His story is so compelling because love was at the core of his beliefs and behavior.
“How you die 30-something after banging all them years?”
Nipsey Hussle posed that question about a fallen colleague on a song released about a month before he met a similar fate. After his friend died, the ex-gangbanger Hussle said he took to the “sauna sheddin’ tears/All this money, power, fame and I can’t make you reappear.”
Nor can Hussle’s fans make him reappear. On March 31, the rapper and activist was shot to death outside his clothing store in Los Angeles.
Yet he is more present in the culture than he has ever been. How does a rapper who was just coming into his own fill the Staples Center for his funeral and cast a spell over a society that barely knew his name the day he died?
One reason Hussle’s death struck a collective nerve is because his story fit into competing narratives across an ideological spectrum. Pull yourself up by your bootstraps? Hussle believed in hard work and black uplift and self-reliance, and started several businesses in the hood. Fight the powers that be? Hussle joined fellow rapper YG on an indictment of Donald Trump: “I’m from a place where you prolly can’t go/Speakin’ for some people that you prolly ain’t know.”
But the main reason his story is so compelling is because love was at the core of his beliefs and behavior. Love of his craft. Love of his blackness. Love of his neighborhood. Love of his partner, the actress Lauren London, and their kids. And, belatedly, across the nation, in vigils and outpourings of unashamed adoration, we show our love of him for loving so faithfully while few of us paid attention. His death is even more haunting because the love he showed took place against the backdrop of unsettling violence, both real and imagined, both in structural forces and intimate spaces, often conjured or measured by his own pen.
Hussle captured both his métier and his pedigree when he dubbed himself the “2Pac of my generation,” a cleareyed if fatal prophecy. There are certainly differences. Tupac’s resonant baritone, steeped in the sonic registers of the East and West Coasts where he came of age, echoed eerily across the culture and gained him global fame before death made him a transcendent icon. Hussle’s voice drawled in a Southern cadence inflected with California bravado that produced a Louisiangeles accent. Death amplified a sound that has only now been heard for the first time in many quarters. Both Tupac and Hussle were transformed in death from hood griots to ghetto saints, from verbal magicians to generational martyrs.
Hussle loved and embraced his blackness, a blackness that was bigger than the sum of its intriguing parts. He was every bit the unapologetic patron of Slauson, Crenshaw and South Central Los Angeles. But he also embraced his East African roots in his father’s homeland of Eritrea when he was 18. Hussle, his brother and his father made another pilgrimage to Eritrea in 2018 that gave him renewed inspiration for his reverse-gentrification Husslenomics: Own your master recordings, master your own entrepreneurial terrain, recycle capital in the hood by reinvesting earnings back into the people who inspired your art.
Hussle also embodied the trans-Atlantic routes of black identity — the crisscrossing and crosscutting ways of global blackness and the awareness that no one culture or country or tribe has ownership of a blissfully variegated blackness. It was that sense of blackness that linked a scholar like me and a rapper like him when we shared a six-hour flight last year from Los Angeles to New York.
“Are you Michael Eric Dyson?” he asked as he slid into the seat next to me. “I read your books.”
“Yes, sir. Are you Nipsey Hussle?” I replied as I showed him that I had downloaded his latest album on my smartphone. “I listen to your music.”
We both smiled. We had an epic conversation and talked about the psychologist Abraham Maslow, whom he brought up. We discussed Hussle’s journey from gangbanging to hip hop, but especially our unblushing love for black culture.
Hussle’s murder reveals a darker side of blackness: The revelation that the man charged in his murder is named Eric Holder is an unavoidable metaphor of the destructive doppelgänger that often lurks in black life. That for all the effort to do well and to be right, there are opposing forces that seek to subvert, distract and destroy. Hussle was a more delightful doppelgänger, borrowing his nom de plume from Nipsey Russell, the black comedian known as the “poet laureate of television” whose comedy reveled in aphorism and rhymes.
Each day since Hussle’s death, more of his words surface like Dead Sea Scrolls and shed light on the secular scriptures he spat in rhyme. His death at 33 inevitably suggests the arc of resurrection, or at least a biblical reckoning with his time on earth. “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith,” another marathon runner said. Or as Hussle said, “Hopin’ as you walk across the sand, you see my shoe print/And you follow til it change your life, it’s all an evolution.”
Michael Eric Dyson (@MichaelEDyson) is the author of “What Truth Sounds Like: Robert F. Kennedy, James Baldwin, and Our Unfinished Conversation About Race in America,” an ordained Baptist minister and a contributing opinion writer.