Nipsey Hussle’s Community Devotion Defied Expectations

Nearly a month after his tragic death, Nipsey Hussle’s impact continues to reverberate throughout the nation. In the weeks since he was gunned down in front of his Marathon Clothing store, thousands have inundated the internet with expressions of profound grief. They also filled the streets of Los Angeles, Detroit, Houston, Philadelphia, Atlanta, and other parts of the country to pay their respects. Los Angeles Congresswoman Karen Bass announced efforts to ensure that Hussle’s towering legacy “will be part of United States history forever” by entering his many contributions into the official record of Congress. Los Angeles City Councilman Marqueece Harris-Dawson also recently announced that the city would name the intersection of Crenshaw Boulevard and West Slauson Avenue Ermias “Nipsey Hussle” Asghedom Square. Even Former President Obama penned a touching letter to memorialize him.

The stirring tributes reveal how significant Hussle was to Black and Brown people in Los Angeles and beyond. Nipsey Hussle was more than a rapper; he was a visionary and an entrepreneur who invested in his family and his community. Where others saw dilapidated buildings and rankling decay, Hussle saw communities ripe for investment. Where many saw misguided youth, Hussle saw himself, a young man transformed by understanding his roots and the value of his potential. In so doing, he disrupted the archetypal image of the local gang member from his native Crenshaw neighborhood. The gang member archetype routinely depicts a poorly educated individual, fixated on violent skirmishes over streets, boulevards, and avenues he will rarely leave — and never own. These stigmas have roots in decades of discriminatory public policy, crippling communities like Crenshaw, and are further exacerbated by racist propaganda. These purportedly self-fulfilling and stereotypical prophecies could have easily affixed themselves to Hussle, but his story dismantles those notions. Hussle considered himself an ambassador for his neighborhood, and worked to challenge assumptions about Black and Brown people in Los Angeles.

Over the past few years, the world came to know Ermias Asghedom as Nipsey Hussle, the prolific rapper on the cusp of becoming a household name following the triumphant success of his debut album, Victory Lap. The Grammy-nominated album brimmed with the ascendant aplomb of a man who defied all odds to achieve unimaginable success. His music, spanning one studio album, two compilations, and 13 mixtapes, “straightforwardly continued the traditions of West Coast rap: N.W.A. documenting of gangland realities, Snoop Dogg’s easy confidence, and Dr. Dre’s slow-sauntering, siren-whining sound,” The Atlantic noted. Beginning with his mixtape Slauson Boy, Hussle’s music had a penchant for presenting the harrowing details of coming of age in Crenshaw. It regularly positioned probing social commentary as everyday common sense. His music simultaneously channeled the voices of his influences while charting a distinct narrative of its own.

Though Nipsey’s approach to music distinguished him from some of his peers, his use of his music as a platform to promote entrepreneurship made him a standard-bearer for his generation. His emphasis on owning one’s content, and fighting to preserve its value, distinguished him in an era typified by a market oversaturated with an unrelenting inundation of free songs, mixtapes, and albums from scores of hip-hop artists. During a time when most rappers flooded the internet with their latest missives for free download, Hussle released his mixtape Crenshaw in the fall of 2013, selling copies for $100 each. He eventually sold 1,000 copies, and netted a return few could fathom at a time when music purchases had plummeted. In January 2015, he sold 60 copies of his mixtape Mailbox Money for $1,000 each, which again turned the music industry’s economic model on its head.

Nipsey zigged when others zagged. That ability to go against the grain gave his music career viability many of his peers admired, though many who knew him outside of music figured this was an inevitable outcome for someone with the grandiose vision Nipsey had.

Crenshaw residents knew Hussle from his promising rap career, but also as an affable philanthropist and entrepreneur who relentlessly celebrated and invested in his often-overlooked community. Iddris Sandu, the 21-year-old architect who designed Marathon Clothing said, “His activism was based on ownership and not just consumerism.” Hussle met Sandu serendipitously at a local Starbucks, and left so impressed with the wunderkind software engineer, that he commissioned Sandu to design and develop Marathon Clothing into a first-of-its-kind smart store. Their partnership is a metaphor for how Hussle’s community presence led him to continually see potential and opportunity in both the people and neighborhood when others routinely failed see value in either. Hussle knew his worth, and challenged others to acknowledge their own. This sense of self-worth sprung forth from Nipsey gaining a deeper appreciation for his roots.

The Eritrean community of Los Angeles knew Hussle as Ermias, one of their beloved sons who regularly celebrated his familial connection to the tiny nation flaring out of the horn of Africa. At their memorial service for him, his given name “punctuated the sonorous prayers in Ge’ez and Tigrinya” of the hundreds of people gathered at the Medhani-Alem Eritrean Orthodox Tewahdo Church in South Los Angeles to mourn his devastating loss. At 19, Nipsey traveled to Eritrea using money he earned hustling on the streets of South Los Angeles. He would visit the country multiple times and, during a 2018 trip with his brother Samiel, Hussle visited historical sites, met the nation’s polarizing President Isaias Afwerki, spoke to various local media outlets, and received a sweet blessing from his 90-year-old grandmother. The trip showed Nipsey “the way things could be” and he spent the rest of his life uplifting his own homeland. The sense of connection to his point of origin gave him context that cemented his understanding of who he was, and who he could be.

Beyond all of his impressive attributes on and off the stage, Nipsey Hussle’s fierce devotion to his family is one of the most significant aspects of his legacy. He was the father of Kross and Emani. His partner, Lauren London, knew him as her “protector,” her “best friend,” her “sanctuary.” To them, Hussle represented more than the sum total of his impressive discography or his innovative business practices; he was someone who loved them dearly, and they loved him back.

Like many who came of age in Crenshaw, Nipsey could have become another young man devoured by the perils of poverty and violence fueled by decades-long provincial feuds between rival gang factions that notoriously consumed his neighborhood. However, he defied the odds, and worked to develop a string of businesses to support his family and community. In doing so, Hussle inspired so many. May we honor his legacy by continuing the work, and thereby letting the marathon continue.

About the Author

Timothy Welbeck is a Civil Rights attorney, professor of African American studies, author, and hip-hop artist. He teaches an array of courses at Temple University and Thomas Jefferson University that examine interconnected themes in the African American experience, law, and politics. Welbeck's work has appeared in various media outlets, such as the BBC Radio 4, The Philadelphia Inquirer, NPR, The Huffington Post, REVOLT TV, et al.