South Los Angeles residents express admiration for their community after the death of local rapper Nipsey Hussle.
Harrison Hill, USA TODAY
LOS ANGELES — Earlier this year, Deacon Randolph Brown of Highway Ministries in South Los Angeles was visited by the owner of the business plaza next door, who complained of rainwater seeping in from the ministry’s lot and wrecking his merchandise.
That business-owner: rapper Nipsey Hussle.
The deacon and the heavily-tattooed, bearded rapper stood in the ministry’s parking lot, hands on hips, and examined the wall for how they might better seal it.
Brown didn’t listen to Hussle’s music, being more of a Miles Davis guy. But the deacon, who has lived in South Los Angeles since 1961, saw in his neighbor a throwback to the days when the largely black sections of the city were full of black-owned businesses, and even basketball star Wilt Chamberlain erected “Villa Chamberlain,” an apartment complex.
On Sunday afternoon, Brown was pulling into the ministry when he heard gunshots next door. He then watched Hussle get carted into an ambulance.
In the days following Nipsey Hussle’s murder outside of The Marathon Clothing, the store he ran in a plaza purchased earlier this year, the rapper’s name was on the lips of teenagers and senior citizens alike for miles around. They described him as having been a figure of hope and pride for reinvesting in a neighborhood under pressure from both internal strife and outside developers.
“Everything!” said 17-year-old Kyla Rose, in unison with a group of fellow students from View Park Preparatory High School around the corner from where Hussle was shot, when asked what he meant to the neighboring community.
Charles Dillon, who said he had served time in prison as a younger man, was inspired by Hussle’s own trajectory of reform from affiliate of the local Crips set to local businessowner. He said he admired the rapper despite being three decades his senior. “For a 63-year-old man to see a youngster with tats all on his face and that rap stuff,” said Dillon, “and to look up to him, that meant a lot to me.”
Hussle—born Ermias Asghedom—and a business partner had purchased the shopping center on Slausson Avenue. He also co-founded a nearby co-working space called Vector 90, which had the goal of increasing diversity in the math and sciences.
State Assemblymember Sydney Kamlager-Dove, whose district includes the areas in South Los Angeles where Hussle was raised and invested, credited him with spurring upwardly-mobile residents and investors to stay in the community rather than leave for neighboring middle-class enclaves.
“I think his message was incredibly important because he was from the ‘hood, he stayed in the ‘hood, he gave back to the ‘hood and he was working to kind of rebuild the ‘hood,” Kamlager-Dove said.
South Los Angeles is a sprawling cluster of neighborhoods, many of them rich with African-American history, that are staring down major changes.
Gaye Theresa Johnson, an associate professor at the departments of African American Studies and Chicano and Chicana Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, said that the area’s segregation from the rest of the metropolis was cemented through the barriers of that most L.A. feature—highways—as well as discriminatory banking, housing and educational policies.
“People curtailed investments in black neighborhoods. They made it impossible for black residents to go to schools of their choices,” Johnson said. “All of these things contribute to a segregated city that doesn’t quite look like other segregated cities in the U.S.”
The area’s isolation has also contributed to an enduring pride, particularly in creative pursuits such as its central role in jazz and the creation of gangsta rap.
“When you say South L.A., people get fearful,” said Ben Caldwell, founder of KAOS Network, a community arts center in the neighborhood of Leimert Park. “I feel that that’s really respect because these are really strong people. Duke Ellington was around here. Sarah Vaughan was around here. All of these old schoolers to the new schoolers to Nipsey Hussle, all of them are in and around this cauldron of just dynamic creativity.”
Immigrants from Central America and Mexico seeking cheap housing have transformed South L.A.’s demographics in the last couple of decades, Johnson said. That change is evident in U.S. Census data for the ZIP code including Hyde Park, the neighborhood where Marathon Clothing is located. The 2010 Census found the neighborhood to be 66% black and 27% Hispanic. In the decade since the previous Census, the Hispanic population had increased by more than a quarter, while the black population had decreased by around 9%.
Smack-dab in the middle of one of the most expensive real estate regions in the world, South L.A. has increasingly appealed to developers as vast, conveniently-located territory. Its northeastern neighborhoods border downtown, and much of it–including the shopping plaza owned by Hussle—is close enough to Los Angeles International Airport that you can see planes descending.
In some areas, revitalization efforts are fully—if at times awkwardly—underway. In historic Leimert Park, a saunter through idyllic tree-lined streets will pass a bohemian roster of businesses including cafes and a vegetarian restaurant, a jazz club, bookstore, and bicycle shop.
But while the neighborhood’s namesake park has been diligently renovated and watered, the patch of green’s freshly-painted gates are still closed to the public most days to shut out vagrants.
Just south in Hyde Park, development has nibbled at the edges in a way that is both hopeful and threatening. The businesses neighboring Hussle’s plaza include a venerable barbecue joint, a car wash, low-rent motel and a liquor store, all of which haven’t changed in years. Unlike neighboring Windsor Hill, there are no chic coffee shops serving $6 cold brews here.
But residents know that development is coming, and fear that outside gentrifying forces will be reaping the profit while forcing them out and changing the identity of this and other nearby neighborhoods. Hussle was seen to be leading the charge against that threat.
Louis Boone, 71, has lived in South Los Angeles all her life and said the community keeps people connected to their culture and race. As she waited for her order Tuesday afternoon at Crustees, a brightly-lit black-owned restaurant along Slauson Avenue specializing in pies, Boone described the residents as generous.
“You learn how to give, you learn how to love, you learn how to share, you learn how to worship,” Boone said. “It’s a lot of things that you can learn just living here and being in touch with your own people.”
By Wednesday afternoon, the location of Hussle’s murder was bordering on carnival. The night following his killing, on-edge mourners had stampeded after apparently mistaking a noise for gunfire. Los Angeles Police Department and the Nation of Islam now keep order by directing foot traffic, a collaboration seemingly only Hussle could inspire. Somebody was flying a drone overhead and a fender bender was caused by drivers gawking at the memorial.
Hussle, an acknowledged former associate of the Crips who had a meeting planned with the LAPD the day after his death to discuss ways to prevent gang violence, was known for bridging such societal gaps. That spirit seemed to be alive near his memorial on Wednesday, when the View Park students—all of whom were black—excitedly schooled Ralph Emard, a white LAPD motorcycle cop, on Hussle’s backstory.
Emard apologized for his ignorance by telling them, “I’m from the Valley.” The high schoolers responded that they could tell he was from the San Fernando Valley by his decidedly uncool motorcycle boots.
Following Hussle’s murder, LAPD officials said that in the previous month there had been almost fifteen shootings a week in Hyde Park and surrounding neighborhoods, more than double the number in previous months. The police said the violence was mostly gang-related and “particularly impacting African-American men.”
But nearby residents said that they rarely felt in danger in the neighborhood. “On the weekends or on holidays we’ll sometimes hear gunshots from down that way,” said Brown, the deacon, indicating the southward territory of Hussle’s former Crips set, the Rollin’ 60s.
But he described more frequent neighborhood disturbances as “people being agitated because maybe they can’t get their next drink or fix.” Brown said that in the eight years he’s managed the ministry, Hussle’s killing was the only shooting he remembered in his immediate vicinity.
Hussle’s accused murderer, 29-year-old Eric Holder, was arrested Tuesday. Police characterized the killing as being motivated by a personal dispute and not related to gang activity.
Holder’s most recent listed address was less than a mile from Hussle’s business. The murder led to what residents described as a sort of communal deflation. Gregory Hayes, who lives six blocks from Marathon Clothing, described it as akin to “infanticide,” in that it was “family killing family.”
Kay Anuluoha, the co-proprietor of an African-inspired clothing boutique, Kutula by Africana, a mile down Slauson from Hussle’s plaza, said she saw no reason why the rapper’s death should end what he stood for.
“If we feel like he did such an extraordinary job in setting that example in the community then we absolutely should be replicating that,” said Anuluoha, 36, whose family designs have graced Marvel’s Black Panther and Kendrick Lamar’s “All the Stars” music video. “It certainly shouldn’t die with him.”
Herman “Cowboy” Douglas, who said he was a longtime friend of the rapper’s, spent a recent afternoon at the vigil sipping Hennessy from a plastic cup and vacillating between joy at the attention Hussle’s cause was now receiving and despair at the message his murder sent.
“I hope his fans don’t think, ‘As positive as he was, damn, even he got killed,’” said Douglas, who wore a sweatshirt reading “Slauson,” and a black cowboy hat. “I hope they don’t lose hope.”
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