Nigel Sylvester Interview | We Meet the Man Bringing BMX to the Masses
Nigel Sylvester speaks GO, the ESPN Body Issue, being name dropped by Jay-Z and more...
Words by Stuart Kenny | Photography by Michael Drummond
“I do things from the heart. Things that are true to me. Since I was 12 years old the dream was to be a professional BMX rider. The best one I can be.
"In my opinion, as long as someone is doing it from the heart, and they love what they’re doing, and there’s not any malice or any bullshit in there... do your thing.
"I think some of the things that I’ve done have been received super wrong, but that’s not my intent, you know? I love riding my bicycle. I love what I do."
Nigel Sylvester was born in Queens, New York in 1987. He started riding bikes when he was five years old. When he was 17, Nigel rode with childhood hero Dave Mirra for a BMX documentary called ‘Flipside’, which paired amateur riders up with established pros, and a few months later, the Miracle Man signed Nigel and turned him into a professional rider.
Nigel Sylvester is now 30 years old, and in the time that has passed since 2006, despite not competing, he has amongst other things appeared in Forbes Magazine's '30 under 30' list, featured in ESPN's Body Issue and been sponsored by Nike, Beats by Dre, Samsung, New Era, Casio, Animal and more. He’s released a shoe with Nike, released a line of bikes with Pharrell Williams, created multiple watches with Casio, been name dropped by Jay-Z song in a Frank Ocean song and launched 'GO', the pioneering point-of-view BMX series which has garnered more than 17 million views on YouTube alone, and which has now spanned from New York and Los Angeles to Dubai, Tokyo, London and Paris, featuring everyone from Rob Dyrdek and Victor Cruz to viral sensation ‘Salt Bae’ along the way.
You may already be able to guess, Nigel Sylvester is not your typical BMX rider.
The fifth video in Sylvester’s ‘GO’ series, the first to span two cities as it follows Nigel from London to Paris, dropped online on 12 June.
“The ‘GO’ series started in 2015,” Nigel tell us. “Harrison [Boyce, director] and I were having a conversation about different ways to capture BMX riding and to capture a city in a way that hadn’t been done yet. We went out and experimented and came about with the style where we’d shoot the whole thing POV and use seamless cuts to make it flow together smoothly.”
Indeed, each ‘GO’ video has an open ending, with the next picking up where the previous left off. Watch them all back to back and it makes for what seems like one, continual long shot.
"One of my goals with 'GO' is to connect BMX in an authentic way with other sports, music, and art to broaden its reach to a wide audience and uniquely show the world a sport that means so much to me"
“That style was definitely influenced by the way I like to ride my bike. I like things to be fluid and smooth or else it just doesn’t look right. I want things to come across seamless and organic. It’s not something I’m forcing it’s just how I create and how I present my art.”
It’s a filming style that often draws comparisons to the Grand Theft Auto video game series, in terms of the one-shot nature, the snapshot interactions and even the quick sound bites from Nigel and audio used in the series.
“It was one of my favourite games to play, years ago, but it is more of a coincidence that it’s worked out that way,” laughs Sylvester.
It also, of course, features whole hosts of celebrities from all walks of life, whether they be up and coming or firmly established in the mainstream.
‘GO’ London to Paris features everyone from actress Manon Bresch to skater Korahn Gayle, Paris Saint-Germain football star Timothy Weah and rapper Octavian, who conveniently enough, was born in France and raised in London, fitting the bill perfectly.
“Harrison played a track by Octavian when we were chilling out, and I was like ‘yo I listen to this dude too!’. We talked to him on Instagram and met up and shot a scene with him. It’s one of those things that shows the power of social media.
“The whole shoot was incredible,” continues Nigel. “The city just opened itself up. We wanted to capture the people who move the city, the culture, those little nuances that really make up what London and Paris are. We thought about the things we would naturally want to go and do, the people we already knew that we wanted to highlight there and people we want to get in the video that we respect; whether they’re a musician, artist, designer or another athlete or BMX rider.
"One of my goals with 'GO' is to connect BMX in an authentic way with other sports, music, and art to broaden its reach to a wide audience and uniquely show the world a sport that means so much to me.
“You can really bridge worlds. It’s happened so many times. I’ll come across someone who is doing something amazing in their own field and the video is able to bring us together. The fact we’re both creating art, maybe in different genres, but we have respect for one another.”
Of course, infamously in Nigel’s case, not everyone in the BMX community wants their world to be bridged with any other, particularly not when it means BMX meets the mainstream.
Nigel has endured severe, and well-documented criticism and trolling from segments of the BMX core at times on social media, being berated for working with household names like Pharrell, for appearing in the ESPN Body Issue and for his “corporate” approach to his career.
The world of skateboarding meanwhile, a sport intrinsically linked to BMX, has become a mainstay of pop-culture crossovers, whether art, music or fashion-related in recent times in a way that BMX has not embraced in the same way. I ask Nigel why he thinks this is.
“I just, I feel like it comes down to the community and the people within that community,” he sighs, considering his answer.
"I was doing something I truly believe in and when you do something you truly believe in, at the highest level you can possibly do it, good and great things happen."
“At times I think the BMX community alienates itself from a lot of other things. It doesn’t let positive outside influences come in. Or sometimes doesn’t experiment enough, I feel, or collaborate enough with other sports, art, music. That’s always been my thing though.
“If you think about some of the moments that I had where the community kind of, I feel in a sense, shunned me for doing something, or talked down upon me or gave me shit… take when I did the ESPN Body Issue - a very prestigious and tasteful thing to be a part of.
“We’re talking about ESPN, one of the biggest sporting outlets in the world, and a group of athletes on top of their game each year who get highlighted. Yeah you’re posing nude but it’s not like you’re looking crazy. They don’t make any of the athletes look crazy. And when that came out I got so much, so much shit from our community of BMX riders.View on Instagram
“I feel like instead of them saying ‘oh you’re a sell out’ and using all these terms that they use to belittle me or to doubt my credit or downgrade me, it should’ve been a moment like ‘look at this massive sports platform embracing one of our own’. You know? And that’s happened to me many times. I’ll put something out and people look at it as a negative thing.
“I personally look at it as a positive thing. I got so much love, so much respect, from people outside of the BMX community who said those ESPN photos were beautiful, and you look at the other athletes who have done the Body Issue in the past - like Michael Phelps, Serena Williams and Dwyane Wade. The list goes on and on and on. World class, multiple world-championship-winning, multiple title-winning athletes. Why wouldn’t I want to be amongst that level of athlete, and bringing BMX into that? I feel like that in return gets more people into BMX, gets more kids into BMX and grows and helps out the community. That’s the way I look at it but a lot of people didn’t look at it that way.”
Has the internet heat or hatred ever gotten through to him or effect his thinking?
“Definitely at times it got under my skin but I never let it affect my decision making or take me outside of my character. There was a few times when someone would say something and I would go back and forth on social media but it’s not even worth it. A lot of the time those people who are saying those things just don’t understand where I’m coming from.
“Throughout my career I never approached anything with the intent of making BMX look bad. Ever. I’ve never done that. I just wanted to expose more and share my BMX story with more people. I love my bicycle. And I want to share that and that was always my intent. Sharing my story the same way people I look up to do - whether that’s a musician or artist or another athlete - they share their stories and I want to do the exact same thing but I think that got misconstrued at times.”
If his career has taken BMX to places it does not normally go, it's still been a career built on the advice and guidelines of one of the sport’s all time greats - the late, great Dave Mirra, Nigel’s longtime hero and a man who too knew his fair share of commercial success.
“I grew up for so many years watching him win contests and push the bar. His riding and his career influenced me a lot. I’d watch him and get super psyched to go and ride myself. Watching him and seeing the endorsements he had and the commercials he would end up in, and all those things, he was really killing it. He was living life and embracing his career to the fullest and it was way beyond just riding. All of those things were really important to me - the way I looked at BMX and the way I approached my career.
“There was a point in my career when I first started to do things that were outside of the norm for a BMX rider. When I started doing not just a video part but incorporating a storyline and that kind of thing into my projects and I was starting to work with and getting sponsored by brands that aren’t typically BMX brands and I received a lot of backlash for that.
“Mirra was one of the guys I would speak to that about, because I thought that if there was anyone who would know the feeling, it would be him. He had a lot of that too. He was killing the game, riding, doing tricks that nobody else was doing, getting these super big sponsors and getting a lot of commercial time and really pushing himself and the sport to places that it had never been to, and that comes with a certain amount of opinions.
"All of those things that I’ve done that were unconventional for a BMX rider, they all helped put me on the radar of someone like Jay-Z"
“Dave always gave really good advice to me about that. It was super incredible to have him as a mentor and a friend. I will be forever grateful.”
There was a Nigel Sylvester before all of this too, of course.
It sounds simple enough, but it seems to be something that some people seem to forget. A Nigel Sylvester who, before the fashion lines or the Louis Vuitton bike frames, had to work tooth and nail to get signed doing what he loves doing - riding BMX bikes.
“The bike was everything for me growing up,” he says. “The freedom that it gives you. The bike was always around. It was that love, that passion that lead me to understanding and discovering that there was an actual industry. I didn’t know that for a long time. I was just riding. And once I figured out there was an industry I figured I wanted to be a part of it. I really wanted to be a part of this community, to learn more about it. That’s when the dream of becoming a professional bike rider really started to form.
“Growing up in Jamaica, Queens there are so many things you could get into. Some good. Some not so good. I just stuck with it. I started to dive more into the culture, reading BMX Plus Magazine, Ride Magazine, watching Mirra and [Ryan] Nyquist and [Mat] Hoffman. I was seeing their lifestyle and I was sold. I put my head down and rode every single day."
Indeed, one of Nigel’s biggest viral hits before ‘GO’ was when he jumped over a rail line in the 145th Street Subway back in 2013. Photographer 13th Witness was there to capture the rider crashing his no-brake BMX down the other side of the platform onto a live Subway line. There’s certainly not much corporate about that.
“We were gearing up to shoot an entire photograph series in the subway system here in New York and we started off with that photo,” he remembers.
“I think it was about two in the morning. I jumped it and ran off my bike and both my bike and I fell down onto the following track and the bike hit the third rail. I half fell down but just grabbed my bike and bounced upstairs. We didn’t ask for permission we just went and did it. We just wanted to create. It was a defining moment in my career. It showed people a different side of me.”
It’s unlikely Nigel would ever have guessed that his career would have taken him this far. Into mainstream pop culture, and indeed into the mouth of Jay-Z.
He still admits that he finds it surreal whenever he hears the Frank Ocean song, ‘Biking’, in which Hova drops his name.
“It was definitely a moment for me,” he says.
“Everytime I hear it now I laugh to myself. I hope this is real! But at the same time it makes so much sense! I was doing something I truly believe in and when you do something you truly believe in, at the highest level you can possibly do it, good and great things happen.
“All of those things that I’ve done throughout my career that were unconventional for a BMX rider helped get me to this point. They all helped put me on the radar of someone like Jay-Z, and for him to respect it and understand it, and shout me out, you know… to reference me in a song… this is Jay-Z. He doesn’t have to name anyone. He can do whatever he wants.
"A lot of people doubted that I could have the career that I’ve had. We’ve silenced all of that"
“If you think about my career and the things that I’ve done and the way that I’ve positioned myself and the ways that I’ve expressed myself. I’m living my truth. I’m doing things that I naturally believe in and I’m doing it from a good place in my heart. Not because I’m trying to sell BMX out, that’s never the thing.
“Jay-Z is a rapper from Brooklyn, New York but beyond that he is a phenomenal business man. I look at things in a very similar way. I love BMX and it’s what I want to do and what got me to this point, this bicycle will always be with me, but there are so many things I want to do beyond that and the opportunities are there.
“A lot of people doubted that I would make it to the point of being a professional bike rider and then a lot of people doubted I could have the career that I’ve had. We’ve silenced all of that. Now we’re saying cool how far can we really take this thing? What’s the next crazy thing that could happen? Where’s the next surreal moment?
“I’m super driven by curiosity. You know - like what would it look like to ride my bicycle around the world? All these questions we’re constantly asking ourselves that come from inside. That’s where I create from.”
With Nigel Sylvester, it really is hard to know what will come next.
He says he’d love to work officially with Louis Vuitton. The ‘GO’ series isn’t over yet, either. And realistically, there are few A-listers or big brand names on the planet that Nigel could announce a partnership with at this point that would be totally surprising.
Some of the BMX community may not like that. But it seems most, at this point, at the very least respect it. It’s hard to argue with Jay-Z.
Whatever happens next, you can be sure that Nigel will continue taking BMX to a much wider audience. And that he’ll do it as he always has done - in his own, unique way.
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