Why Is the Violent Gang Culture that Killed Nipsey Hussle Being Celebrated?

Last Thursday, slain rapper Nipsey Hussle was mourned in a fashion fit for a distinguished statesman: a funeral attended by 21,000 people at the Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles, followed by a 25-mile procession, where thousands more thronged the route and showered the passing hearse with flowers and other mementos of devotion.

The entire affair was streamed live on the internet, and as someone who once had a professional interest in Mr. Hussle and his associates, I checked in from time to time to see how things were progressing.  As the procession brought traffic to a standstill across large sections of South L.A., I couldn’t help but wonder how Aaron Shannon’s parents might be feeling if they had found themselves caught in the commotion.

If he were alive today, Aaron Shannon would be 14 years old, and his parents, like those of many boys in certain parts of Los Angeles, would be doing their best to inoculate him against the gang culture that has brought so much death and misery to the city. How Aaron’s parents must wish they had to face that challenge today.

But Aaron Shannon is not alive today, having been murdered in 2010 when he was just five years old. It was the afternoon of Halloween that year when Aaron, playing in his backyard and dressed in his Spider-Man costume, was shot in the head and killed by gang members seeking retribution for an earlier shooting. Aaron’s grandfather and uncle were also shot that day but survived. No one in the family was affiliated with a street gang.

Indeed, one need not have any direct connection to gang culture to have that culture come exploding into one’s life as it did in Aaron’s case. It was his fate to live in the Florence area on the west side of Central Avenue while his killers lived on the east side. Strange as it may sound to people unfamiliar with gang life, that’s all it takes for two groups of people, who may be similar in every other observable way, to be blood enemies. Aaron’s neighborhood was (and still is) claimed by the East Side Mad Swan Bloods, while the neighborhood to the east is home to the Kitchen Crips.

Which brings us back to Nipsey Hussle and his elaborate send-off. As the procession made its way through South Los Angeles, traveling on streets familiar to me through my years with the LAPD, I recalled times when I had stood on some of those very sidewalks only a few feet away from the covered body of some young person who minutes earlier had been shot and killed. In fact, if you examine the map that accompanies the Los Angeles Times’s Homicide Report, you can see that the procession’s route of travel, south on Vermont Avenue, then east on Century Boulevard to Watts, then back west on Century to the city of Inglewood and north to the parking lot on Slauson Avenue where Hussle was killed, you can see that it scarcely passed a single block that hadn’t seen at least one murder since January 1, 2000, when the Times’s homicide data begins.

(Image via LA Times Homicide Report)

And yet, as Nipsey Hussle was extolled as a local hero on Thursday, his membership in the Rollin’ 60s Neighborhood Crips was presented as something to be proud of, as though the gang were nothing but some kind of social welfare organization. It’s true that Hussle had invested in his neighborhood, operating a clothing store, a hamburger stand, and a barber shop, but whatever good may have flowed from those enterprises is far outweighed by the damage done by the Rollin’ 60s in the years since he joined the gang at age 14. Presented nearby is a map of the Hyde Park area of Los Angeles, home to the Rollin’ 60s. The map, created by the Los Angeles Times, contains 237 dots, each one representing a person killed in the area since January 2000. Nipsey Hussle is merely the most recent and most famous of these victims.

Despite the gang’s opulent record of death and ruin, Nipsey Hussle boasted of his membership in the Rollin’ 60s, both in interviews and in the lyrics to his music. In doing so he merely followed the path of so many of his predecessors in the genre, which demands “authenticity” of its performers. This brand of authenticity requires embracing the gang life and rejecting such bourgeois conventions as staying in school, confining parenthood to married couples, and, dare I add, not shooting people for the offense of living in the wrong neighborhood.

Sadly, even some who have lived bourgeois lives themselves can’t bring themselves to condemn the criminality that is integral to hip-hop music. Witness Michael Eric Dyson’s hagiographic tribute to Nipsey Hussle that appeared in the New York Times on April 12. In the piece, Dyson describes Hussle as, yes, a “ghetto saint,” and he recounts their “epic conversation” while seated together on a cross-country flight. “[Hussle’s] death is even more haunting,” writes Dyson, “because the love he showed took place against the backdrop of unsettling violence, both real and imagined, both in structural forces and intimate spaces, often conjured or measured by his own pen.” Note how gang violence is thus reduced to a “backdrop” to Nipsey Hussle’s saintly love rather than something he participated in and encouraged others to do so through his music.

Just as disturbing is the letter Barack Obama sent to Hussle’s family. “While most folks look at the Crenshaw neighborhood where he grew up and see only gangs, bullets and despair,” Mr. Obama wrote, “Nipsey saw potential.” Again, it is indeed commendable that Hussle chose to invest some portion of his wealth in the Crenshaw community, but it is an insult to that same community when we ignore the fact that it was the Rollin’ 60s, of which Hussle remained a proud member to the day he died, that to a large degree brought about the neighborhood’s decline in the first place.

In the end, despite his fame and wealth, Nipsey Hussle became another dot on the map, a victim of the gang life that produced him and which he exploited to make himself rich. I realize there are those who will find it unseemly that a white man who spent more than thirty years with the LAPD should dare to tarnish Saint Nipsey’s halo in this fashion. How can I possibly understand, they will ask. I understand all too well, actually, and I have no trouble remembering that those dots on the map, the ones who weren’t rich or famous, were real people, some of whom I saw take their last breaths.

The gang culture that was celebrated at Nipsey Hussle’s funeral is a cancer in every community it touches, and it does no one a bit of good to forget it.