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.)