Stacia Brown is a writer and audio producer based in Baltimore.
Within minutes of his death Sunday, the rapper and activist Nipsey Hussle was transformed from rising artist to folk hero.
All of the ingredients for a legend — or conspiracy theory — were there: his eerie last tweet, “Having strong enemies is a blessing”; the story of how he reinvested the money he’d earned selling mix tapes into businesses in his own neighborhood; the documentary he was reportedly producing about Dr. Sebi, a controversial Honduran herbalist who claimed to have found cures to terminal diseases; his planned meeting with the Los Angeles Police Department to discuss anti-gang initiatives, scheduled just one day after he was shot.
An essential part of this transformation was the speculation that quickly emerged to explain Hussle’s death. One rumor suggested that Hussle, born Ermias Asghedom, was killed because his documentary would reveal that Dr. Sebi himself was killed, after supposedly finding a holistic cure for HIV, thereby threatening the profits of the pharmaceutical industry. This was the most specific conspiracy theory, but other fans blamed the usual suspects for Hussle’s killing, including the LAPD, the FBI or the military.
This sort of speculation may sound bizarre. But it’s actually a specific way of grieving the death of someone like Hussle. He had, in recent years, come to represent a kind of economic development that empowered his neighbors rather than displacing them. For those neighbors, his broad-daylight-brazen shooting death was as much a theft as a murder. I understand their desire to be the authors of this narrative, to assign it not just an explanation but a noble cause. If Hussle was killed for trying to liberate the poor or for attempting to uncover an act of medical subterfuge, then his cultural identity would shift from victim to martyr. His death would no longer be a senseless killing but a politically motivated one.
Conspiracy theorizing is the pastime of people accustomed to distrusting authority. It’s for communities who rely on whisper campaigns to suss out a semblance of truth when an official verdict or autopsy report is too suspicious to be accepted.
Black communities have good reason to be skeptical of official reports and investigations, even if that skepticism sometimes leads in unlikely or bizarre directions. We are aware of the established history of police being acquitted for killing unarmed civilians, even if there’s video evidence that documents the deaths. We know about the documented accounts of unethical medical experimentation on black men, women and children. And we are haunted by the deaths of community leaders that seem too much like assassinations to be declared unsolved or open-and-shut-case homicides.
The people who knew Hussle personally were robbed of grass-roots leadership, a role model for their children and, as some local interviewees noted, “someone who cared.” For the community he impacts, inspires or empowers, a folk hero’s untimely death demands symbolic meaning, even if that meaning seems absurd to outsiders looking in. He can’t just have been killed, not on the precipice of even bigger accomplishments. He couldn’t have just had beef with a rival; he had to have been intentionally targeted by a force more powerful than a peer with a personal vendetta.
Whenever the conspiracies crop up, especially as fast as they did in the hours following Nipsey Hussle’s death, I feel my own cynicism spiking. But I understand the communal longing for a sense of closure that people who were close to Hussle or invested in his success can control.
I know that the people who believe Hussle was murdered because of his Dr. Sebi documentary didn’t come up with that hypothesis for fun. They don’t think the government may have played a role in his death because they are naive. They’re invested in those theories because they have reason to find them plausible.
Two days after Hussle’s death, the LAPD has already arrested a suspect. But that won’t end community speculation that some larger, nefarious plot led to the killing. When loss looms larger than logic, the legend truly begins when the formal investigation ends.