Angelenos claim Nipsey Hussle as one of their own when mourning the beloved rapper and community builder, who was shot and killed March 31 outside of his Marathon Clothing store. But he simultaneously belonged to a larger diaspora community of habeshas, the historical grouping of Eritreans and Ethiopians, who felt a deep loss for their fallen who had risen so far up in the music industry.
The Grammy-nominated rapper, born Ermias Davidson Asghedom, was raised with his brother, Samiel "Blacc Sam" Asghedom, in South LA by their African American mother. The brothers grew up during the '90s in the height of gang violence, a memory Hussle, who was a member of the Rollin' 60s gang, recalled in an LA Times article last March: "It was like living in a war zone, where people die on these blocks and everybody is a little bit immune to it."
His formative years eerily mirror what his father, who fled Eritrea during a war to settle in the United States, endured. But his business hustle, appropriately resembling the last name of his moniker, originates from a mentality embedded in the children of immigrant parents, and for Hussle and myself, specifically East African immigrant parents. The unbridled passion for his heritage and subsequent desire to support Eritreans across the globe is what Hussle took away from his first trip to the motherland in 2004, where he told Complex in 2010, "That filled in a blank spot for me, as far as understanding myself."
And with Hussle gone, two blank spots remain: one on the corner of Crenshaw Boulevard and Slauson Avenue, a neighborhood spot closely tied to his life achievements and now tragic death, and another regarding representation in popular culture Eritreans rarely see. Losing a nebsi – the slang term for "homie" in Tigrinya that has been repurposed to mean "self-hustle" according to Eritrean journalist Billion Temesghen – is heard in the cries of the habesha community after news broke of Hussle's passing.
"He made me proud to be Eritrean. And that meant a lot," said Mikal Zere, an Eritrean American senior who attended an on-campus vigil sponsored by USC Black Student Assembly last Tuesday. "It hit our community a different way."
Aminé, an Ethiopian rapper from Portland, tweeted Hussle "inspired this lil habesha boy every day." What he imparted on his habesha followers is that someone who was fed the same injera and East African culture as us could achieve not only the American dream our parents sought after when they immigrated to the U.S., but also the kind of stardom that put Eritrea on the map.
"When I was younger, no one had heard of Eritrea. I used to be in elementary school using history textbooks without Eritrea on the map," Eritrean American journalist Miela Fetaw told me in our Twitter direct messages. "When [Hussle] started coming up on the scene announcing he was Eritrea, I think I lost my mind…. I took the time to talk about Eritrea, to point it out on a map, to not allow people to mispronounce my Tigrinya name incorrectly. He was that source of pride."
During his second and last trip to Eritrea in April 2018, Hussle spoke with Temesghen for an interview, posted on the country's Ministry of Information website. He discussed what it meant to be Eritrean: "The history of our country, our struggle and the underdog story, the resilience of the people and our integrity is something that I feel pride in being attached to."
And for his fans, Hussle expressed gratitude as deep as the pain his death inflicted them. "I want to thank my Eritrean fans for feeling connected to me and for supporting me," he told Temesghen. "Thank you for keeping my name alive out here."
For Meron Menghistab, the Eritrean American photographer behind the widely circulated portraits of Hussle shot for a BET feature story last year, he knew how he wanted to frame Hussle. “I knew I wanted to make portraits that made him look iconic, ones that would represent him in a way I hadn’t seen him photographed before,” Menghistab wrote me in an Instagram message. “I think in hindsight it was because I had so much admiration for such a habesha success story, a creative success story on top of that too.”
It's in the eyes: Hussle is one of us, and he felt like our brother or cousin because he looked like he could have been. He stood on the axis of being black and being Eritrean, a dichotomy not always embraced so proudly the way he did. During the memorial at USC, Zere said she resonated with this balancing act, and Hussle's finesse, seen in the way he uniformly represented and rooted for South LA and Eritrea, impacted the way she viewed herself.
Kwaku Yiadom, a senior at USC studying business administration, spoke to how influential the rapper's hustle was to his career path. "Business is a force," he said. "He was trying to build the self-sufficiency of black people."
The "Victory Lap" artist stuck to the same mission in all of his pursuits: bringing it back home. Fetaw tweeted how "he wasn't trying to make it out the hood, he was trying to bring people back in it." As a renowned South LA community builder, Hussle employed felons at his Marathon Clothing store, so they would not be unemployed because of their criminal records, as reported by the LA Times.
Even though Hussle discussed how unfazed his community has been by death "on these blocks," his death elicited the most opposite reaction. Memorials have popped up all across the globe, from the U.S. to Canada to Sweden to Ethiopia to Australia, and Fetaw has been posting on her Twitter and Instagram which ones are being held specifically by Eritrean communities.
"Nipsey Hussle left us the blueprint," Fetaw said. "Now it's on us to be the architects and get to building."