Eritrean-American rapper Nipsey Hussle is turning heads with his entrepreneurial drive, and street oriented story telling. But, is this anything new?
In mid-February 2018, rapper Nipsey Hussle released his first studio album, Victory Lap, a paean to his complicated relationship with Los Angeles gang life. While making the rounds on American hip hop radio stations and podcasts, if he wasn’t breaking down gang codes or marketing his various businesses, Nipsey kept returning to his roots beyond his South Central, Los Angeles neighborhood: that of his Eritrean immigrant background.
Ermias Asghedom’s father had fled the ongoing war and settled in US. By celebrating his father’s background (his mother is African-American), Nipsey was partly reflecting what Boima Tucker described elsewhere on this site as “a resurgence of an unbridled enthusiasm for Africa in black America.” In recent times, American artists of African immigrant background have openly made connections to their parents’ homelands public and explicit. Issa Rae has done so on television, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira and Daniel Kaluuya on film and Wale and French Montana have done so in music. The comedian Tiffany Haddish, another LA native, also has recently foregrounded her Eritrean background. Haddish recently traveled to Eritrea then wore a traditional outfit to the The Oscars. It is obvious that Haddish’s new found connection to Eritrea, has added to her confidence as a public figure. This is in contrast to a generation ago when the children of African immigrants to the US downplayed their family connections in fear of attracting ridicule.
In 2004, when he turned 18, Nipsey traveled with his father and brother, Samiel “Black Sam” Asghedom, to Asmara, the Eritrean capital and stayed three months. This trip would have a profound influence on him. Beyond just a celebration of his African heritage, it would become part of his personal mythology. He admits that at first it wasn’t so easy arriving for the first time in his father’s home country:
I experienced culture shock. The shit that we rely on day-to-day out here, your cell phone, Internet, e-mail, and your females, [laughs] and your daily movement, it’s all cut off once you get out there. It’s more about the interaction with people.
However, as illustrated in an interview with NY radio station Hot 97 in February, he ultimately credits that trip with giving him a connection to his roots, and widening his worldview beyond South Central, motivating him to achieve the success that he has. He explains that he was impressed with Eritrea’s communal culture, which “filled in a blank spot for me, as far as understanding myself.” And, in an interview back in LA on a local station there, he said “as far as I am a black person from America, I am a black person from Africa too.” When asked whether it was weird to be in a place where you actually weren’t a minority, Nipsey replied: “For sure. You saw that in key positions; president, government, police, everybody’s the same [color]. It’s a country run by its people. No racial class, everybody feels a part of it.” For an African immigrant growing up in race obsessed America, the racial makeup of Eritrea’s government is a strong affirmation of one’s sense of self pride.
Eritrea itself doesn’t show up in Hussle’s lyrical content. In fact, he seems to be very cautious about making explicit political statements about Eritrea. When asked by his interviewers at Hot 97 about the political divide between Eritrea and Ethiopia, his reply was: “There are experts and we got to be really careful about this.” Instead, his Eritrean sojourn is solely represented as the fuel for his transformation from unfocused teen “gang banger” to a self-made entrepreneur.
Lived long enough to see changes
Nipsey’s story of hustle is actually part of a long-standing American tradition, making up the myth that is the American Dream. Since the 19th Century, immigrant communities — Irish, Jews, Italians and Chinese, most notably — have all built economic power in American cities through informally organized entrepreneurial “gangs” or “mafias” that have straddled the line between illicit and legal capitalist franchises. African American gangs such as the Crips, Bloods, Gangster Disciples and Vice Lords, peaking in power and organizational complexity during the drug trade of the 1980s, sometimes modeled their organizations on similar community empowerment ideals — especially in the wake of the black empowerment movements of the previous decades — and sought similar ends as their immigrant counterparts; although in the face of much harsher and more holistic policing, the results of which are still felt today.
Asghedom was born in 1985 in Crenshaw, in South Central, Los Angeles. The 1980s and early 1990s were the height of gang violence in the city. Nipsey’s childhood was characterized by extreme gun violence, abject poverty, drug hustling and police brutality. Not unlike the war zone his father fled, surviving itself was an extraordinary feat. In his song “Blue Laces 2” he raps:
“Third generation, South Central gang bangers / That lived long enough to see it changing / Think it’s time we make arrangements / Finally wiggle out they mazes, find me out in different places.”
So any celebration of his achievements have to take this context in mind:
If you check the stats — the murder rates and incarceration rates in the years I was a teenager in L.A. — in my section of the Crenshaw District in the Rollin’ 60s [the local gang], none of my peers survived. None of my peers avoided prison. None of ’em. Everybody got bullet wounds and felonies and strikes. So to make it out mentally stable and not in prison and not on drugs, that’s a win. That’s a victory in itself. Then to be in the position I find myself in as an artist and entrepreneur who has respect around the world; that’s legendary. And I say it in the most humble way.
His fans agree. As one fan wrote on YouTube about Victory Lap, “I needed this. He doesn’t understand how many lives he changed with this album.” And while his personal successes should be celebrated, the context in which such individual successes are made possible, when so many others didn’t make it out, is not beyond reproach.
Nipsey built a reputation through mixtapes — he had released four mixtapes between 2010 and 2014. He funded these all himself and became known for his unconventional marketing strategies. In 2013, he produced one thousand copies of the mixtape, Crenshaw, priced at $100 a CD when most established musicians were giving mixtapes for free. Impressed with his initiative, the rap god Jay-Z bought 100 copies of the CD. All CDs were sold out in a day.
During this time, Nipsey also went into business with his brother Black Sam, who started out informally selling small items on a popular strip in Crenshaw. Sam had been frequently targeted by the law enforcement agents, harassed, and taken into custody. Owning your own piece of real estate, was a way to end that abuse, in Nipsey’s telling. They now own a clothing store The Marathon, in their neighborhood, Crenshaw.
Local LA media have celebrated Hussle. The Los Angeles Times, recently ran a feature on Nipsey, describing him as “music’s biggest disruptor,” after he opened Vector 90, “a combination co-working space and STEM center” in Crenshaw. Its aim was to call “attention to the lack of diversity in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields.” The LA Times reported, “… the hope is to serve as a conduit between underrepresented groups and corporate partners in Silicon Valley and beyond.”
Such attempts at “disrupting” social norms, are surely beneficial to individuals coming from his still marginalized and stigmatized Los Angeles community. However, Nipsey’s entrepreneurial ventures are actually very much part of the American capitalist class’ contemporary guiding philosophy. By foregrounding attempts to infiltrate Silicon Valley, Asghedom is joining an established class of rappers, who are being lured by the appeal of tech companies power, influence and capital. Some of hip hop’s biggest names, such as Jay-Z, Drake, and Eminem have already slipped into this track, allowing rap music to serve the very same power structures it in the past sought to challenge. (Nipsey’s STEM initiative is actually with a billionaire real estate developer who got Nipsey to join a consortium to buy a luxury hotel in one of southern California’s white enclaves.) In 21st century America, inevitably, even revolutionary outsiders such as Hussle are destined to join the mainstream, allowing themselves to be commodified in order to serve the realms of capitalist ventures.
Time will tell whether Asghedom too will continue with his unapologetic critic of the establishment that zombified his community, or be just another name in the commercial rap industry.