Kanye, Adidas, and the fight for creator control

Kanye West Adidas Yeezy
Subscribe to my newsletter
Sign up for my weekly newsletter where I share my thoughts on fintech, product management, culture, and travel.

    There's a creative control debate between Kanye West and Adidas. The debate centers around financial and creative control for Yeezy.

    It seems like a limited event in isolation, but it's part of a larger fight for artists to retain creative and monetary control over their artwork, brand, and more.  

    What's happening between Kanye West and Adidas?

    In a series of now-deleted Instagram posts, the rapper-turned-fashion mogul has called out Adidas for allegedly copying his designs, as well as not giving him enough control over his products and not opening up Yeezy stores, among other grievances. West also suggested he wanted to terminate his deal with the company and have Adidas pay him $2 billion in damages. Adidas has declined to comment. (Footwear News)

    The shoes in question

    The shoes in question that started the debate are these Adidas Adilette 22 slides below. Kanye has repeatedly said that these are unauthorized.

    The second shoe in question is the adiFom Q by Adidas.

    Adidas adiFOM Q
    Adidas adiFOM Q

    According to the brand, the new model is said to be inspired by the Adidas Quake from 2001. The design of the AdiFOM Q also has similarities to Ye’s Yeezy Foam Runner as it features a foam-based construction on the upper that continues down to the tooling. Differentiating this pair from the Foam Runner are the mesh interior and shoelaces. (Sole Collector)

    Kanye West's reaction to the two shoes

    Kanye West is pissed. He believes he’s lost control of Yeezy footwear and that high-ranking officials are making decisions about the line without his input. Furthermore, and perhaps even more damning, Kanye is accusing Adidas of flat-out stealing his designs, with recent non-Yeezy Adidas footwear like the adiFOM Q and the Adilette 22 bearing close resemblance to his products. - Complex

    Kanye has been very upset with Adidas' choice to release these two shoes without his consent.

    On Instagram, he's called out the heads of Adidas one by one in a series of now-deleted Instagram posts.

    One by one, he named several Adidas' board members. In particular, he spent most of his time mocking Daniel Cherry, who is a Senior Vice President and General Manager at Adidas, and reportedly in charge of Yeezus.

    Daniel Cherry III Instagram post by Kanye West
    Kanye West Venture Capitalist Screenshots
    Courtesy: TMZ
    Kanye West Instagram post Daniel Cherry
    Courtesy: All Hip Hop
    Adidas Civil War post by Kanye West
    Courtesy: All Hip Hop

    JP Morgan, Gap, and Adidas

    In addition to mocking/criticizing Adidas employees, Kanye pointed out the cozy relationship between JP morgan, Adidas, and Gap. Emphasizing connections between Adidas and JP Morgan Chase, Kanye posted photographs of the profiles of all the people who sat on both boards.

    He believes that JP Morgan, Adidas, and Gap are conspiring against him.

    Creator Recourse

    When an artist feels wronged by their contract, what can they do? There is always a legal path, but what can you do when the initial contract you signed is stacked against you?

    In the case of Kanye West, one of his recourses is his fans, community, and his large following on Instagram. While I would not have done what Kanye did, it does highlight that there are very few ways to fight back against corporations that renege on verbal or artistic contracts that may not have been on paper.

    In attacking Adidas, he highlighted several injustices he felt towards him:

    1. Adidas is copying Kanye's Yeezus footwear without compensation or artistic consultation
    2. The creative control Kanye was promised when Yeezus was first started is not living up to the expectations he had
    3. There is an infrastructure that promotes profit over creative control. This is called out when Kanye West makes links between JP Morgan, Adidas, and Gap.

    Board Seats and Equity

    Black and brown creatives have been the backbone of growth for many technology, clothing, and mobile apps. However, BIPOC creatives don't often share the upside of that growth.

    Here are some key examples:

    1. Block's Cash App grew largely on the support of the hip-hop community (Read more on Forbes, GQ)
    2. Epic Game's Fortnite stole many black and brown creatives' dance moves without crediting them (Read more on WashingtonPost, Vice, Kotaku). Epic games then used the dance moves in many in-app purchases.

    Sometimes where there was an exit, black and brown founders aren't paid even on time. For example, Verzuz, a webcast series pitting musical acts against one another, was sold to Triller for an undisclosed sum.

    Swizz Beatz, Timbaland have since sued Triller for $28 million in missing payments. (Washington Post)

    In addition, Triller boasted a new partnership with 300 Black creators, who would receive a collective $14 million along with equity for participating in the deal. Many of those creators, however, allege that the social media company began missing payments almost immediately, according to reporting in The Washington Post. Creators who produced custom shows for Triller TV, the company’s live-streaming service, also told The Post that the brand owed them tens of thousands of dollars. (Washington Post)

    Board Seats

    Kanye has always been ahead of his time, and one area of that is his understanding of the power of board seats and the power they wield.

    Especially for public companies, the board has decision-making powers on several key activities and can veto company initiatives.

    The board of directors of a public company is elected by shareholders. The board makes key decisions on issues such as mergers and dividends, hires senior managers, and sets their pay. Board of directors candidates can be nominated by the company's nominations committee or by outsiders seeking change. - Investopedia

    If you look at the board of Adidas below, it's primarily white and male.

    If you look at the board for Nike, it follows a similar story.

    Gap Inc. whom Kanye West has collaborated, also has a predominantly non-BIPOC board.  

    Source: Gap Corporate Website


    Board seats are important, but so is Equity. I've written about Cap Table Diversity and how important it is to ensure equitable wealth generation.

    Cap table diversity: What is it? Why does it matter?
    Cap table diversity isn’t discussed as the top way to improve diversity in tech, but it should be. It’s effective and has proven results.

    While my article focused mainly on tech equity, black and brown are the consumer base of  a large number of brands. However, they often share little upside in the success of the brands they wear.

    Closing Thoughts

    Whether you agree with or disagree with Kanye's actions on Instagram, Kanye does have valid points on Creator control and compensation.

    As a fan of Kanye's music, I won't purchase any Adidas clothing until his situation with Adidas is resolved. It's hard as a creator to fight against losing creative control. I'll likely join the ranks of other artists, such as diddy, who are boycotting Adidas.

    A special remembrance to Walter Mercado

    This post is dedicated to Walter Mercado. One of Latin America's greatest voices lost his IP Trademark and rights in a deceptive manner by his business partner.  I highly recommend watching the Netflix show Mucho Mucho Amor: The Legend of Walter Mercado.

    Walter Mercado Image
    Harry Langdon/Getty Images