I remember asking Nipsey Hussle if he was nervous. This was back in 2009 — a soft gray October afternoon on the Howard University quad. The 24-year-old Los Angeles native was about to hit the stage at Yardfest, an annual homecoming concert where rap’s soon-to-be-legends (Biggie, Jay, Kanye) often came to have their rising stars consecrated.
Nip didn’t look nervous. And if he was, his cool had frozen the butterflies in place. He told me that this show was about “letting them see you” and that he knew it was “word of mouth from there.” What a broad-minded, big-hearted answer to such a mundane question. He had faith in the music he’d made but an even bigger faith in the people he was making it for.
Moments later, he was onstage sneering through his theme song, “Hussle in the House,” inspiring a small clique of euphoric freshmen to flap their Los Angeles Dodgers caps in the air as if they were trying to flag down an airplane. But Nipsey Hussle didn’t become a superstar in the days that followed. Instead, his ascent through the rap game was strenuously slow but astonishingly steady, measured by more than a decade of independent releases and guest verses, until his 2018 debut album — winkingly titled “Victory Lap” — was nominated for a Grammy.
That trajectory was interrupted in broad daylight on Sunday afternoon when the rapper — born Ermias Asghedom — was shot dead outside Marathon Clothing, a boutique in South Los Angeles that he owned. Eulogies instantly spread across digital space, with many noting that Hussle was so much more than a rapper: He was a leader, an activist and a community-minded entrepreneur who invested in the neighborhood that had formed him by opening a variety of businesses on the block where he was killed.
But let’s not forget that every rapper is so much more than a rapper. Nipsey Hussle was a father, a son and a black man whose life was taken in public on a quiet Sunday afternoon in America. His death is unacceptable.
In rhyming about the cruelty of where he came from, he had always been mourning the brokenness of this murderous country — and by the time he got to “Victory Lap,” he was trying to fix things. Listen to the third verse of “Racks in the Middle,” and you’ll hear him leading by example, rhyming in the sly, patient rasp that had become his signature: “Bleed music, invest, enterprise, take lucrative steps/Cold game, but I knew it was chess.”
He knew that change begins slowly on the community level, but he saw the big picture, too. “FDT,” his seething 2016 duet with fellow Los Angeles truth-teller YG, still stands as the most straightforward excoriation of Donald Trump in all of pop music — and when Hussle cued up the beat at the Broccoli City Festival in Washington last April, it felt loud enough to reach the White House. An image of Kanye West wearing his red MAGA cap flashed on a giant video screen behind him.
But Hussle wasn’t sending a message to Trump (or to West). He was sending a message of solidarity to the people in the crowd — the people whom he’d always been rapping to and for. Instead of a huddle of Howard undergrads in Dodgers hats going crazy, 30,000 voices roared.