Nipsey Hu$$le's Challenge to America
11 years ago, Nipsey Hu$$le started out as a 21-year-old local celebrity known predominantly in his community of South Central Los Angeles as Naybahood Nip. On the video for his 2008 breakthrough track “Hu$$le in the House,” while adorning a Malcolm X pendant he says, “I’m from the city where homicide fuels the economy.” This statement encompasses an ongoing discussion on how members and affiliates of South Central’s street culture catapulted the entertainment, prison, tourism, and development industries. It is this complex reality that Hu$$le committed himself not only to understand but to also fight against. Through the support of his neighborhood network, family, entrepreneurial mindset, and radical music catalog he beat the odds stacked against him. Therefore, it is no mistake that on CBS Lebron James just days after Hussle’s assassination called it, “one of the most unfortunate events in American history.” It is put simply, exactly that.
For his funeral on April 11th, the sold-out Staples Center accommodated 20,000 people while thousands more lined the 23-mile stretch of Crenshaw Blvd. to pay their respects to South Central’s revolutionary Robin Hood through Watts, Inglewood, South Central LA, and Compton.
Since his murder, multiple articles have focused on the circumstances surrounding his death, the heartwrenching pain of his loss, his community involvement, assessed his steadily growing wealth, rising posthumous streaming popularity, and now a worldly recognized clothing line. Although it is important that each of these continue to be a prominent part of the conversation on Hussle’s legacy, it is vital that not just South Central mourn but America do so as well. Hussle’s death will be in vain without an intense reflection on the structural barriers that created the social condition he grew up in. More importantly, it is crucial for all of us to reflect on the reasons why it was merely through his insatiable curiosity to pursue an anti-racist education that cultivated his understanding of self which in combination with his hu$$le and forward-thinking brilliance led to businesses that are more than just entrepreneurial efforts but a physical representation of the justice he sought for his community.
As President Obama wrote, “While most folks look at the Crenshaw neighborhood where he grew up and only see gangs, bullets, and despair, Nipsey saw potential. He saw hope.” Nipsey Hussle’s challenge to America is to move from placing a microscope on the individuals within impoverished communities and to turn it upon itself to examine the dark history of anti-blackness, racist policies and internalized oppression that led to segregated neighborhoods, a wealth income gap, large incarceration rates and a gaping hole for gentrification to occur in the 21st century. I agree with President Obama, Hussle had hope for those who were left behind, I would also add that to continue his work, we must identify the “folks” who played a large participatory part in constructing the narrative of South Central Los Angeles as gang-infested, blighted and in need of “renewal.”
On his 2012 “Marathon” release the single “Bigger Than Life” helps to articulate the responsibility America has in the transition of Ermias Ashgedom becoming Nipsey Hussle. Hussle says, “and they all in collusion, these racist institutions double standard, acting like they, not the reason why we ruthless." The first challenge for America is to confront the irrefutable fact that Hussle is right. It is documented in Slavery by Another Name, The New Jim Crow, The Color of Law and An Example for All the Land: Emancipation and Equality the Struggle for Washington, D.C. that racism shifted from covert White supremacy to overt institutionalized racist practices that still today affect the condition of African Americans. Although there are multiple examples of this, a present example, in February forced the NYU School of Social Work to acknowledge its own institutionalized racism while this month the current FBI director called White supremacy a “persistent, pervasive threat” to the United States.
The threat of White supremacy is, of course, an ongoing discussion as it is an incremental part of the nation's founding, however, Hussle’s second challenge incorporates a necessity to examine the commodification of the street culture he participated in as a member of the Rollin 60’s Crips and the use of street organizations like his as evidence to continue the historically racist narrative of Black people as violent savage criminals and the inner-city as a community in need of restoration instead of financial equality and educational resources. It is true that Hollywood’s palm tree backdrop has been the location of thousands of murders between the 1980s-1990s when it was aptly titled the “Gang Capital of the World” which encouraged the 2003 name change from South Central Los Angeles to South L.A
Since 2003 the name change and funding have been used to support gentrification efforts and aid in constructing a new image for the world-famous city away from the stereotype as containing a large “gang” population. As reported by the NY Times the name alteration was also due to the stark portrayals of the warring Blood and Crips in the films “Colors,” “Boyz ‘N the Hood,” and “Training Day.” These films garnered over $120 million at the box office all while Hu$$le remained in the social condition the films gorily depict. The efforts to disassociate the city from its dark history, in fact, is the reason why in 2019 it has come to the surface. The story of a child of South Central, who grew up, and then turned into a “gang-member” and I would argue, pursued a rap and entrepreneurial career that began to pick up the work of the late great and revolutionary Tupac Amaru Shakur, is a rag to riches story that only this country could make.
For the sake of the future of South Central Los Angeles, Hu$$le worked relentlessly to rewrite history so people around the world could begin to envision the often negatively categorized residents of the Crenshaw District and neighborhoods nationally which mirror it, as human. This is why a change.org petition has garnered over 500,000 signatures leading to the confirmation of Nipsey Hussle Square. Yet, the square is not enough.
Nipsey Hussle’s third challenge to America is to dismantle the institutionalized racist policies that resulted in what many may consider an almost insurmountable amount of obstacles to construct a business in his local community. If time permits you, I suggest you watch “Nipsey Hussle’s Journey of Opening a Store in the Middle of His Hood on Crenshaw”. It is only 39 minutes long and although I’ve watched well over ten hours of footage and listened to tracks from each mixtape Hussle had, this documentary on WorldStarHipHop is one of the most comprehensive sources of media that depicts the condition and consistent struggle for Hussle to expand his consciousness and maintain his business.
According to Hussle and his brother, Blacc Sam their Hussle on the concrete street in front of The Marathon Clothing store which they now own. They were harassed by the previous owners, dehumanized by the removal of chairs in restaurants so they could not sit, and their merchandise was repeatedly taken by authorities because they lacked proper permits. Even when the store initially opened as “Slauson Tees” it was raided due to Hussle’s known affiliation with the Rollin 60s Crips despite him taking the advice of a fellow peace officer who informed him, “if you want to sale here, you need to buy a store.” The unfortunate truth is that although to South Central after 10 years of hard work on his marathon’s Victory Lap, Nipsey Hussle became also Ermias Asghedom the entrepreneur, rap mogul, radical thinker, community activist, and beloved friend and family member, to the Los Angeles Police Department and judicial system, he was still just a gang member and so were his affiliates.
Now Hu$$le maintained his affiliation with Rollin 60s but verbalized his commitment to showing those ready, new paths to take. Although many would like to paint a negative narrative of Hussle, throughout a great portion of his life he was committed to peace. The LA Peace Walk which occurred just days after his murder is evidence of that. While the avenues he took were unconventional, however, I would argue that his methods starkly resembled that of some of America’s most celebrated stories and films. From Scarface to John Dillinger, Billy the Kid, and Al Capone, America has always celebrated rags to riches stories with criminals who seemed to almost defy the odds. The only difference is in this story the odds were defied and the criminal was not White but Black. Ermias “Nipsey Hussle” Asghedom defeated the system while promoting solidarity among his people and engaging in continuous self-reflection which America has not.
In fact,Hu$$le describes himself as, someone who embraced his Blackness and studied it. His life connects the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans forming a Black Atlantic story which I may suggest Stuart Hall or Paul Gilroy may be interested in researching. Although being African American is, of course, a categorization here in America our history’s absence from mainstream curriculums has resulted in the production of youth who are limitedly aware of their ancestors' pain and plight. Hu$$le, however, had rich roots to Africa in Eritrea which he explored in 2003 and 2018 through his visit to the motherland was brought back home with him to the U.S. and through music, to his audience.
Whether America will ever admit it or not, Nipsey Hussle’s blood and that of the thousands who have died like him has been used to construct narratives that “fuel the economy.” The true testimony of Los Angeles’s love for Nipsey and America’s commitment to Black and Brown citizens is in the challenge of eradicating the very narratives which in combination with structural racism allow only a few brilliant hood minds like Nipsey to gain notoriety. There are thousands of brilliant, Black minds in hoods across the nation, and as Hussle stated on the 2018 release “Dedication” off his Victory Lap album, he knew he was “... a genius he just can’t claim it, cause they left him no platforms to explain it.”
The question is, will there be a commitment to developing the platforms needed for the brilliance of Black people to shine in America? As his partner, Cuzzy Capone states on “The Weather” on
the now legendary #Proud2Pay Crenshaw album, “when I die put me next to the dead poets, tell them God had a plan for me and I ain’t know it.” The final challenge is for America to relentlessly commit to our neighborhood poets while they are alive to ensure they know their brilliance to prevent it from being buried with them.
If, we can not all meet the challenges that Hussle’s life and death present, I am honestly fearful for the future. At this moment while I mourn the loss of one of my heroes with my city I seek comfort in Hussle’s name Ermias, which in Eritrean means, “God will rise.”