Lenny “Lenny S” Santiago is rarely in the spotlight. As a music executive and an illustrious photographer, he prefers to leave the stage to his artists and subjects. The SVP at Roc Nation—who was also given one of his first major photography gigs by Jay-Z and Dame Dash at a DMX concert—lives by a quote from Hov’s 2010 book, Decoded. “You don’t get what you deserve, you get what you negotiate,” he recites. With support from friends he’s met throughout his career, Lenny has been able to pave his own lane. As part of “The Collective (TC),” the Bronx native’s passions for hip-hop, fashion and photography all come together for PUMA’s “For All Time” campaign.
In celebration of the brand’s trajectory as a classic shoe, PUMA has partnered with Jay-Z, Roc Nation’s Emory Jones and their Basketball and Classics Creative Director to produce The Collective. TC is a team of creatives, influencers, and storytellers who have had a timeless influence in their respective fields. Each member will highlight various PUMA silhouettes within interviews, creative content, and product designs that help define what it means to be classic, and have timeless influence.
As a key element of the project, each member will also hand-select “Next Generation Picks,” which are influencers who are projected to become the “classics” of tomorrow. TC and PUMA will support their work and development with a financial grant and mentorship. Santiago’s Next Gen Picks are pilot Jocko Graves and photographer Mel Williams.
“Lenny’s photography teaches me to treat each moment like it’s my first,” Graves said. “The Next Gen pick means that I will have the opportunity to give back to others who are passionate about film and expressing themselves through artistic mediums.” Williams shared, “I’m absolutely honored as this was completely unexpected. I look forward to using this opportunity to continue making an impact.”
VIBE spoke with Santiago in an exclusive interview about being highlighted by PUMA, fusing his passions, and working with Roc Nation and Jay-Z.
VIBE: From being behind the lens to now in front of it, PUMA is spotlighting you. What does it mean for you to be a part of PUMA’s “For All Time” campaign, as part of “The Collective?”
Lenny S: Honestly it genuinely means a lot. It feels good to be recognized 25 years later as being part of The Collective. I’ve obviously done something right within the culture. It’s a personal highlight in my life that has come full circle. I feel like my whole life has been hip-hop, or music or entertainment. I did everything in my power to beg my mom to buy it – [PUMA], it made me feel that much closer to the culture. It made me feel that much closer to being cool. So seeing artists and seeing athletes and stuff like that wear this stuff, it just kind of made me feel like I was a part of that same culture.
PUMA is such a classic sneaker. It has a classic silhouette. In your opinion, what does it take for something to be considered a classic?
I think what it takes to be considered classic is: one is longevity, two is to be authentic, and three is to be cool – I mean, amongst other things. But I think for me, those are the three most important. The people that are wearing these silhouettes and these sneakers and the apparel, – with PUMA it’s authentic. When you saw Clyde Frazier in these ads back then and the people that were signing to PUMA – you loved Clyde on and off the court. He was wearing mink coats and had Rolls-Royces and he was wearing Clydes and it just look dope as f**k; LL Cool J and just different rappers. If you have something that’s real and that’s going to withstand the test of time, you’re going to have longevity. A Timberland, it still is important today as it was 30 years ago, a Clyde is as well … [and] PUMA. That’s why I love Puma. Because it’s literally “for all time.”
Thinking of the next generation of icons and creative influencers, PUMA’s Next Gen campaign will offer $20,000 to a blossoming creative. You’re actually giving $10,000 each to two winners. They’ll also receive support from Puma in their endeavors. Can you talk to me a little about that and how you chose the winners?
If I could split it 10 ways, I would’ve. But I’d rather two people benefit from 20 than one person. The first one being Jocko Graves – a young photographer/director out of Brooklyn. I noticed he was shooting some people that I knew and just shooting around New York. Then I got to meet him and I see this young, kind of innocent, but ambitious kid running around at different clubs, video shoots, concerts with film cameras hanging around his neck shooting people. And it just honestly just reminded me of myself. I have photos that I’ve submitted to Puma of me as a teenager with that same film camera hanging around my neck, just like Jocko has now 30 years later. He’s so grateful. He’s so gracious. He doesn’t take any of this for granted.
Then the next one is Mel [WIlliams]. Mel is an ergonomics flight pilot out of Atlanta who teaches young kids of color how to fly. He works for Delta. Again, this is an industry where, Amber, how many black pilots do you know? I fly private and commercial all the time and I can count on one hand the amount of black pilots that I’ve seen. I went to Atlanta and he gave me a flight lesson. We came back down and we spoke for hours and he just told me about his mission and how he’s building this plane from scratch. He’s a nine to five worker while doing flight school at night. He’s paying it forward, he’s teaching young kids of color how to fly planes because he knows that it’s scarce in the industry. It’s so admirable.
As SVP of Roc Nation and being able to give your all to photography as well, do you believe that there’s a true essence in multitasking? Or is that something we tell ourselves to do, to feel that we can do it all?
Great question. I do believe in multitasking, but to a certain degree. I do believe you can, because I get inspired by people who I see do it. I think you’re going to be as great or as good as the people you are around or that inspire you. Kevin Hart is one of my great, great, great friends, from when we put him in his first film, Paper Soldiers. Kevin Hart was taking the bus and the train from Philadelphia. Charlie Murphy was picking him up in Jersey or Long Island, wherever we were shooting and he was filming. There was no car service. All these years later, Kevin has 30 brand deals, he’s shooting multiple films a year. He’s one of the biggest, not even comedians, biggest stars in the world, like in the world. He has five shows, he has 10 he’s producing. I’ve been with this man for weeks at a time, days at a time. I see how much he squeezes in a day. The same with Jay and Khaled.
Jay-Z serves as an executive producer for The Collective. Can you reflect on your friendship with him?
I just feel like God … God didn’t only put me in the music business, he put me with f**king Jay-Z. That’s like any kid right now coming up and being with Kendrick or being with Drake or being with a great. So God blessed me and Jay blessed me with giving me the opportunity to work with him so closely. I’m not going to take that for granted and I’m going to do any and everything to stay relevant. I’m a hard worker and I want to win and I don’t want to be number three or number four or number five. I want to be number one for myself and who I’m working with.
I’m a representation of Jay-Z, I’m a representation of talent, I’m a representation of Roc Nation (of anybody that I deal with). I made a couch famous [laughs]. I did that so that there was a cool place to come by for Roc Nation, just like you would go to some wall with wings for an Instagram moment. It’s actually the dumbest sh*t in the world [laughs]. But the point is just proving to people, or showing people, inspiring people that you can do whatever. But multitasking [for me] is like … ‘I slept six hours in the last two days, like the full 48 hours. We shot with Drake for this video for 15 hours straight. I just came back from Canada and I’m about to go to Bermuda with D-Nice for an influencer trip.’ I’m not going to stop until it’s done.
You’ve signed and photographed some of the biggest artists in the world and have watched Hip-Hop and fashion evolve over time just through your lens. What has been your favorite period of evolution for Black culture?
The Run DMC [era]. That whole thing. The leather blazers with the fedoras … and the Adidas, Puma, Fila tracksuits with the sneakers that LL Cool J and MC Chan and Clyde Fraser wore – those were aspiring to me; big gold rope chains. I was super young. But what I love, love, love is the late ’90s, early 2000s. I think Pharrell is one of the dopest, most stylish, most talented people in this business and in all facets. The ’90s hip-hop is almost untouchable. I’m a hip-hop head. The way Jay was rapping and Nas, Big, Pac, Ice Cube and all these guys … they were pushing it forward.
PUMA’s “The Collective” includes: Roc Nation’s Emory Jones, award-winning designer and PUMA creative director June Ambrose, Harlem fashion innovator Dapper Dan, decorated director and videographer Hype Williams, NBA Hall of Famer and PUMA ambassador Walt Clyde Frazier, RHUDE designer Rhuigi Villaseñor, creative consultant and founder of Upscale Vandal, Mike Camargo, and legendary photographer Lenny Santiago who stands as the Visual Director of Still Photography for the campaign.
Check out PUMA’s “For All Time” spotlight video with Lenny S above and visit the campaign’s website here.