I sat on the plane fighting back tears, looking down at my phone as the text messages I missed while in the air were finally delivered. Then I looked down at the Eritrean baseball jersey I was wearing, in complete disbelief.
Nipsey Hussle had died.
He was widely known as a byproduct of Crenshaw, a neighborhood in South Los Angeles, through his gang affiliation, his lyrical substance and his community efforts. But as L.A. and the wider hip-hop community mourns his tragic death — Hussle was killed in front of his store, the Marathon Clothing, on March 31 — the Eritrean community is grieving with the loss of our brother, too.
That’s because the Grammy-nominated rapper was also a byproduct of Eritrea, a small East African country of about 5 million people. Hussle, born Ermias Asghedom, was connected to Eritrea through his father, Dawit Asghedom, who spent his first 20 years there and would tell his son stories about the country’s history.
Annexed by Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie in 1962, Eritrea spent the next three decades fighting for its independence. Although Ethiopia received support from the United States, the Soviet Union and Israel, Eritrea prevailed in 1991. The insurmountable victory still serves as a badge of honor for Eritreans, instilling a mentality of self-sufficiency and resiliency that Hussle drew inspiration from.
“From being outnumbered and being against superpowers, to coming out victorious and being self-sufficient after the fact and independent in a country that believes in self-sufficiency and building from scratch,” Hussle said in an interview last year with Eri-TV, a state-owned Eritrean television station. “It’s similar to what I stand for in music by taking the stairs and doing it the long way based on integrity, self-sufficiency and being aware of the way that taking handouts can cripple you. Suffering through the process for the bigger picture. I feel proud, a sense of pride and a little bit obligated to carry that same integrity in my space.”
Hussle took his first trip to Eritrea in 2004, when he stayed for three months, then went back again last year after the release of his Grammy-nominated album “Victory Lap.” He described his first trip as life-altering, speaking candidly and openly about the Eritrean American experience with prominent radio personalities and giving Eritreans here a platform we’ve never had before.
“A lot of who I am, I understood more once I went over [to Eritrea],” Hussle said last year on Hot 97’s “Ebro In the Morning.” “Who I thought I was naturally, parts of my personality and what I was interested in is connected to my dad’s side.”
For Eritrean Americans, Hussle became our flag bearer. He was the face of an invisible country with little representation in mainstream U.S. media — it’s constantly in the shadows of Ethiopia because of the nations’ similar cultures and traditions. He was the connective tissue that touched every Eritrean American subgroup: from the street hustlers influenced by their environments, to the social workers trying to improve their communities and the entertainers seeking to be heard.
He used the analogy of a marathon, fitting for a country synonymous with world-class long-distance runners, in his music and clothing brand to capture his growth as a prominent independent artist, an entrepreneur and a human over the past 14 years. It served as the soundtrack for a diaspora burdened by the dangerous journey their parents made to migrate to the United States, grinding to make sure that sacrifice doesn’t die in vain. He made us believe that we could make it out of low-income housing and succeed in an unfair capitalistic economy that far too often rewards privilege over work ethic.
“He inspired us all,” said Eritrean American NFL safety Nat Berhe, who grew up in Southern California. “I started listening to Nipsey when I was a freshman in college. That alone motivated me to finish college. I’m hurt by it. I think he meant the upmost to the Eritrean community.”
Although many of us arrived in this country in poverty and with little to no education — carrying just our visas, our pride and our trauma — Hussle embraced us. And he unapologetically spoke about us.
When Eritrean American actress and comedian Tiffany Haddish, who also grew up in Los Angeles, wore an Eritrean zuria dress on the red carpet during last year’s Academy Awards to honor her recently deceased Eritrean father, I asked Hussle about her gesture.
“I was proud and inspired by that,” Hussle said. “I thought that was dope and how she made that a part of her narrative and just repping where she comes from with pride. Our country is such a small country, and it’s so underrepresented in the world that it’s dope to see somebody on that platform repping. I feel like I play a role in that myself as well as everybody else. It’s a really powerful story, our country’s story, and our people have a unique culture that when anybody finds out about it, they embrace it. I salute her and got a lot of love and respect.”
Hussle and Haddish would be honored that summer, along with Berhe, during the annual Eritrean Festival in Washington, home to the largest Eritrean community in the United States.
“I felt like I was with Malcolm X,” Berhe said about sharing the stage with Hussle. “You just got that feel that he was just somebody really important, like he was manifested. It was amazing.”
When I think of Hussle, I’ll remember the 2016 Eritrean soccer tournament in Atlanta, when he performed at Medusa Lounge. The venue was packed, and everyone was soaked in sweat because the air conditioner broke on a humid July night, but we still rapped every word with him.
I’ll remember when I walked into a suite to meet a friend at last year’s NBA All Star Game in Los Angeles and happened to run into Hussle there, and I suddenly realized that, for once, I wasn’t the only Eritrean in the room. I’ll remember how his face lit up when I told him I was Eritrean, and that I expressed how much I appreciated him representing us.
I’ll remember how he genuinely personified Eritrean Americans, and how his authenticity brought our community together this past week, with more than 40 vigils organized worldwide (some with the help of Ethiopians, who are also grieving the loss).
And I’ll think about my parents and how much they loved the music of Eritrean singer Yemane Barya, who shared the unapologetic Eritrean experience during its fight for independence. Known as Abo dikha, which translates to “father of the poor ones,” Barya was the voice for my parents’ generation, weaving in political messages in love songs (the first which landed him in prison). Barya unexpectedly died in 1997. He was 48.
Hussle was our Barya. He died at 33, leaving a massive hole in our community that won’t be replaced. But we will continue the marathon. And one day, we’ll tell our children about our own Abo dikha.