Standing to deliver my opening statement in the case of People v. Eric Holder Jr., I was compelled to tell the jury why Nipsey Hussle was different. When most people born in the “hood” find financial success, the first thing they do is change their address. When Nipsey found success, he tried to change his neighborhood. If the stars had aligned differently and Nipsey had survived March 31, 2019, I believe rapping would be a small part of his legacy.
Nipsey was a talented voice poised to take his place amongst a long line of legendary West Coast rappers, from Ice T. to Kendrick Lamar, who represented street life through clever phraseology and catchy cadences. What set Nipsey apart from the others was a passion for transforming his neighborhood and the people who lived there for generations.
The “Hussle” in Nipsey was a growing passion for investing and entrepreneurship, both of which have been glaringly anemic in African American habits and customs since the 1960s. Today, African Americans are last amongst all racial groups in investment and entrepreneurship.
Nipsey was poised to change this, starting in his South Los Angeles neighborhood.
He purchased a strip mall at the busy intersection of Crenshaw and Slauson in the heart of his gang’s claimed territory. Nipsey bought the same property where he and his fellow gang members were once considered nuisances for engaging in activities that drew the ire of the resident businesses.
Where others saw a distressed property, Nipsey saw an opportunity. He envisioned partnerships that would take advantage of “Opportunity Zones” created by Congress to spur investment and job creation in areas like South Los Angeles.
During the trial, one of Nipsey Hussle’s best friends, Herman “Cowboy” Douglas, testified that Nipsey always referred to his success as “our” success. When Nipsey accomplished something, he would say, “we did that.”
Nipsey was on a mission to lift all boats in South Los Angeles and inspire young people across all neighborhoods to “hussle” toward a more legitimate and abiding success than could ever come from a life of gang banging on the streets.
Nipsey toiled for years perfecting his craft and distributing his music on his terms while foregoing sketchy get-rich-quick production contracts offered by the big labels. Before he was killed, Nipsey partnered with other investors to create a science and tech-based learning center for underprivileged youth and an associated collaborative working space for adults that he called Vector90. He wanted to divert young people away from a life in prison by creating a pipeline from South Los Angeles to Silicon Valley.
While loyal to his neighborhood and gang, Nipsey repudiated the violence he once took part in to pursue his passion for making music and making money legitimately. While never lecturing or moralizing those still going about a life of gang violence, Nipsey warned others that the emerging technologies in law enforcement combined with significant criminal penalties for gang-related crimes made gang banging a no-win enterprise.
At 33 years old, the arc of Nipsey Hussle’s life was decidedly bent from the shadows of gang violence to the bright lights of Grammy award nominations. He had become a symbol of hope and inspiration in a neighborhood of pessimism and despair.
If Nipsey Hussle’s legacy is to endure, the caretakers must follow the path he was on. The “Marathon” that Nipsey envisioned was not a sprint to material wealth but a slow, methodical trek to victory. It was a course that necessitated patience, education, persistence, hard work, and delayed gratification.
Going forward, the Marathon must begin and end in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty; the course must wind around criminal opportunities and violence. The runners must embrace the grind of climbing hills of high expectations while avoiding the flat lands of mediocrity and excuses.
Those who have already run the gauntlet or were privileged never to have to must not let their irrational guilt or pity create distractions or off-ramps for runners who can only win by running the course. If more disenfranchised youth are to take a victory lap one day, the Marathon must continue.
John Mckinney is a Deputy District Attorney for the County of Los Angeles. John prosecuted Eric Holder Jr. for the killing of Ermias Asghedom, aka “Nipsey Hussle.” The views expressed in this op-ed are the opinions of John McKinney and do not reflect the views of the Office of the District Attorney.