Charles Barkley once infamously said: “I am not a role model”. The question has been asked for years – are athletes role models? Sorry Chuck, yes you are and I don’t really think that it’s your decision to make. For better or for worse, people in the spotlight have a platform, they’re on national television, and some of them are making amounts of money that the majority of us will never see in twenty lifetimes. They’re put up on a pedestal, judged and built up just to be torn down – could you imagine if every time you wanted to go out you had an army of people documenting your every move? But you can’t have your cake and cash the check too. You can’t tell me that “I’m not paid to be a role model. I’m paid to wreak havoc on the basketball court” while at the same time trying to sell me an overpriced pair of sneakers. We don’t want you to raise our kids; we don’t want you to be perfect, because no one is. The majority of us would be happy if you made the effort to do the right thing, stay off of TMZ and sign an autograph or two when you’re out in public. Darren Harper embraces his role model status. As a kid, Harper found his first skateboard amongst the cast off belongings of an evicted family. Harper’s story is one that is all too familiar in the DC area; poverty, drugs and violence. Known for his athletic, aggressive skating style, Darren lived through the ups and downs of street life and wants to share his story with kids so they can avoid the pitfalls that almost cost him his life. “Darren is a positive role model for the youth of DC,” says Chris Hall, a DC skateboarding legend who would be a collaborator and mentor for Harper. “I believe Darren has motivated a lot of black kids to come out and skate all over the DC area, which is a good alternative to negative activities.”
Recently, The Washington Informer caught up with the “Obama of skateboarding”
to discuss his struggles growing up, the DC skateboarding scene and how skateboarding saved his life.
Washington Informer: How did a kid from Southeast DC end up on a skateboard before skateboarding was “cool”?
Darren Harper: I found my first skateboard in the late 80's, early 90's. You know, in every neighborhood, you have an eviction and basically I found my skateboard in a bunch of furniture that was outside. We just messed around with it, you know. I was just running up and down the hill, just having a little thrill. We just wanted to have fun, you know, little ghetto kids back then. And I think what happened was a little further down the line there was these two shows that came on cable, one on Nickelodeon, which was called SK8-TV and the other one was called Gleaming The Cube and when those two shows came out, it was a wrap. We was all skateboard out, we just wanted to mimic what we saw on TV, you know. Tony Hawk was one of the names that I called myself back then; we were just mesmerized, mesmerized man. We got excited and we just followed what we saw.
Washington Informer: What was it like for you growing up in DC?
Darren Harper: It was rough man. You know, I come from a low income family, welfare most of the time and my father was in and out of jail so you know, (it) kind of forced me to be a man early. I had a step father actually and he was basically in the same situation, in and out of jail and things like that. I had to kind of grow up early, be aggressive early, coming up in that environment you know with drugs and things like that was going on. It was just rough and (it was) hard to stay focused if you had any type of goal or anything because there was so much negativity going on during that time. Basically, I was one of them cats where a lot of people kind of when they seen me running in the wrong direction, they (would) straighten me up like you know, 'you don't have to go that route'. But it was very hard to stay afloat with all my peers and every male in my family selling drugs. I was the only one at that time that wasn't in the game, but I was still young, so I was just watching. It was rough.
Washington Informer: Who were some of your early influences in skateboarding?
Darren Harper: To be honest, like when I first started it was more so Tony Hawk because what we saw from TV, that's all we knew. There were no African-American skaters that we knew of back then, it was just cool, and we just wanted to jump, make that skateboard jump. Like how can you make it jump? We spent most of our time just knee-boarding down the hills and sitting on the board riding like that because we didn't know any tricks. It was a mixture; it was Tony Hawk [Laughs] and the drug dealers. You know, when you're living that, in that environment, we looked up to the neighborhood hustlers. We wanted that that money in the fast way.
Washington Informer: How important is Freedom Plaza to the local skateboarding scene?
Darren Harper: It's very important. Freedom Plaza is important because it's just one of those monumental places where skating began for the DC area. Since the past, way back when my fellow peers were skating, who I kinda came up under, that was just the spot, that was the meet up spot. All different races would come there and meet and over the years we made that place such an iconic place. We call it "The Fort, Freedom Plaza, "Pulaski"; you know it’s got numerous names. That's just “The Kingdom”, that's just the spot. Granted, you know, before Freedom, the guys before me skated, near their driveways and things like that. But that was the first place, the skateboarding Mecca in DC, where you would go and everybody would show up.
Washington Informer: I’ve heard it used to get rough down there sometimes.
Darren Harper: Yeah, in the past you had to kind of like be in the clique. DC is…I think it gets birthed into you, we protect our territory. It's kind of like, everybody can't just come and just think they're gonna fit in. It's just like you gotta work your way in, you gotta meet people and you just gotta be cool. I don't wanna say get the approval but you gotta be good peoples man. For the most part it's friendly, we do our thing, and it’s like getting into a family. Skaters are looked at differently, so you gotta initiate yourself to get in somehow [Laughs].
Washington Informer: How influential has Chris Hall been in your career and in your life?
Darren Harper: Chris Hall's been very influential because I mean he was the guy who believed in me first, before anybody, when I came back to the skate game. I was deep in the streets selling drugs you know, he remembers he can tell you. I came down (to Freedom Plaza), I had a bullet hole in my windshield in my car, a friend of mine shot at me, we were in a big shootout and stuff like that. Chris was just like you know 'you I'm gonna help get you out of this’ he didn’t want to see me end up like some of the people that we knew and most of my friends. He was like 'we're gonna figure this out'. He was a shoe collector during that time but Chris Hall is an ex professional (skater) as well. Chris sold his shoes to buy a camera just to film me. We made a DVD, after that we went to Cali and we pitched it and made a whole video.
Washington Informer: You grew up surrounded by drugs and violence, what would you tell kids growing up now in a similar situation?
Darren Harper: I would tell them they just have to stay grounded and focused. You have to understand that just because you live around it don't mean you have to get involved with it. It's just about having that willpower and being set and that inspiration and motivation. I think it starts with the parents as well or somebody close who can possibly mentor that youngster, or motivate them to be on the right path. See that was kind of my problem, like I had it in others but it wasn't from the dominant people in my life. You know, it was more so like people that was in the game. They was trying to tell me, ‘don't mess with the game’. It's like a big contradiction...you know what I'm saying? How are you gonna tell me, but then you go right there and sell that piece of crack. It's about getting our kids to think outside the box. I think to keep them on the right path; we have to get them involved with more things.
Washington Informer: Do you consider yourself a role model?
Darren Harper: I definitively consider myself a role model, up to the fullest. I mean like a good role model ain't just, yeah he’s been on the straight path, he's so, you know, straight “A” and such a good person. I think he's more so a person that’s been through something and he's able to make the turn and the twist and what have you to bring himself back and reinvent himself and then go that straight route. I feel like people need to sometimes see the struggle, people like to see that you've been through the same situations so they can know it's possible. I am, you know, like the breath of fresh air to let people know that it's possible. So yeah, definitely, a role model to the fullest.
Washington Informer: What advice would you give your children to help them to avoid the mistakes you made growing up?
Darren Harper: I mean all I can do is stay on them. I'm just gonna be the father that I'm supposed to be you know. Because I mean at the end of the day (being) a good father is just (about) being there, being able to show them right from wrong. It's just about, you know, being consistently in their lives, my father wasn't consistently in my life because he was in and out of jail. Moms can't always hold it down, they need that power and voice, they need that masculine figure around, and that’s what my job is.
Washington Informer: Do any of your children skate?
Darren Harper: Oh yeah, my youngest son, he loves it. We kind of like skate every other weekend, he comes down with me.
Washington Informer: If he wanted to be a pro skater, would you encourage that?
Darren Harper: Definitely, I encourage that now. I'm hoping he carries the torch when I'm done.
Washington Informer: So who are you riding for now? What sponsors do you have?
Darren Harper: Right now, I'm riding for Pit Crew, Famous Stars and Straps Clothing, Venture Trucks, Kicker Car Audio and KMC Rims. GBSC which is Good Bully Skate Code, you know we're just kicking that off actually so you know it's gonna be a skateboard brand Fresh off the press. So we're working on that and that's about it. There should be some new things to come though because I'm working my behind off.
Washington Informer: I know you have a visual arts background, are you helping out with any of the designs or anything like that?
Darren Harper: Oh yeah, I’m definitely going to be doing that, I’m drawing every day. This thing is coming to reality. I've been just drawing, on the iPad; I got some kind of app where I've just been drawing, SketchbookPro, and just drawing with the pencil in the house. I'm getting excited, art is one of those things like skating, you can give it up but it will always it be imbedded in your heart.
Washington Informer: You were supposed to compete here last year in the Maloof Money Cup…
Darren Harper: I was supposed to compete that day, but I had got hurt, I twisted by ankle. But I was also the host of it, you know, because they came to my city.
Washington Informer: Okay. So this year, you're going to be the local ambassador for the opening of the Maloof Skate Park at RFK Stadium.
Darren Harper: Yeah. Yes, sir.
Washington Informer: Is this one of the best experiences for you as a pro skater?
Darren Harper: Nah, I can't say it's the best because the best feeling would be when I have that “Darren Harper” skate park. That’s when I know that the city really recognizes me for what I do and what I've done. Just like, we have to give the kid; you know a skate park in his name. I wanna do something like that like, designed by me. It's still definitely a blessing though because this is another outlet to help me get the word out and practice what I'm preaching as far as helping these kids stay out of the streets. You know skateboarding saved my life; I believe it can do the same for others as well.
Washington Informer: I've read several of your interviews and you constantly say that. Do you really believe skateboarding saved your life?
Darren Harper: Yes. I believe it because when I came back (to skateboarding) I had some run ins, been in a couple of shootouts. I had a run in with authorities. It felt like it was coming to the end and I knew if I kept going, as hard as I was going, that something was eventually gonna happen, either I was gonna be in jail or hurting somebody for trying to hurt me. I made a trip to San Francisco, when I got there and saw that scene that I was no longer part of because I was in the streets. I was just so motivated, seeing people making livings and things like that. I’ve always been talented, I was like, yo, I'm gonna see if I can really rebirth this thing and make it happen. People were encouraging me and I eventually made it happen. Along the way, some of my friends been dropping like flies. My best friend, this guy I was running the streets with named Kenneth Hodges, we called him C-Note, may he rest in peace. I was out filming an ad. They found him shot in the head in this apartment building and I remember getting that call and I was skating and I was just like wow, that's really a wakeup call for me because that could have been me, that really could have been me.
For more information on Darren Harper visit https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=690400858&;sk=info , www.twitter.com/dstreets
Maloof Skate Park at RFK Stadium
Ribbon cutting and official opening
Saturday, May 5, 2012
RFK Stadium Lot #3 / 2PM-3PM (Free Parking in Lot #4)
For more information: www.maloofmoneycup.com