On March 31, 2019, outside a storefront in a strip mall near the corner of West Slauson Avenue and Crenshaw Boulevard in South Central, Los Angeles, the American Dream collided with an American nightmare, and a life was taken. That life belonged to Ermias Joseph Asghedom, better known as Nipsey Hussle, and he was loved. Deeply. The depth and breadth of the outpouring of grief for the rapper, entrepreneur, and community leader is generally reserved for artists with longer careers and higher profiles. After a slew of successful mixtapes, Nipsey’s debut album, Victory Lap, was released in February of 2018 and was nominated for a Grammy, but he wasn’t a household name yet. Nevertheless, his memorial service was held at the 21,000-seat Staples Center, and there was a robust black market for the tickets. A former President, Barack Obama, sent a message that was read aloud. The service was livestreamed by outlets like TIME and NPR and broadcast live on BET. The love and admiration for Nipsey and the loss wrought by his death was also felt internationally, in part because of the power of his art, but also because he was the son of an immigrant.
I learned Nipsey’s given name — Ermias Asghedom — after his death. I’m Jamaican, and Rastafarians’ veneration of the Ethiopian emperor, Haile Selassie I, as divine means that our nation has a special connection to Ethiopia. Through some process of osmosis I honestly can’t explain, I’m familiar enough with names from that part of the world to have taken pause and asked, Wait… Was Nipsey Ethiopian? He wasn’t. His father, Dawit Asghedom, is from Eritrea, Ethiopia’s neighbor on the Great Horn of Africa. How quickly Ethiopia sprang to my mind will sting many Eritreans. The countries have a long history of bitter and violent territorial conflict.
After both nations’ liberation from Italian occupation during World War II, Ethiopia claimed Eritrea had always been a part of its domain and eventually annexed Eritrea, setting off a brutal war for Eritrean independence that lasted from 1961 to 1991. A border dispute erupted into the Eritrean-Ethiopian War, which lasted from 1998–2000. The final peace agreement was brokered only last year, and the border between the nations was opened. Families that had been separated for twenty years were finally able to reunite.
Every war is a failure. A failure of diplomacy. A failure of cooler heads to prevail. A failure of basic common sense. And, most importantly, a failure to value human life. Nipsey’s father fled war in Eritrea for the United States. In South Central, Los Angeles, where he settled, there was a different tenor of war being fought, in part, over territory. His son, Nipsey, became a member of one of the factions when he joined the Rolling 60s Crips. Making it out of that life whole is to have run and won a marathon. Of “Victory Lap,” the first track on his eponymous debut album, Nipsey told NPR’s Rodney Carmichael:
“If you check the stats — the murder rates and incarceration rates in the years I was a teenager in L.A. — in my section of the Crenshaw District, in the Rollin 60s, none of my peers survived. None of my peers avoided prison. None of ’em. Everybody got bullet wounds and felonies and strikes. So to make it out mentally stable and not in prison and not on drugs, that’s a win. That’s a victory in itself. Then to be in the position I find myself in as an artist and entrepreneur who has respect around the world — that’s legendary. And I say it in the most humble way.
“That’s what I was talking about in that line. When I reflect on it, it’s unbelievable. It’s gotta be evidence of a divine presence, because it wasn’t that I’m just the smartest dude or just wiggled my way through. It had to be a calling on my life and I started to see that.”
As Nipsey’s life was celebrated in front of the world at the Staples Center, the tragic circumstances of his death were understandably left mostly in the wings. Murder is what put him in his casket.
At the heart of this story is another American family, another American community torn apart and emotionally ravaged by gun violence. It matters that it was a gun that was used to kill Nipsey. Had this story taken place in a rough section of London, perhaps Nipsey would have been shot, but it’s much more likely his assailant would have been wielding a knife, and he would have stood a fighting chance. It also matters that the man who is alleged to have killed Nipsey was known to him. The mass shootings of strangers in public spaces that dominate news coverage mask the fact that most gun violence is personal. Even so, many of these stories share a similar antagonist — a damaged man with no intrinsic self-esteem, who reached into America’s ocean of guns, pulled out his weapon of choice, and destroyed what he coveted as a way to feel powerful.
Following an intensive two-day manhunt, a 29 year-old man named Eric R. Holder was arrested and charged with Nipsey’s murder. According to video evidence cited by authorities, Nipsey and Holder had several conversations outside Nipsey’s The Marathon Clothing store. It has been reported that during the confrontation Nipsey accused Holder of being a snitch. Holder left and returned with a firearm, which he discharged several times, wounding Nipsey fatally and injuring two other men. Investigators from the Los Angeles Police Department believe that Holder’s motive was wholly personal and do not believe the shooting was gang-related.
As news of the personal nature of Nipsey’s killing spread, other rappers began discussing the conflicts of remaining and working in their communities, where they know violence or even death might find them. Meek Mill tweeted “Broke me…. we really fighting for our lives against our own kind and really have to take risk and match the level of hatred that we are born in .. I’m tired 🙏🏾 prayers for my brother and his family.” His thoughts turned darker, to his own demise, as he mused, “I know they’ll kill me in my hood but I just keep on coming thru…. still wit it…. the graveyard throwing a party for all the real niggas…..”
Chuck D shared, “That Nipsey Hussle murder hit me the same way Jammaster Jay did in 2001-Bro goes across the world on a regular basis to inspire and help.Comes back to his neighborhood in JamaicaQueens to help.Only to end up dying where he grew up. All the rest left struggle payin the price smdh”
A video clip of Boosie discussing his decision to leave Baton Rouge to live in Atlanta made the rounds on social media. On why he felt safer from violence living among strangers than with people he’d known all his life, Boosie said, in part, “Wherever you from you’ll get hated the most. Most rappers die in their own city.”
An old interview Nipsey did with 730, during which he discussed the matter himself surfaced, and it is particularly chilling. It seemed almost like a prophecy. In the video clip, Nipsey said:
“[Y]ou still within reach of these people. It’s very hard, because, you know, you’re dealing with the pressures of trying to be successful, as well as the pressure of people intentionally waking up to try to bring harm your way, you know I mean, to try stop you from doing that. Because if I grew up on the same block you grew up on, we had the same trials and tribulations, but you became successful, and I became a failure, it make me feel a certain way about myself, because we had the same, we were dealt the same deck of cards. You know I mean. I feel like my success affect the people closest to me the most. A person that don’t know me might root for me, you know I mean, and be happy for me. A person that know me, and come from the same environment, and had the same cards dealt to them that keep going to jail, don’t have no money, never made their parents proud, or their momma proud, never did anything that they could look in the mirror and they could be proud of, you know I mean. It make them feel a certain way, and it’s intense. And that shit manifest itself in jealousy, hate, violence, you know I mean. It’s deep, because, it’s a stigma about artists becoming ‘Hollywood’ — especially street artists going Hollywood. But it’s almost like if you don’t, you gotta sacrifice yourself for the opinions of others… It’s a cold balance.”
When I learned Holder was an aspiring rapper, who went by Fly Mac, something fell into place for me. Nipsey’s killing remains an utterly senseless, depraved act of violence. Nevertheless, I found the added context informative. If you know any Jamaicans, you may have heard us call someone “bad mind” or “grudgeful” or even “bad mind and grudgeful.” Both notions describe a particularly virulent form of deep-seated envy. It goes beyond mere jealousy and covetousness. It is to harbor such resentment, such hatred towards a person for their accomplishments that you not only want to see them lose what they have, but you wish harm or even death on them. You may inflict harm or even death on them. Poisoned minds. Bad minds. That’s what we’re talking about. It’s incredibly destructive, both to the bearer of the ill will and to their targets. “Bad mind a kill dem,” (Envy is killing them) we often say, but we also know it might kill the person whose success they covet. As Nipsey said, “It’s deep.”
Bad mindedness is a frequently occurring theme in Jamaican popular culture. There are reams of material discussing it, and the concept is deeply embedded in our folklore. When I learned of Nipsey’s murder and what seem to be Holder’s motives, my mind turned to the Jamaican folk song, “Sammy Dead.” It’s a simple tune with a powerful lesson. Part of it goes, “Sammy plant piece a corn down a gully/ And it bear ’til it kill poor Sammy/ Sammy dead, Sammy dead, Sammy dead, oh!” Sammy had a plot of unwanted, poor quality land, literally down in a gully, and somehow, against all the odds, he got his crop of corn to bear bountifully, and he was killed for it. The song goes on to explain, “A grudgeful mek dem kill him” (Envy made them kill him). Jamaicans often joke that we’re the most extra people on the planet, and I think it might be true. I don’t know how else to explain how an island that’s a speck in the sea managed to have such a massive global impact. I think it would surprise some outsiders to realize how many of us feel like we have to move in stealthy silence, so we don’t end up like Sammy.
“It’s a cold balance.” — Nipsey Hussle
When a person achieves a certain level of success, particularly when it comes with global celebrity, it becomes impossible to move quietly anymore. Nipsey was on the cusp of achieving such success, but things with him go even deeper. Yes, Nipsey was a Grammy-nominated artist, but his notable work in his community was getting more exposure as others looked to follow his example. He built a co-working space called Vector 90 and a STEM academy in south L.A. and was hoping to expand to other cities. The Marathon Clothing store, where Nipsey was murdered, is located in a strip mall where Nipsey used to sell CDs out of his trunk. He’d had run-ins with the police there. At his memorial, his older brother, Samiel “Sam” Asghedom, told the story of how the authorities tried to strongarm the owners of the property into forcing Nipsey out. Instead the owners offered to sell the property to him, because his presence had revitalized it so much. Purchasing the property seemed impossible at the time, but somehow Nipsey managed to pull it off. It was the beginning of Nipsey’s venture into real estate. He planned to develop mixed-use properties that included low-income housing to help stave off the displacement caused by gentrification. There was much to admire about what he’d done with his life and what he’d hoped to do with it in the future. The more there is to admire, the more there is to envy, though.
Nipsey had a life that many coveted, and he understood the risks that came with outsized success. Nevertheless, after his confrontation with Holder, I don’t think it occurred to him or anyone present what would befall him. Another story Nipsey’s brother, Sam, told at his memorial service, was of a 12 year-old Nipsey coming home with computer parts, and declaring that he was going build a computer. Sam dismissed him. Nipsey came home with more parts, then went to an auction to buy a case. He built the computer, and it worked. He recorded his first attempts at music on that computer. I don’t know if it’s possible for a person with that kind of propulsive mind and energy to understand genuinely how empty and bad minded and small other people can be. To identify and prevent such people from hurting others, you have to be able to think like them, and most of us don’t, least of all people like Nipsey, who are full of ideas and hopes that they make real.
Part of what makes Holder’s alleged attack on Nipsey so senseless and even more difficult to have predicted is how little Holder valued his own life in that moment. Holder is now known as the man who murdered Nipsey Hussle. His life is forfeit. He marked himself for death the instant he allegedly pulled the trigger. He is being held in solitary confinement for his safety. Whatever Nipsey’s killer got out of that fleeting moment of illusory power was more important than his own existence. It’s an incredibly frightening thing to contemplate. His attack was like a suicide bombing in a way. (I wonder if he expected to die right then and there.) Perhaps that’s why the reverberations continue to pulsate. Nipsey’s murder must have felt like an act of terrorism to his community.
Every now and then, there will be news of a fire at a chemical plant or warehouse. There will be explosions and a towering inferno. And the firefighters will just watch it burn. Some industrial chemicals burn so hot that when water comes in contact with the flames, it is split into its component parts: hydrogen and oxygen, which add even more fuel and cause the fire to rage even harder. There are more explosions. What seems like it should be the solution makes matters worse. Sometimes the flames can be smothered, but much of the time, all that can be done is to create fire gaps to stop the flames from spreading and allow the fire to burn itself out.
Sometimes it seems like portions of Black America have been locked into burning warehouses filled with volatile chemicals: poverty, failing schools, rampant unemployment, and other social ills that drive crime and violence. Racial and class-based animus are already fanning the flames. Then inept firefighters come with the water: police, jails, prisons, mass incarceration and begin to douse the flames. The water is split into hydrogen and oxygen. The cycle of punitive violence makes matters only worse. Men like Nipsey’s killer are the explosions. He didn’t spring out of a vacuum, fully formed with a heart full of hatred and self-loathing. Many, many failures — institutional and personal — preceded his decision to procure a firearm and return to The Marathon Clothing with murder in his heart. He is responsible. Nevertheless, I don’t think enough was done, that enough was in place, to prevent what was straight and level in him from becoming crooked and warped. Nipsey was trying to stop some of those gaps with his work in the community, but it was too late for the man who killed him.
Violence begets violence. No one who makes their way through bullets and bloodshed comes out on the other side unscathed. It scrambles things inside. People often lose their sense of perspective and proportion and sometimes even their humanity. The chipping away of better selves begins well before acts of violence, though. Mutilating notions of manhood lurk behind so many pulled triggers. Boys are told that brutality is strength, that violence is a tool, that they can’t ask for comfort or cry away the pain or shame — they must shout, slap, punch, kick, stab, or shoot it into submission. Cruelty is normalized, as is devaluing people, including oneself. Self-esteem has to be manufactured, and that results in fragile egos. It creates situations where lack of respect will almost certainly occur, and that lack of respect is likely to be met with a disproportionately violent response. Much of this disrespect and violence is directed towards women. It would be the least surprising development in this case to learn that there was a woman Nipsey’s killer had been violent with, who had warned that he was dangerous and escalating, and she wasn’t listened to. It’s all so destructive. It’s all so self-destructive. It’s part of what amplifies failures of character in some men and prompts them to throw their own lives away in an attempt to save face.
A lot of rap music is aggressive. A lot of it contains violent imagery. A lot of it glorifies those mutilating notions of manhood I’ve discussed. Some of these themes were present in Nipsey’s own music. I’ve always thought that the attempts to paint rap as some seed crystal of the dysfunctions in America’s inner cities were being made in bad faith and were part of the cover-up of how deliberately so much of it has been engineered. I also don’t think rap music brainwashes young men into becoming violent zombies who are bent on destruction. Art is powerful, though, and the notion that hearing some version of “Kill, nigga kill. Die, nigga die” on repeat for decades, spliced with casual and sometimes violent misogyny has absolutely no effect on people’s minds doesn’t seem plausible to me. Art helps shape culture, and culture helps shape society.
When French Montana and Swae Lee dropped “Unforgettable,” I watched the video on repeat on YouTube, not only because of how catchy the song was, but because the scenes, which were shot in Uganda, reminded me so much of Jamaica. The way the kids were dancing and moving. It was so familiar. The absolute horror and terror of chattel slavery separated us over hundreds of years, and somehow that connection survived. That’s the power of culture. It’s why conquered people are made to stop speaking their languages and singing their songs. That amputation and the dislocation it creates makes them easier to control. Empty respectability politics and a dishonest, concern-trolling brand of white supremacy drive much of the criticisms of rap music. Nevertheless, I wonder what our descendants will make of much of the brutality in the lyrics 400 years from now. Whether or not it will be seen as a symptom or a cause, I think they’ll take it as evidence of communities being ripped apart and people crying out for help.
The defiance of hip hop — the refusal to be controlled — is part of why it resonates. Outlaw myths are part of many cultures, and are particularly revered in America. Outlaws nearly always die violent deaths, though. Nipsey was an outlaw. I don’t think that’s deniable. At his memorial, the tune “My Way” (sung by another outlaw, Frank Sinatra) blared as a montage of Nipsey’s life in pictures and video was projected. It was a fitting tribute. At a time when up-and-coming rappers were creating a virtual landfill of free music, Nipsey put up 1,000 limited edition physical copies of his mixtape, Crenshaw, for sale at the price of $100 a-piece. Jay-Z bought 100. That sort of play only works if you’re good enough, if you’re better than everyone else. It’s takes an almost delusional belief in oneself to go that far off the beaten path and not become tangled hopelessly in the brambles.
I’ve long thought that much of the pushback against hip hop was about America not liking the mirror that was being held up to it. In a way, hip hop is the most American art form, in part, because of how tightly it has embraced a kind of ruthless, aspirational hypercapitalism and the conspicuous consumption that goes along with it. The smooth veneer is stripped off, though. There’s a lot of talk about being “bosses” and the power of ownership. Nipsey was a rare specimen who walked the walk, though. He owned his masters. That made him his own boss. His family won’t have to fight with a record label over royalties. There is a lesson in there about American success that masks lessons about American failure. Nipsey and people like him are the exceptions that prove the rules most of the people in the communities where they are from have to live by. What gets left out of a lot of the “hustle”, “grind”, “we all have the same 24 hours” talk that is attached to people like Nipsey is that we don’t all have the same resources, and one of those resources is ideas. Nipsey’s ideas are why he’s being remembered. Ideas are powerful enough to make a person immortal.
Not all of Nipsey’s ideas were celebrated in the wake of his death. He caused controversy when in a January 2018 Instagram post, he captioned a photo of young, besuited Black men and boys with:
“Demonstration speaks louder than Conversation. They gone feed us every image of our men and boys but this one. No hyper violent…No homo sexual…No abandoners….JUS STRONG BLAC MEN AND YOUNG Men. RESPECT TO MY BIG HOMIE @bigu1 for Leading with love and intelligence. GOD IS WITH US WHO CAN GO AGAINST US”
Nipsey lumping in homosexuality — an immutable trait — with social ills like hyper-violence and family abandonment and positioning it as outside the realm of love and intelligence was heavily criticized at the time. In response to the backlash, Nipsey later walked some of what he said back in a tweet, in which he said, “I don’t look down on gay people I love all Gods children foreal” and said his issue was with a “larger agenda.” Nipsey softened his comments even further a month later in an interview on The Breakfast Club radio show. How these views fit into Nipsey’s legacy became a topic of heated discussion and controversy on social media following his death. One writer went so far as to apologize for having “caused more harm than good” for writing an opinion piece on the issue for NBC News.
Where would the Black LGBTQ community have fit into the better world Nipsey was trying to create with his initiatives? Would they have been welcomed and allowed to participate fully and perhaps even help lead? Or was the best they could hope for a begrudging, cold-shouldered tolerance? These are uncomfortable questions that may seem ill-timed and unnecessary to Nipsey’s family, loved ones, and fans. Nevertheless, they are fair. They are the result of the scrutiny that comes along with Nipsey having earned the stature that warranted a message from a former President being read at his memorial service.
Nipsey’s mention of a vague “larger agenda” points to another of his beliefs that further complicated the discussion of his murder. At the time of his death, Nipsey was working on a documentary about a controversial figure — Alfredo Darrington Bowman, better known as Dr. Sebi — who some believe cured HIV/AIDS (and all diseases) with herbs and a strict vegan diet and was murdered by Big Pharma and/or The Government to cover it up. During The Breakfast Club interview during which Nipsey discussed his views on homosexuality, he said he took Sebi’s products (which are still being sold) and believed Sebi was killed because he was “shortstopping [the pharmaceutical industry’s] grind.” Nipsey’s murder was interpreted in some circles as an assassination to prevent him from completing his documentary and revealing the “truth” about Sebi to the world. It won’t matter what witness statements, the video evidence, or even a confession from his killer might say: Nipsey’s killing has become part of the conspiracy theory.
Nipsey’s murder was caught on video, and I wonder if it’s going to become a kind of Zapruder film — analyzed from every angle to see whose choice of t-shirt might incriminate them as a co-conspirator in his death. How widely shared the footage was has been one of the more macabre aspects of all this. Images of Black death, violent Black death, have become commonplace on social media. I remember when Gawker made the decision to publish a photograph of Trayvon Martin lying dead. I was horrified and thought it was ghoulish and disrespectful. As time passed, video evidence of police slaying unarmed Black men began to be shared widely, and it sparked an uprising of protest against the injustice. I looked back on Gawker’s decision with a different perspective. That perspective has changed yet again. It is becoming clear that the proliferation of these images is traumatizing people, particularly young Black people, and much more care needs to be taken in determining whether or not they should be shared.
As reported by Angel Jennings in The L.A. Times, Nipsey’s brother, Sam, watched as he lay dying. After Nipsey was shot, a frantic call was placed to Sam, who drove pell mell to his brother’s side and arrived just before the paramedics did. There was blood everywhere, he reported. Most of it was his brother’s. As paramedics moved Nipsey to place him on the gurney, onlookers screamed as they saw for the first time that he had been shot in the head. I don’t think Sam Asghedom will ever be the same after what he saw. Neither will the witnesses who were just going about their business when the shooting started. What about all the people who viewed it on social media? How many of them have been damaged? After Holder allegedly shot Nipsey, he reportedly kicked him in the head before fleeing. All of us can read. Did anyone who wasn’t there, who wasn’t a prisoner of that awful moment, really need to see that complete and utter disregard for human life? I haven’t watched the video, and I don’t think I ever will.
It’s too early to tell what Nipsey’s legacy will be, but it’s clear that unity will be a theme. Nipsey was fiercely proud of his Eritrean heritage, and he has been remembered in the land of his father’s birth. He is also being remembered in neighboring Ethiopia. Many of the images and clips from candlelight vigils being held for Nipsey in Ethiopia that were shared on social media featured the Eritrean and Ethiopian flags side by side. It’s a small act of solidarity that carries with it the hope of a peaceful future between the nations. That hope for peace also made itself known closer to where Nipsey lived and died, as rival gangs came together to celebrate his life. Keeping the fragile truces going will require leadership, commitment, resources, and goodwill, not only from the community but from the agents of the political machinery that govern the community, particularly its criminal justice arm. It appears some of that goodwill is already being withheld.
It has been reported that Nipsey wasn’t scheduled to be at The Marathon Clothing when he was killed. He received word that his friend, 56 year-old Kerry Lathan, had just been released from prison after serving 20 years for murder. Nipsey headed over to the store without his bodyguard to welcome the man home and help outfit him with fresh clothes. That act of kindness put Nipsey in the wrong place at the wrong time to be set upon by the wrong person. Lathan was shot in the back during the attack and is currently unable to walk. Nevertheless, he has been arrested and jailed for a parole violation for associating with Nipsey, who, in service to seeing this done, was reduced to the label of “known gang member.”
Yes, the petty cruelties born of bad mindedness are often institutionalized and made harshly punitive. At their heart, they are about keeping someone you believe to be beneath you in their place, about never allowing them to rise above their circumstances. Make no mistake, seeing the international outpouring of grief for a man like Nipsey deeply offends a certain kind of person, and they want to erase what was good about him and turn him into just another dead gangbanger.
There was so much more Nipsey wanted for himself as an individual personally and professionally, and those portions of his dreams shall never come to fruition. I think that’s what’s been so difficult to deal with. He was damn near pulling off the impossible, and it wasn’t enough. It still didn’t save him. It’s destabilizing to be made to face what little control we have. The improvements Nipsey wanted for his community are still within reach, though. Only time will tell if enough people will pick up their tools and work to complete the mansion he was building.
The marathon continues. 🏁