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John Legend, Cheryl ‘Salt’ James, More Bring Black Roller Skating Culture to the Spotlight

Roller skating isn’t just a hobby. In black communities across the country, it’s a culture. It’s a way of life.

At the premiere of the documentary “United Skates” in Los Angeles at Avalon on Wednesday night, executive producer John Legend, Cheryl “Salt” James, and more talked about just that, dishing on how roller skating rinks in the United States brought black communities together, and why it’s sad they’re disappearing, a theme that echoed throughout the powerful film.

“Back in the day, skating was the shiznit,” the Salt-N-Pepa rapper told Variety. “It’s what we would do on the weekend. Me and Pep actually used to go to a skating rink on Long Island called Laces, and when I was little, I lived in Brooklyn and Empire was the skating rink.”

“Skating was a huge part of the hip-hop culture because when you first started performing, that was one of your gigs,” she continued. “Your gig would be a pub or a skating rink, so we went around all the skating rinks from Philly to Maryland to New York. So because it’s a dying culture, something that I grew up on that I’ve always loved, when I saw the documentary, I didn’t know how deep it was that it’s disappearing. It’s pretty sad. It’s a staple in our culture that I grew up on that I’m sorry that my daughter didn’t get a chance to see.”

Directors Dyana Winkler and Tina Brown echoed those sentiments. They spent five years putting the documentary together, with Legend joining the team near the end of the project. As they were filming “United Skates,” they not only immersed themselves in the culture of roller skating, but also noticed the segregation at skating rinks.

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“When we were first introduced to this world and we saw how celebratory it was, we weren’t sure that it was going to have enough social or political impact,” Winkler told Variety. “It was only when we started to realize all the rinks in this country are segregated that these skaters were being treated differently on the nights that they go to the rink, that we came back and decided to bring it to the world.”

That segregation, Legend said, “wasn’t necessarily a bad thing” because of the way it brought communities together. “It has allowed a certain subculture to flourish to celebrate black culture and black skating culture,” he told reporters, adding, “Segregation is bad. Segregation has a terrible history in America, but sometimes the byproduct of segregation is that certain subcultures get to flourish, and I think one of the results of that is that there have been these cultural spaces where black people got together and enjoyed each other and enjoyed the music of their culture.”

Brown said she was touched by that sense of community at the rinks, telling Variety about a moment that struck her when she walked inside of one and saw that no one was locking up their personal belongings. “When we walked into the room, all of the lockers had no locks on them,” she said. “When they walk to the lockers, they just put their clothes, their skate bags, their wallets underneath benches. Everyone was family in there and there was a sense of why would you take anything because you’re family — even if you don’t know who they are.”

“So we really tried to make sure that you felt that sense of community and that sense of love in every inch of the making of the film so you understood that this space was an important space that grandparents go to that babies go to and everything in between, and they’re all under that one roof at one time,” she continued.

It was easy to feel that sense of community in the documentary, but also inside of the Avalon. Skaters who appeared in the film, like Batman, were there, watching the screening in plush booths alongside Legend, James, Raz-B, Jeannie Mai, and more. Once the credits rolled, a skate party of sorts ensued, with 30 invited skaters rolling their way down to skate on stage and show off their tricks for attendees.

“United Skates” premieres Feb. 18 on HBO on.

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