of life you had.
The way I look at it is, if you just go and live for yourself and think about your career, that’s not right. What are you doing for the others after you? How are you going to try to help them? I think we have a big part to play and not just in the football industry. Whoever you are and wherever you come from, you should always try to give back something to the next generation.
Between the shoot for the new AM720 and stuff like the GQ Style cover you did last year, you’ve definitely been upping your sauce levels lately! Has style become more important to you as you’ve got older?
I’ve always liked to dress well but I probably didn’t show it so much on social before. I’m at a place now where I don’t look at what people have to say anymore. Before, I’d probably be thinking I don’t want to post what I am wearing, but now I do what makes me happy. Playing football, spending time with my family and style make me happy, so I try to share more.
“[My dream is] to win the champions league and be on the podium for the ballon d’or.”
What new releases are on your playlist right now?
I’ve got the new Giggs album [Big Bad], Global by Lil Baby, Roddy Rich and Popcaan—always! And everyone from the UK scene too, I listen to all their new music.
Your form on the pitch has been nothing short of outstanding. Do you think we’re seeing the best version of Raheem Sterling right now or are there even more levels you believe you can reach?
There is a lot more to come; it’s just the beginning of what I want to do. Now, though, it’s about maintaining it and getting better. I feel like each year I am improving and have full belief in myself that there is more yet to come.
You’ve obviously achieved some amazing things already, but what are some of the dreams you’d like to achieve moving forward? Both professionally and personally, for yourself and your community.
Professionally, it would be to win the Champions League and be on the podium for the Ballon d’Or, and personally making sure my mum and family are happy is something I want to maintain—I want to keep smiles on their faces. For my community in London and Jamaica, I want to help young people achieve their dreams, be that in football or even if they want to become an architect or something... I want to set up platforms that can help them do this.
Get your Nike Air Max 720 as seen on Raheem and visit him in the 720 Air Store now.