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‘We lost our Superman’

Los Angeles residents mourn the murder of rapper Nipsey Hussle and pray for God’s peace amid violence

‘We lost our Superman’

Nipsey Hussle (mpi04/MediaPunch/IPX/AP)

On a Sunday afternoon in South Los Angeles, under a cloudless sky in broad daylight, a man shot another man. The gunman began running away, but seeing nobody chasing him, he walked back and shot the man two more times. He darted away, then turned around again and shot the bleeding man three more times, kicked him in the head for final measure, and finally took off.

The final shot in the head was what killed 33-year-old Grammy-nominated rapper Nipsey Hussle. He died in the very neighborhood that raised him, right in front of the clothing store he operated—and with him died the hopes and dreams of many people who saw Hussle as not just as another up-and-coming rapper or street cat from the hood, but as someone who might actually turn their community around.

Sophia Lee

Detroit Hughes (Sophia Lee)

“We lost our hero,” said Detroit Hughes, a 56-year-old woman who lives three blocks from where Hussle died. “We lost our Superman, we lost our Batman. Every place has their hero. We had Nipsey Hussle. This is real life, this ain’t Hollywood—you only get one hero.” When her daughter called her to break the news, her first thoughts were: “Who’s going to help us now? Who’s going to save our neighborhood now?”

Hussle wasn’t like some other megastar musicians. He didn’t hightail it out of town the moment he released an album with a major label. He didn’t drape himself head-to-toe with bling-bling or parade exotic cars. Instead, he strolled among his people in the rough hoods of LA, often without a bodyguard even on rival gang turf. Every Sunday, he would appear at his Marathon Clothing store on Slauson Avenue, talking to locals and fans. People knew where to find him, and they asked him to kiss their babies and pose for selfies.

And Hussle had big ideas that got the whole community excited: He bought the entire strip mall where he and his brother used to sell mixtapes in the parking lot and opened the Marathon Clothing store. He planned to redevelop that plaza into a mixed-use destination with low-income housing, condos, and healthy food stores. He co-founded a co-working space and STEM center to encourage inner-city kids not just to “follow the athletes, follow the entertainers,” but also to “follow Elon Musk, follow [Mark] Zuckerberg.”

Hussle had big ideas that got the whole community excited.

He also invested in a permanent public art project to draw visitors and their dollars into his neighborhood. He renovated a roller rink and an elementary school basketball court. He bought shoes for poor students, donated food, paid for the funerals of gun violence victims, and created jobs. To many in his oft-neglected, poorly invested community, Hussle was a living, breathing reason to hope.

“Nipsey felt like the guy who’s about to do something we’ve never seen before,” said Chaundra Kennedy, 37, a case manager and church deacon who grew up in South LA. “He wasn’t just coming and sharing some amazing pearls of wisdom and leaving. No, he was there.”

On March 31, when Hussle died, conspiracy theories began brewing, accusing the pharmaceutical industry or government or white supremacy for his untimely murder. But Hussle didn’t die because of his ideals, or because of an evil oppressor, but allegedly because an acquaintance used violence to address a personal beef. It sounded all too familiar, too common for such an esteemed figure: Another senseless death, another number in a long list of black victims, another family torn apart—and once again, the black community mourned together in an outpouring of grief and despair.

Ringo H.W. Chiu/AP

Fans of rapper Nipsey Hussle appear at a makeshift memorial in the parking lot of Hussle's Marathon Clothing store in Los Angeles. (Ringo H.W. Chiu/AP)

Though she doesn’t buy the conspiracy theories, Kennedy still wonders: “It does feel like a lot of our black leaders don’t last. Why does this keep happening? It’s almost like we’re not able to have it, you know? And that just takes the hope away. We hope and we hope, and someone takes that hope away. We start over and it gets snatched away, again and again.”

The son of an Eritrean immigrant father and an African American mother, Hussle, born Ermias Asghedom, was a young black man who grew up in Crenshaw, one of the largest African American communities in the West Coast and home to the 1992 LA riots. Statistics were not on his side: Like many other neighborhood kids, Hussle joined the notorious Rollin 60’s Neighborhood Crips gang. He dropped out of high school to hustle on the streets (hence his stage name) with his brother, selling socks, T-shirts, and CDs.

While his peers ended up dead, crippled, imprisoned, or drug-addicted, somehow Hussle survived the hood to rap—and mourn—about that life: “I gotta hustle, momma ima move the white / If I died came back I’d do it twice / Brain washed by the block it consume my life / Cool nigga but a killa when the mood is right? / Bullets have the dogs howling at the moon at night / Momma it’s cold outside / Ain't no hope outside.”

Besides their liberal use of the N-word, many of Hussle’s rap lyrics carried the problems common in the genre: They are filled with profanity, references to sex and violence, and derogatory references to women. They sometimes portray success as the pursuit of wealth.

Still, fans say Hussle wasn’t trying to glorify the thug life. He felt responsible to “give the game up” and rewrite the “blueprint” that inner-city kids feel they have no choice but to follow. He also rapped about entrepreneurship, supporting local businesses, and becoming leaders and builders in the community.

Those lyrics boomed out of lowriders and stereos and house windows in South LA for days after his murder. His store became a makeshift memorial, a garden of lighted blue-and-white Jesus-figure candles, balloons, fresh flowers, cards, stuffed animals, and hand-drawn portraits. All the shops at the plaza closed in his honor. Mourners streamed in and out to pray and cry and hug one another.

Sophia Lee

Detroit Hughes signs a greeting to a Nipsey memorial. (Sophia Lee)

Chaundra Kennedy was one of the hundreds of people from all over LA visiting to pay her respects. At the memorial, as she looked at the hurt, angry, fearful faces of young men, dusty memories of her childhood fluttered alive.

Kennedy grew up on 111th Place, next door to a couple of Blocc Crip gang members. Every three blocks or so, another neighborhood gang dominated the streets. Though she never participated in or approved of gang activities, she dated a boy who became a gang member after moving with his mother from Michigan to LA. When kids in his school beat him up, other gang members approached him and promised, “Hey, I got your back. But you gotta roll with us.” So he did. “It literally boils down to surviving,” Kennedy recalled.

But gang life ultimately destroyed lives. The mother of Kennedy’s then-boyfriend became so scared for his life that she temporarily sent him back to Michigan. One of his best friends got shot at a park. Another is currently serving an extended prison sentence. Police shot another one five times. Kennedy remembers the terrible dread of fearing her loved ones wouldn’t return home alive, and of being on countless phone calls with scared sisters of other gangbangers. She remembers bawling in school, not knowing how to feel or what to think except that it hurt so bad.

The last time she mourned a close friend was in 2010, when a rival gang shot dead her godson’s father, a member of the same gang Hussle had belonged to. She remembers having to sit down with her godson and his mother to tell him he’d never see his father again. She remembers crying at the funeral, sick to her gut, thinking, “I don’t want to go to these ever again. I’m done.”

Last November, Kennedy watched a YouTube video of an interview with Hussle for the first time, in which he talked about his LA experience. At that time, she was dealing with PTSD from her childhood, feeling stuck and directionless, but hearing Hussle talk “changed my life,” Kennedy said: “I felt like we got each other.” Here was a guy who understood all the levels of dysfunction and brokenness in his community, yet was still promoting hope: “Nipsey had vision that we didn’t have.” It challenged her to finish earning her marriage and family therapy license, and inspired her to think about ways she could integrate her traumatic past with her present and future. She remembers feeling excited about the future, thinking, “I can’t wait to see that guy five or 10 years from now.”

The night of Hussle’s shooting, Kennedy was at church when she heard the news. She wondered how to process the loss of this stranger who had greatly impacted her: “What hurts me the most is we didn’t have time. It wasn’t fair! Someone literally took away our opportunity for tomorrow, for a future. Nipsey was our tomorrow in LA.”

If that sounds like a dismal outlook, it’s because it’s one scabbed with calluses from life in South LA, where programs from politicians and do-gooders have brought some improvements, but schools still severely underperform, poverty and unemployment rates are still high, and several destroyed sites from the LA riots still remain vacant and filled with litter. Meanwhile, young black bodies continue to bleed on the streets: More than half of the 15,129 U.S. murder victims in 2017 were black. Violent crime has decreased in Los Angles for the first time in several years but spiked again in March. In just one week, the city saw 10 homicides and 26 shootings, mostly in South LA among black men. Nipsey Hussle’s death wasn’t just an isolated tragedy—it’s connected to the long history of suffering and injustice within the African American experience.

That’s why the community is feeling hurt, empty, and lost over the loss of Hussle. Detroit Hughes was at the vigil the following night when tensions ran high: The event ruptured into a stampede when people panicked over false reports of gunshots, resulting in more than a dozen injured individuals.

Hughes remembers meeting Nipsey for the first time on a bus when he was still a teenager cajoling people to buy his mixtapes. She was homeless then, and when she told him she didn’t have money, he insisted she take a tape for free. The Sunday he died, she and her daughter had planned to visit his store to ask him for advice on starting an organization called “Kids Against Violence and Homelessness.” She never got to ask him, and now that he’s dead, she feels discouraged: “I don’t know if people are ready for change. It’s me, one person, in an ocean full of sharks. It ain’t gonna work.”

Still, that ocean has steady swimmers who continue to pray. Four days after Hussle’s death, the LAPD Clergy Council president, Grover Durham, brought together church leaders from LA and elsewhere for a prayer vigil at Nipsey’s memorial site. They asked everyone to hold hands, and each pastor prayed for peace and unity in the city.

“Timing is everything, and this is the time,” Durham said. “Nipsey is not here anymore, but we can still capitalize on what he started, and continue to be in unity, peace, love, and truth.” Since that prayer vigil, Durham said, he’s received dozens of calls from people who tell him they’re sick and tired of the violence. Durham reminds them there is still hope: “God said, ‘I’ll never leave you nor forsake you.’” (Durham doesn’t just dole out Scripture, though: He’s currently working with local businesses and elected officials to help former gang members land jobs.)

Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP

An image of late rapper Nipsey Hussle appears on a screen outside of the Staples Center in Los Angeles before a memorial service in his honor on Thursday. (Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP)

During the prayer vigil, Hughes clasped her hands up to the heavens. Her voice faltered as the crowd sang “Amazing Grace.” Later, she hurried over to the pastors, desperate for comfort and assurance. “I hurt so bad,” she wept. “I don’t know what to do, but I can’t do it by myself.” Three women surrounded her, put their hands on her shoulders, and prayed for her aloud. “Lift up your hands, baby girl!” one local pastor told Hughes. “Lift up your hand and look to Him.”

Hughes’ tears continued to fall: “This place is so devastating. I used to live in Skid Row, and to come here and lose somebody who was trying to do something good. ... I just need something to change, because it’s just getting worse.”

The pastor gripped her arms: “I want you to look at me, look at me! I lived on Skid Row too. I was homeless, OK? But I can tell you, God can do exceedingly above anything we can imagine. If God can raise me up, He can raise you up. And if He can raise you up, He can raise this community up.”

Later, Hughes told me she doesn’t expect things to suddenly, magically get better: “God never told me to hope for the best, He told me to prepare for His coming. And I know He’s coming back—just like I know that tomorrow, there’s more violence coming. That’s why I pray. I don’t hope, I pray and I pray.”

—This story has been updated to correct Chaundra Kennedy’s age.

Sophia Lee

Sophia Lee

Sophia is a features reporter for WORLD Magazine. She graduated from the University of Southern California with degrees in print journalism and East Asian language and culture. She lives in Los Angeles with her cat, Shalom. Follow Sophia on Twitter @SophiaLeeHyun.

Comments

  • Jebby
    Posted: Tue, 04/16/2019 10:05 am

    Change in the black community must come from the men, and it must come from within.  Following Jesus with words and actions would transform neighborhoods and the culture.  Prioritizing education and encouraging fathers to be part of family units would help a lot, also.