“Storytelling is undeniably one of the most influential modes of communication,” observed Gianni Lee, lead designer of the Juneteenth initiative that Major League Soccer embarked on this year. “Just like seeds, stories have the ability to propagate and disseminate information in the absence of modern technology.”
Lee explored that concept via a modern variant of the long-traditional form of textile arts — soccer jerseys.
This year, Lee, along with Major League Soccer, the Black Players For Change (BPC), world-renowned photographer and owner of the Charcoal Pitch F.C soccer agency Mel D. Cole and all 29 clubs across the league came together to commemorate and celebrate Juneteenth. The 2023 initiative is titled “The Seeds We Plant: The Flowers We Share.” Each of the 29 teams will have a custom, literally one-of-a-kind kit, signed by the respective team members, featuring the Juneteenth design from Cole and Lee.
The jerseys are being auctioned online, with 100 percent of the funds being donated to local organizations that support and impact the Black community in each of the 29 franchises’ communities.
The BPC website is also selling patches and kit numbers, allowing fans the opportunity to get their hands on the work of Cole and Lee while celebrating Juneteenth. The auction is live until June 28, with bids on each jersey climbing daily.
Teams across Major League Soccer posted on social media about the initiative to help commemorate the Juneteenth holiday on Monday, noting where the proceeds from each fundraiser will end up.
‘Recognizing Juneteenth is special to BPC’
BPC President Earl Edwards Jr., currently playing as a goalkeeper for the New England Revolution, wants the money for the Revs’ jersey to end up in the hands of an organization that he’s been partnered with for over two years now.
“At each MLS club, BPC members decide who will be the beneficiaries of the donation,” Edwards explained. “With the Revolution, I suggested that we donate to Center for Health and Justice Reformation whose mission is to ‘advance health equity in the criminal Justice system. We established a partnership with them in 2021 through the Revolution Players Collaborative fund, and this is the perfect holiday to celebrate our joint efforts.”
For Edwards Jr. and the entire BPC, the celebration of Juneteenth is a time to remember and reflect, while acknowledging the work they have done, along with the work still left to do.
“Recognizing Juneteenth is special to BPC because we reflect on our history, which provides a deeper insight to the work we have committed to,” Edwards Jr. said. “Our rich history of strength and courage galvanizes us to push forward in our mission of creating an ecosystem of equality in MLS, and our local communities.”
2023 marks the three-year anniversary of the founding of the BPC, representing and growing Black voices across the game. Edwards noted, “Black Players for Change was established to generate change within the MLS and its local communities. Since our inception, we have been working closely with MLS to accomplish our goals, and the Juneteenth jersey is another example of the incredible work we have been able to do together.”
‘I was always intrigued about the power of soccer’
The BPC worked closely with MLS and the creative team behind this year’s Juneteenth Initiative, creating an environment that empowered Black creatives behind the scenes and at the front of the project.
In the official press release heralding the creative endeavor, Edwards credited Cole and Lee for the contributions, noting, “We were able to take our Juneteenth celebrations to new heights and I look forward to fans seeing the final jersey.”
Lee and Cole’s collaboration came about via a connection forged in Lee’s hometown of Philadelphia. Years back, the duo met through a mentor of Lee’s and instantly clicked as two passionate Black creatives working in the same industry. Cole chose Lee to be the creative for the project and never looked back.
“I actually know of Mel’s photo work from my home town of Philly,” Lee explained. “I just remember him being around the Roots through my mentor Tayyib Smith. He’s always been around and a part of the culture.”
He added, “I didn’t actually meet him until my collaboration with Levis. We met at Afropunk and he had a pair of my jeans on and we connected from there. Fast forward to present day, Mel reached out to me and told me about the work of his Black owned and operated agency and how they engage with professional soccer. I was always intrigued about the power of soccer and I strongly believe the Black community should be exposed to the many career opportunities in the sport. It was a natural connection between my values and what Charcoal Pitch had already built.”
Charcoal Pitch F.C came about as a passion project for Cole, empowering Black creatives in the industry while establishing himself as one of the unique talents working in professional soccer. Cole and his agency have been able to tell stories about the world’s game with clients like the English Premier League, Chelsea FC, Manchester City, Pepsi and Nike.
“I started Charcoal Pitch F.C after years of playing FIFA on Playstation in 2019,” Cole admitted. “I have always been one for turning my passions into purpose and then letting everything else follow and what has followed has been nothing but truly amazing as I have been able to tell the stories of our beautiful game multiculturally with some of the biggest clubs and leagues in the world… like what we are doing with this project with MLS.”
For both Cole and Lee, Juneteenth means an opportunity to commemorate and recognize Black history. Taking on the 2023 Juneteenth Initiative with Major League Soccer saw them come together and “bring to life” the ideas that they brainstormed together.
Cole was “amazingly proud” of the final product.
“Gianni’s art is prolific and I felt that with the combination of his creativity, along with my own, that we would be able to bring to life the ideas that I had in my mind,” Cole said. “The final product surpassed what I dreamed up.”
‘The inspiration was simple’
Lee’s intentions with this project saw him look to history and find an understanding on how to properly represent what Juneteenth means to both the Black community and himself. From small details in the design to thinking of the big picture and how the public would perceive the jerseys, by the end of the project, Lee’s intentions were clear: He wanted to create something “anyone would be proud to wear.”
“The inspiration was simple,” Lee said. “I wanted to show what can be created from Black hands. I know where we came from, I believe enough people have that covered. I wanted to focus on aesthetics, colors, shapes, form and how that is manipulated and created through the lens of Blackness. Black culture is not a monolith and it comes in different variants.”
Lee sees his creative outlook on the piece as a “nod towards the future… a sort of futurism, if not optimism.” The design, which takes native African plants and puts them on display, was inspired by his “Blue Hand” motif.
“I have this ongoing theme in my work called the ‘Blue Hand,’ he explained. “It’s about this alien species that crash lands on Earth. I always wanted to use it commercially but I never found the right connection until this MLS opportunity.
He said, of his “The Seeds We Plant. The Flowers We Share” illustration that provided a foundation for the project, “This drawing attempts to show the unity of African culture in the diaspora and how it grows even more seamless, ‘like a plant’ everyday in America.”
He added, “That seamless growth is represented through these mysterious, almost alien-like flowers,” going on to describe them as “bio-mechanical” and “a marriage of technology and the environment having to work together for collective progress.”
Though steeped in what Lee calls “futurism,” he also notes that all the flowers, including the African lily, sugarbushes and the king protea, “can be found on the African continent and calls to a bigger theme of planting seeds and how African culture has been ‘planted’ all over the world.”
For Cole and his agency, it’s a step forward for their growth but also an opportunity to tell the tale of Black creatives finding success and thriving on the professional stage — while also dovetailing with MLS’s self-professed efforts to “drive positive social change and encourage racial reconciliation.”
When crafting the photo shoot for the initiative, Cole thought deeply and profoundly about what the thematic message of Juneteenth means and used that to inspire the shoot.
“I thought about the past, present and the future. I thought about what Juneteenth means to me and to the world,” Cole said. “I thought a lot about freedom and being able to do the things that my ancestors – that were slaves – wouldn’t even had imagined doing. Thinking outside of the box while touching on spreading awareness; I thought about Blackness!”
Jacob Schneider is a Minnesota-based freelance writer and content producer covering Major League Soccer. Follow him on Twitter at @_JacobSchneider.
This story is part of the Pixel Pitch series, exploring the spaces where soccer, the internet and identity intersect. Pixel Pitch is a joint project partnering The Daily Dot with The Striker, a soccer-centric online publication “where every day is a soccer news day.”
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