On Thursday (April 11), rapper Nipsey Hussle received the type of grandiose send-off fit for a regal prince or noted political head of state. The memorial for Los Angeles’ native son — born Ermias Joseph Asghedom — held at the 20,000-plus Staples Center, celebrated the life of a rising hip-hop star, beloved community visionary, budding entrepreneur, proud father and unabashed rabid Lakers fan. Nipsey was senselessly taken away from this world on March 31 after being gunned down in his beloved South LA neighborhood. The loss is immeasurable.
Everyone from Stevie Wonder to Snoop Dogg to Jhene Aiko were there to celebrate the legacy of a man who had meant so much to his ‘hood and beyond. President Barack Obama even wrote a moving letter to Nipsey's family. The South Central icon’s funeral procession passed by the rapper’s Marathon Clothing store where he was shot. The intersection of Crenshaw and Slauson will be renamed Nipsey Hussle Square. Tributes for the relentless MC continue to pour in from coast to coast. Emotions are still raw. The pain is still palpable.
Yet, there is a Shakespearean tragedy that shadows Nipsey Hussle’s untimely demise. Here is an individual who, despite his background as a member of the infamous, violent street gang Rollin' 60s Crips, used his stardom to uplift his surroundings. What we are left with is the music — more specifically, Nipsey’s vibrant final (and debut) studio album, Victory Lap, and a bold, fearless legacy that was cheated out of massive potential.
Just as striking are the comparisons being floated about to a larger-than-life West Coast rap deity. “Nipsey Hussle hailed this generation’s Tupac Shakur after being shot dead aged 33,” screamed a newspaper headline, echoing a widespread sentiment.
There’s R&B singer and Star actor Luke James pontificating on how Nip evolved into the modern day personification of Makaveli. And a string of YouTube tributes and mash-ups — one such production is titled “Nipsey Hussle: The 2Pac of Our Generation” — have been fueled by the afterlife glow of an MC on the precipice of superstardom.
Social media is rich with Nip = ‘Pac debates. On the surface such a comparison comes with a voluminous sense of awe. After all, Shakur, who was murdered in a Las Vegas drive-by shooting on September 7, 1997, is arguably his genre’s most celebrated idol. The son of the late former Black Panther Afeni Shakur proved himself to be a gifted actor, street poet, socially conscious provocateur and rock star that passionately spoke out against police brutality, poverty and racism.
“I never wanted to be no star. This ain’t my job,” Tupac said during a 1994 BET interview with Ed Gordon. “I don’t care if everybody don’t cheer for me. If you not cheering for me for what I’m doing don’t cheer for me. Don’t cheer because you think I’m cute. Screw that… Everything I do I do to represent my people. Because I think this is what they want me to do.”
Tupac is so intertwined within pop culture hierarchy that he sits at the same exclusive table as such transcendent, gone-too-soon figures as James Dean, Billie Holiday, Marilyn Monroe, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Marley and Kurt Cobain. The fact that Nipsey is being name checked in the same sentence as an artist who has since taken on mythical status should not be taken lightly. (‘Pac once survived a 1993 shootout with two off-duty white cops after he reportedly saw them harassing a Black man. All charges against Shakur were later dropped after it was discovered that the officers lied to police and fired at the rapper first. Now that’s some hip-hop Paul Bunyan sh*t.)
Nipsey, in fact, proclaimed his ascendance as the only rapper worthy of carrying the baton that the rebellious Shakur once defiantly wielded on the soaring track “Dedication,” featuring Kendrick Lamar. “2Pac of my generation,” he boldly asserted. “Blue pill in the f*ckin' Matrix/ Red rose in the gray pavement/ Young black ni**a trapped and he can't change it/ Know he a genius, he just can't claim it/ 'Cause they left him no platforms to explain it.”
But media outlets, music fans and even Nipsey himself got it wrong. Nipsey Hussle wasn’t the next Tupac. He was so much more.
What Nipsey lacked in ‘Pac’s towering celebrity, staggering bankable music catalog and inspiring words, he made up for in his expansively focused actions and investments in his beloved hometown. In most write-ups about the LA rapper you are bound to read stories about his legendary goodwill and philanthropy; of how Nipsey repaved Crenshaw basketball courts and bought clothing and shoes for students.
He invested in cryptocurrency, made several real estate purchases around the way, and provided jobs and shelter for the poor and homeless. But Nipsey had an even more audacious plan. He opened up a STEM training center in his Vector90 space in the heart of Crenshaw, where kids and adults could learn coding and other life-changing tech skills. “The goal is to create a bridge between the inner cities and Silicon Valley," Nipsey said in an Instagram video post. "Especially, it’s important to LA, because that’s an hour away. And there’s minimal representation.”
Even the circumstances behind their deaths are like night and day. ‘Pac was a victim of his own brazen narcissism in retaliation for his actions in the 1997 Piru gang assault of Orlando Anderson, who most insiders finger as Shakur’s eventual killer. The atmosphere surrounding the otherwise brilliant Tupac was at times toxic. Backed by infamous Death Row Records mogul Marion “Suge” Knight, he greatly contributed to fanning the flames of the so-called East Coast vs. West Coast hip-hop war following a botched 1994 Quad Studios New York robbery that left the volatile rapper with several bullet wounds.
‘Pac blamed Bad Boy Records for the murder attempt on his life despite the glaring street element entrenched in his own inner-circle. His carelessness would result in the shocking March 9 of ‘97 murder of his one-time friend and multi-platinum Brooklyn rhyme king Christopher “The Notorious B.I.G.” Wallace. Yet another tragic loss.
Nipsey, however, was killed doing the thing he loved most: helping his community. He was taking an ex-con friend to pick out new clothes at his Marathon store so he could make a positive presentation for his family and friends after 20 years behind bars. The killer shot Nipsey over a petty, jealousy-fueled disagreement. His was, for all intents and purposes, a dream deferred.
For ‘Pac, who also served time in prison for sexual abuse, his soul rarely seemed at peace. He aligned himself with Suge’s Bloods more than a year before his death, despite the lack of a legit, homegrown gangbanging pedigree. Nipsey, on the other hand, fought mightily to elevate from his deep-rooted violent gang ties with the Crips. It was his mission to show the homies that there was a better way.
“Nipsey was the first real LA artist that was from LA — not like Tupac [who] was from somewhere else and then LA,” said former Crips gang leader turned respected community leader Big U to TMZ. “Nipsey was the first, like, real LA artist to die the way he died. He didn’t have no conflict with nobody, he wasn’t beefing with nobody.”
Tupac was 25 years old when he died, snuffed of a future beyond his impact as a once-in-a-lifetime artist. Nipsey was slightly older, and wiser. Perhaps ‘Pac would have matured and become the philanthropic family man that Nipsey embraced. We’ll never know.
To be clear, Nipsey Hussle was far from perfect. In January 2018, he posted an Instagram photo of Black men and boys in suits as he disparaged Black gay men, comparing them to negative, criminal influences in the community, making the searing claim, “They gone feed us every image of our men and boys but this one. No hyper violent...No homo sexual...No abandoners....JUS STRONG BLAC MEN AND YOUNG Men. RESPECT TO MY BIG HOMIE @bigu1 for Leading with love and intelligence. GOD IS WITH US WHO CAN GO AGAINST US."
Yes, like all of us mere mortals, Nipsey was a work in progress. But he was certainly on the right path. "He was a protector and wanted us to be our best at all times,” said actress and Nipsey’s grieving life partner and mother of his child Lauren London to the LA Times. “He was a truth seeker and truth speaker."
It’s how we always envisioned our future Tupac Shakur. It would have been ‘Pac at his best.
(Photo: David McNew/Getty Images)