Nipsey Hussle and the Creative Genius of Black Youth

I still remember the first time I visited Crenshaw and Slauson. It was a beautiful, sunny day in April and I was there to hang out with my pop-locking mentor, Tick-A-Lott. Back then I was writing about the careers of aspiring rappers from “South Central” LA (or what officials renamed “South” LA). I didn’t know what to expect as I drove through the side streets near Hyde Park, but was surprised to see a neighborhood that appeared vacant. Nobody was in the park, kids weren’t riding bikes or chasing ice cream trucks down the street, and the stoops were empty.

This was back in 2007, during the height of gang injunctions in Los Angeles. Written by the city attorneys office and the LAPD in the 1980s, gang injunctions symbolized LA’s punitive approach to marginalized Black and Brown youth. Under these injunctions, a person suspected of gang membership could be stopped and arrested by police for gathering in public in groups of three or more, using their cell phone, or wearing white T-shirts. Police and some lawmakers believed that these injunctions would discourage gang activity. In reality, they constrained community life and contributed to the racial profiling and criminalization of youth. Nipsey Hussle was an outspoken critic of these injunctions, which were deemed unconstitutional last summer in a federal court. When he looked out into his community, he didn’t see a bunch of lost causes; he saw a generation of smart, industrious, and underserved youth who just needed a little help and guidance. His life was spent trying to help others realize their creative potential.

These beliefs were at the core of his community work. It comes through in stories about him buying shoes for all the kids at 59th Street Elementary School. It also comes through in stories about him refurbishing the basketball courts at the same school, and stories of him supporting Black businesses across Los Angeles. But, perhaps more than anything, this vision is alive in his work to support entrepreneurs in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education in South Central. In 2018, Nipsey became a partner and co-investor (with real estate developer David Gross) in Vector90, a shared workspace for entrepreneurs near Crenshaw and Slauson. The idea behind Vector90 was to create an incubator that would help new businesses get off the ground running. Each year, he and Gross were set to fund the best projects from this program.

Nipsey also helped create Too Big To Fail, a STEM program for marginalized youth in Crenshaw. During a 2018 interview on Sirius XM, Nipsey described the program as a space “[F]or young kids to get trained in a skill set that it takes to get into Silicon Valley.”

He knew that African American youth were at risk of being left behind in today’s ever-growing technological world, which has outpaced growth in other sectors. For instance, between 2010 and 2017, the tech industries created more than 1 million jobs across America — this translated into an annual job growth rate of about 6 percent, which is four times the national average across all industries. And even though African Americans are heavy users of technology and have closed what researchers call the “digital divide,” they are underrepresented in all technology sectors. According to US Department of Labor data, African Americans only comprise 1.5 percent of computer-related workers in Silicon Valley, even though they account for 12 percent of the total US population. These disparities extend into tech leadership roles as well. For instance, according to the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, 83 percent of the executives in the national tech world are white compared to 2 percent who are African American.

And, as Dr. Kristen Broady points out, African Americans are also at greater risk of losing jobs with the coming transition to automation in several industries. In “Race, Automation, and the Future of Work in America, Broady describes a fast-approaching world of automation that will adversely impact African Americans:

“[C]ompared to white workers, African Americans are over one-and-a-half times more likely to be cashiers, cooks, food preparation and serving workers, production workers, laborers, and material movers. They are also over three times more likely to be security guards, bus drivers, and taxi drivers/chauffeurs, all jobs at high risk for automation.”

Nipsey seemed to see all of this on the horizon and took it upon himself to create opportunities for youth. A year ago, he spoke with Sonaiya Kelley at the Los Angeles Times and described his reasons for supporting Vector90 and Too Big To Fail. “In our culture, there’s a narrative that says, ‘Follow the athletes, follow the entertainers… And that’s cool but there should be something that says, ‘Follow Elon Musk, follow [Mark] Zuckerberg.’ I think that with me being influential as an artist and young and coming from the inner city, it makes sense for me to be one of the people that’s waving that flag.”

Much has been said and written about Nipsey Hussle over the last few weeks. His death has prompted comparisons to Tupac, condolences from Barack Obama, and inspired memorials across South Central to commemorate everything he’s done for the Black community. Perhaps more than anything, his legacy will inspire more people to believe in the creative genius of marginalized Black youth. This is a legacy worth fighting for.

About the Author

Jooyoung Lee is an associate professor of sociology and faculty affiliate in the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto. He is also a member of the Yale University Urban Ethnography Project and was previously a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Health & Society Scholar at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of Blowin’ Up: Rap Dreams in South Central and is finishing a new book tentatively titled, Ricochet: Surviving Gun Violence in Killadelphia.