Traveling to Los Angeles the other week, I went to see The Marathon Clothing store at Slauson Plaza, the crown jewel of slain rapper Nipsey Hussle’s budding business empire. I was saddened to find it was fenced off — the product of years of “activity,” as vendors in a makeshift market outside the fence put it, a theme dating back to when Hussle was alive.
Born Ermias Asghedom, Hussle’s Eritrean roots made him a star among the relatively new American immigrant group. But it was his activism in his native Crenshaw neighborhood that made him an icon.
To put it bluntly, Hussle was “real.” It was a word repeatedly used in tributes to him following his death in March 2019, especially from fellow rappers like Drake and 21 Savage. Unfortunately, the rapper became a victim of realness’s double-meaning that is pervasive in black America, a linguistic defect that has deadly consequences. And it’s a quirk that can only be fixed from the inside.
I get that we’re supposed to be enlightened and say, “race is a social construct,” but everyone knows there are cultural characteristics associated with your skin color.
For East and Southeast Asians, it’s an intense pursuit of educational achievement. Latinos pick up a blue-collar work ethic that serves them well in the trades. My fellow whites are instructed to “play the game” in order to advance up the corporate ladder, but I will say, when you act phony to support your lifestyle, you can easily become phony as a person. That’s why I’ve always found black Americans’ demand for authenticity — to “be real” — so refreshing.
Hussle lived out that ethos in its best sense.
He employed ex-felons at his The Marathon Clothing store, which was part of a larger “Buy the Block” plan where Hussle was going to start to demonstrate a long-held interest in real estate and redevelop his neighborhood. He was also an investor in a STEM program that created a pipeline to Silicon Valley for minority kids and renovated the playground at a nearby elementary school. It’s estimated that his total investments in the community, tech, and lifestyle ventures garnered over $210 million in value.
Outside of his entrepreneurship and philanthropy, Hussle was a thought leader on cultural change and social justice issues.
He was set to meet with LA’s police commissioner and police chief about ways to stop gang violence the day following his murder. He also talked of how kids growing up in violent areas suffer from undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder and that they should shift their inner city role models from athletes and entertainers to tech entrepreneurs like Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg.
This was despite the fact that Hussle’s music career hit a high point. His debut album “Victory Lap” was nominated for a Best Rap Album at the 2019 Grammys.
In a 2018 interview with the Los Angeles Times, Hussle said, “I just want to give back in an effective way. I remember being young and really having the best intentions and not being met on my efforts. You’re, like, ‘I’m going to really lock into my goals and my passion and my talents’ but you see no industry support. You see no structures or infrastructure built and you get a little frustrated.”
But the problem with being “real” is that the definition is context sensitive.
Being real in Hussle’s sense is a concise way of saying the rapper was a good-natured person who uplifted those in his hard-luck neighborhood, even when his musical success gave him the chance to leave it behind. In other circumstances, it means staying true to one’s feelings and acting on them in the moment — most relevantly in situations where one’s reputation may be, or just perceived to be, damaged.
This blanket phrase and the homonymous meaning it carries delivers conflicting messages. A person bettering where they’re from is “real.” However, so is getting violent with this exceptional individual because their presence reminds someone of how paltry their own social status is. In their own right, neither Hussle nor his suspected assailant betrayed their core values. They were both “being real,” just in different contexts.
Clearly, Hussle had a good heart and a sharp mind to make a difference in communities that sorely needed it like Crenshaw’s. But it was the change he was making and the clout he was gaining that rubbed his alleged assailant, Eric Holder, the wrong way.
Herman Douglas, Hussle’s business partner, told the Los Angeles Times that Holder approached them briefly and returned soon after with a gun to murder Hussle.
“It’s all hate and envy, that’s all it was. Jealousy, hate and envy. Nipsey didn’t deserve to die like that,” Douglas told the Times back then. “What seems to be a less-talented rapper had envy and hate in his eyes. That’s what it was all about. There was no motive, no beef,” which was Douglas’ way of disputing early suspicions by the LAPD that it was a gang-related killing.
(Hussle used to be a part of the Rollin 60’s gang in LA, as did Holder. According to Douglas, Hussle let Holder know word was going around he was a snitch and that he needed to clear his name — he was trying to look out for him).
Envy isn’t an unusual motive for murder. The Guardian’s Maia Szalavitz wrote a piece in late 2017 discussing how murders come down to income inequality and an impression of disrespect. She cites FBI statistics which state that in situations ending with murder, more than half are classified as “other argument.” Essentially, no extenuating circumstances such as adultery or robbery occurred, but one party felt slighted, and violence followed.
Szalavitz quotes Martin Daly, a professor emeritus at McMaster University in Ontario who authored a book on the link between economic inequality and homicides, saying, “If your social reputation in that milieu is all you’ve got, you’ve got to defend it. Inequality makes these confrontations more fraught because there’s much more at stake when there are winners and losers, and you can see that you are on track to be one of the losers.”
Journalist Lee Fang wrote a short Twitter thread not too long ago building off this same topic. He talked about how toxic America’s “honor culture” is. Out of our nation’s roughly 19,000 murders per year, “a huge proportion come from one person feeling disrespected by another and getting revenge,” he wrote.
Here is Holder, also a rapper, interacting with a far more successful musician in Hussle. The conversation sounded innocuous by Douglas’ account, but it’s evident that Holder was sizing himself up to someone accomplished in a field he was trying to break into.
More so, Hussle was simply using his gift as a rapper to achieve a greater purpose. Rapping and its perks seemed secondary to Hussle, which appeared to have upset Holder enough that he allegedly decided to murder Hussle on-the-spot.
The murder was Holder’s way of being real — of not letting the disrespect that he felt, likely out of having to accept his own lack of success as an artist, to go unpunished.
This is a recurring phenomenon in the black community. Comedian Dave Chappelle satirized this sentiment in his “When Keeping it Real Goes Wrong” skits nearly two decades ago. Chapelle would portray how getting overly aggressive with a co-worker or a stranger at a nightclub could backfire — of course, hilariously.
But the pressure also manifests itself at a collective level. In the lead up to the 2014 film “Dear White People,” actor Tyler James Williams told HuffPost how representing black people as a group can add a layer of pressure to the performances.
“There’s this interesting thing in the black community of staying real…always representing the community well, which is frustrating in a lot of ways and stressful as well,” Williams said. “It’s hard to please everybody and stay black and proud.”
What Williams misses, and what Holder’s suspected action reveals, is that saving the face of the broader black community is of no concern when an individual can’t preserve their own reputation. It’s what creates the tension between the two “reals” — the one serving the self, and the one serving a group as a whole, the way Hussle did.
Ironically, Hussle was the guy trying to change this dynamic. He didn’t want someone’s clothes, car, or “cool” reputation to serve as their sole source of status and self-esteem.
Hussle was taking a hands-on approach to improve peoples’ reputations by teaching them the techniques that would elevate their quality of life. Get enough people to do that, and he’d have engineered a massive cultural change within inner cities often neglected by politicians, investors, and even local success stories who flee at first blush.
But it takes a willingness from those Hussle assisted to make it happen. Those same inner-city residents need to realize that their facts of life may not be as rewarding as once thought. And they need to come to that realization with humility, not in the humiliation that leads them to react with deadly force.
Shifting thinking from short-term pride wins to long-term substantive ones is what it really means to be “real.” As Hussle becomes more and more of a memory, it’s important that he’s remembered for how significant his efforts were in addressing the dearth of social, economic, and political capital that black Americans clamor for to improve their standing.
If that’s forgotten, he will become just another victim of a stagnant culture instead of a martyr that catalyzed its change. Is keeping it real worth more than that?
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