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Analysis

L.A. rapper Nipsey Hussle’s murder is a familiar refrain for Americans

"I grew up in an environment where being polite was taken as a weakness."

Photo credit: Getty/Diana Ofosu

On Sunday, Los Angeles-based Grammy-nominated rapper Nipsey Hussle tweeted “Having strong enemies is a blessing.”

Later that day, Hussle, born Ermias Asghedom, was shot and killed in the Hyde Park neighborhood outside of his store, Marathon Clothing, by a man whom police believe was trying to settle a score.

According to police, Hussle was shot multiple times. Two other victims are in critical condition and the suspect — who was apprehended Tuesday — fled the scene by car, police said.

The sudden loss rocked the hip hop and Southern Los Angeles community. Dedications on social media began pouring in from fans and those who had the chance to work with and know Hussle. Reports indicated that the mood the next day in Hyde Park was somber. According to an LA-based source, radio DJs were crying on air and his music was blasting everywhere.

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Before his tragic passing, the 33-year-old had finally been experiencing time in the mainstream spotlight. His 2018 Victory Lap had recently been nominated for best rap album of the year by the The Recording Academy, losing the Grammy Award to Cardi B’s Invasion of Privacy.

Hussle first made a name for himself in the rap world in 2005, with his debut mixtape Slauson Boy Volume 1. Real acclaim, however, came when he ventured into the experimental with the release of his 2013 mixtape, Crenshaw, of which only 1,000 physical copies were made, and sold for $100 each. Rapper Jay-Z bought 100 copies.

In a recent — so recent, it feels cruel — GQ profile about Hussle and his beloved, actress Lauren London, the two talk about their unconventional and modern love story. London bought one of his widely coveted 2013 mixtapes and then followed him on Instagram. Hussle, pleasantly surprised by it all, followed her back and slid into her DMs. The rest was millennial cyber history. Five years later, the couple share a son and were lauded as a hip hop power couple. His career trajectory was an inspiration to many.

Despite his relative glide path to success, nothing came easy for Hussle, who was born and raised in LA’s South Central. In an environment controlled by violent gangs, Hussle went down the expected path. He was a member of the Rolling 60s gang in Crips territory. Over the years, however, he began to transition out of that phase of his life and saw the possibility of an evolution, for himself and in his work.

At the pinnacle of his too-brief career, Hussle had reinvented himself. He became a philanthropist, investing in STEM education for children, and fed his entrepreneurial spirit by rising in the LA real estate ranks; he owned not just his clothing store, but the entire shopping plaza where he was gunned down.

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Until his untimely death, it would seem as though Hussle was making a pivot toward an unconventional life path for a man of his violent and under-resourced beginnings. He was so close to a semblance of the elusive American Dream so many strive to obtain, and yet, he ended up getting killed for it.

Unfortunately, he joins thousands of black Americans nationwide who continue to deal with the threat of gun violence on a daily basis. According to the Centers for Disease Control, homicide is the leading cause of death for black males between the ages of 15 and 35, Hussle’s age range. Of those homicides, 90 percent were the result of gunfire.

“I hope people look beyond that stat and actually to the source of why,” said Tia Oso, who, as director of impact for Revolve Impact, a creative strategy firm, works in unpacking that statistic.

“Writing off the epidemic of gun violence that’s happening, and killing black men in particular, as gang violence, or just, ‘these people need to stop killing each other,’ is a failure of the broader gun reform movement,” Oso told ThinkProgress, adding that it’s time “to actually value the lives and the humanity of urban communities. And we need to be talking more about prevention and we need to be talking more about intervention.”

For a while, it appeared California could be different. The state has some of the most progressive gun laws in the country. And its violent crime rate has declined steadily over the past several decades, except for an uptick in 2012 and from 2015 to 2017. Today, California ranks 43rd in the country for firearm homicides.

Last year, California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) signed nearly a dozen gun control measures into law — laws activists in many other states are still lobbying to get in front of their state legislatures, including raising the minimum age for buying a gun and a lifetime firearm ban for those convicted of serious domestic violence. Motivated by the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, lawmakers moved with speed and intention.

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But their efforts haven’t been felt across the entire state. As Hussle’s case shows, black men remain the most frequent targets of gun homicides in the state, and are more than 15 times more likely than white men to die by gun violence. In this way, Hussle’s demise is a cruel continuation of violence within a community that has had little support in reckoning with it. Indeed, the week Hussle was murdered was an especially violent one for the area.

“We need to be asking different questions when something like this happens. When something like Sandy Hook happens or Parkland, we talk about taking action. We talk about how tragic this is, and we have conversations around how to prevent this from happening again,” Oso said. “When urban gun violence happens, the conversation seems to always shift towards blaming, and not actually towards a solution.”

Instead activists like Oso wish that the conversation would center around questions like, “How can we support you?”

Hussle’s death also points to a broader truth: gun violence is rarely seen as a widespread problem when its victims are black, brown, or members of gangs. The truth is that, in a country where, on average, more than 36,000 people die by gunfire every year, gun violence is an issue that all Americans, not just those living in communities who face greater risks, must reckon with. And up until last year, high profile shootings, like the one that took Hussle’s life, didn’t lead to much in the way of action.

“A lot of the laws that we see passing and a lot of the prominent conversation around gun violence don’t do a lot to address the source of gun violence in black and brown communities,” Oso points out.

It was perhaps the helplessness that often surrounds such inaction that led many concerned fans to fuel conspiracy theories around Hussle’s death, before more information became available. Hussle had been finishing a rather controversial project, a documentary on Dr. Sebi, a Honduran herbalist who had claimed to have found the cure for AIDS before being cast off as a fraud. Dr. Sebi died of pneumonia in jail. Many have speculated that foul play was afoot with his death.

“You know,” said Oso, “people are just really devastated and very hurt for something like this to have happened to someone who isn’t just well known, but someone people looked up to. He was an example of someone doing well in their community, and giving back to the community. He was using his influence to encourage investment in his community.”

While any connection between the two cases is likely coincidental, the causal alarm is understandable — it wouldn’t be the first time a black activist was killed over his mission. Huey P. Newton, co-founder of the Black Panther party, who, despite a violent past, managed to do major work on the behalf of black children and families, was shot and killed in 1989 by Tyrone Robinson, an Oakland area gang member looking to rise in the ranks.

In the end, when all the evidence is considered and the statistics tallied, Hussle’s murder appears to be a symptom of something this nation so desperately needs to change: his environment.

“I grew up in an environment where being polite was taken as a weakness,” Hussle told GQ, speaking about his hometown. “So I just fought everybody. You’re not going to scare me into being somebody I don’t want to be … so I’ll just fight you.”