Article Thumbnail

What It Means When You Die a Half-Made Man

The incomplete legacy of Nipsey Hussle

Los Angeles had just endured its coldest winter in recent memory. Then, yesterday, the city finally enjoyed one of its first warm days of spring. It was the sort of day when everyone in the ’hood wants to be outside. But halfway through the afternoon, somewhere down in the Crenshaw District, a spray of bullets transformed that springtime Sunday into a season for murder. And so, on the last day of March, around 3:20 p.m., rapper and businessman Nipsey Hussle was gunned down on Slauson Boulevard, in front of his flagship store The Marathon Clothing.

According to eyewitness accounts, a young black man walked up to Hussle and asked for a photo with the young rap legend. Next, the assailant pulled a gun and shot Hussle six times: one in the head, five in the chest. Two other men standing with him, reportedly his security, were also shot. The young man fled, hopping into a waiting Chevy sedan driven by a young black woman, described as wearing white beads in her braided hair. Hussle lay bleeding on the pavement as an ambulance was called. When it arrived, Hussle and one of the two other men who’d been gunned down were transported to a local hospital.

Nipsey Hussle, born Ermias Davidson Asghedom, was declared dead just after his arrival at the ER. He was 33.

Why had the unexpected eruption of gun violence shattered the hard-earned peace of a Sunday afternoon in the ’hood? No one knows for sure. The LAPD thinks it was gang violence. This much is certain, though: With that sudden, unexpected flash of gunfire, the young rap god’s life was reduced from a celebrated marathon to a tragic sprint — rendering him a half-made man who had so much more to do, to make, to build, to grow and to become.

South L.A. is a hard place to escape. There are, of course, the rare ones who win the opportunity to escape, who make their own way out. But there are the even rarer ones who choose not to flee. That was Nipsey Hussle. He stayed in the ’hood to invest his time and money in the community, working with the goal to make it a place no one ever wants to escape. The fact that “he never made it out the ’hood” is high praise.

In the music industry, he’d seen ups and downs. In the early days, he’d been a rapper on the rise, named to XXL’s 2010 Freshman Class. That same year, though, he chose to negotiate his release from Epic Records. He wanted to go his own way, and most importantly, own his own masters. He told MTV at the time, “I’ma walk away with all my masters; I’ma walk away unobligated, with my brand built.”

In 2013, working as an independent artist, Hussle showed the world how serious he was about his music and his business when he dropped Crenshaw. The mixtape was a limited release. There were only 1,000 copies. He sold it at a pop-up shop — each one costing $100 — very publicly betting hard on the value of his work at a time when the music industry didn’t seem to have such faith in him. The industry had to reconsider when Jay Z ponied-up and bought 100 copies. After that, Hussle kept the heat on and never looked back. In 2018, he put out his debut album, on his own label. It was nominated for a Grammy. Although, Hussle never got to complete his intended marathon, we still have his Victory Lap.

In an interview with Complex from last year, Hussle spoke about his plan for leaving music behind. He said he intended to name his next album Exit Strategy. Why was he thinking about leaving it all behind? “One of the most important things to know is when it’s over,” he once said. “Even with a stock, with a business, whatever. It’s not called quitting if you quit while you ahead. It’s about being aware and being strategic enough to know that you got to get out the pool at some point. You got to put your clothes back on and dry off.”

His music now remains a record of his lifeview. It’s a lyrical testament to his commitment to black people, to our betterment, and offers an instructional guide for how we can restore our communities together. In that same Complex interview, Hussle spoke about his new clothing store as a model, “The Marathon is something everybody can apply to whatever they doing and aspiring to do, and can add value to their life. It’s something they can bring back to their circle and make their circle better. I think that’s what’s at the core of what got people supporting and behind my movement.”

His flagship The Marathon Clothing store was located at 3240 West Slauson Avenue, there at the corner of Crenshaw. Hussle was holding down that corner. In fact, he’d purchased the whole strip mall; he was growing the future in one of the most unmistakably black sections of South L.A., right near historic Leimert Park where black nationalists and community organizers have often gathered and rallied to improve the lives of Black Americans who call L.A. their home. He stayed profoundly bonded to his community, committing himself to making Crenshaw a better place to live for everyone in his ‘hood.

Still, he wasn’t without fault. While it’s undeniably true that Hussle was a deeply committed, community-minded man, he was also an unapologetic homophobe. He took extremely problematic stances, accusing the culture-at-large of pushing a homosexual agenda, and he subscribed to the idea that there’s an overt attempt to feminize black men, to weaken our masculinity. It was an ugly side of an otherwise very respectable man. A side he hopefully would’ve outgrown.

As George Johnson wrote about Hussle’s “imperfect truth” for The Advocate, “Nipsey represented a micro part of a macro issue — meaning he is not the beginning nor ending of homophobia but as a leader plays a role in how that is discussed among the community that follows his every word. That is something he should be held accountable for.”

There is something else he should be held accountable for as well: He was a Rollin 60’s Crip, and damn proud of it. He was a legit gangsta rapper. A man bound by his blue bandana to the cycles of violence that snatch so many innocent black lives. He was, in a word, complicit.

As a pre-eminent hip-hop scribe and observer of the culture, Jeff Weiss wrote about Hussle’s lyrical appeal for Complex, noting, “There was a fast-twitch effortlessness to his flow, coupled with the ferocity and scheming intelligence of a middleweight champion. Nipsey triangulated Ice Cube’s strength of street knowledge with Snoop’s Swisher Sweet cool.” And just like those L.A. legends before him, Hussle celebrated the acquisition of materialism and use of violence to grasp it, speaking of gang life in a way that will likely lead some younguns to choose lives of danger. He made the life sound too good, even if he meant to warn against it.

That said, likely as not, he was outgrowing those musical celebrations of street life as his business acquisitions grew in number. In that way, many mourners have compared Hussle to Jay-Z, before Jay grew up. After all, the two men were working together on a program to end gang violence in L.A. They even had a meeting scheduled with the LAPD to discuss tactics to accomplish their goal. The meeting was scheduled for Monday, the day after Hussle was shot and killed.

So I’d argue that Hussle was as much an incomplete man as he was a flawed one. A man who wasn’t able to live enough life to address his flaws. Instead, he was made a victim of the same violence that made him who he is. In Victory Lap, he’d rhymed:

Sitting on the steps feeling no feelings
Last night, it was cold killing
You gotta keep the devil in his hole, nigga
But you know how it go, nigga
I’m front line every time it’s on, nigga
Hunnit proof flow, run and shoot pro
458 drop, playing bullet proof soul

His street-based self-knowledge will forever be part of his legend. It will earn him rightful comparisons to Tupac and Biggie. In an interview with Vibe magazine, back in 1996, the same year he was gunned down and died, Tupac talked about what many called his glamorization of violence, and argued that, “because I’m talking about it doesn’t mean that it’s okay.” Hussle took this same approach in his lyrics. Yes, he glorified violence and street codes. Just as he lamented the cycles of violence that young black men are pushed into by the country’s systemic inequalities and its historic system of racism. If anything, he was testifying, not glorifying. The problem is that the two can easily be mistaken for one another.

For me, all of this brings to mind Jean-Michel Basquiat, who once painted a series of black saints, intended to deify our fallen heroes, to revere them properly as saints to inspire, and as reminders of the work left to us to be done. Basquiat named one painting, “St. Joe Louis Surrounded by Snakes.” He named another “Charles the First,” to celebrate the jazz musician Charlie Parker, yet, just like Basquiat and Hussle, one more black artist who died too young. Down in the lower corner of that painting dedicated to Parker, Basquiat added the words: Most Young Kings Get Their Head Cut Off. Jay-Z is a noted collector of Basquiat paintings, he even owns a print of that painting. In his memoir, Decoded, the hip-hop mogul wrote about his fallen art hero and about that work in particular — in many ways, it could be a eulogy for Hussle:

“People always wanted to stick Basquiat in some camp or another, to paste on some label that would be stable and make it easy to treat him like a commodity. But he was elusive. His eye was always on a bigger picture, not whatever corner people tried to frame him in. But mostly his eye was probably on himself, on using his art to get what he wanted, to say what he wanted to communicate his truth.”

The brilliance bound inside Nipsey Hussle, never got to accomplish all that he had in mind. He never got to live long enough to examine his “imperfect truth,” but he communicated it powerfully. Now, his unfinished work falls to us.

Yes, he’s become another black icon of incompletion. A pained reminder that no good deed goes unpunished — especially here in America. But most importantly, his spirit has gone on ahead, and now he’s transfigured into a constellation (imperfect as it might be), a presence that points the way for each of us to find our own way deeper into our community to improve it.

What better legacy could a black man have?