Nipsey Hussle’s Eritrean American Dream

The slain rapper, who was known for his investment in his Los Angeles community, also inspired fans and fellow musicians who share his East African heritage.

Scott Dudelson / Getty / Paul Spella / The Atlantic

In April 2018, the Los Angeles–born street rapper Nipsey Hussle traveled to his father’s native Eritrea for the first time in 14 years. The trip found the musician, née Ermias Davidson Asghedom, both contemplative and triumphant: After a prolific run of mixtapes spanning more than a decade, the fiercely independent artist had recently released his major-label studio debut, Victory Lap. (The February 2018 record, which debuted at No. 4, would later earn him a nomination for Best Rap Album at this year’s Grammys.)

While in the East African country, Hussle and his brother, Samiel “Blacc Sam” Asghedom, followed their father’s lead: They traveled to historical sites and met the country’s divisive president; they were blessed by their 90-year-old grandmother with himbasha, the slightly sweet bread most often served during celebrations. Hussle was also interviewed by a number of state-run media outlets. In one interview, which was posted to Eritrea’s Ministry of Information website, the Eritrean journalist Billion Temesghen told the musician that his listeners, particularly those on the continent, saw his hard-won successes as their own. Hussle’s response at the time was gracious and affirming. “I want to thank my Eritrean fans for feeling connected to me and for supporting me. I feel extremely grateful,” he replied. “I am going to keep coming back here and make frequent returns … Thank you for keeping my name alive out here.”

But now, less than a year later, Hussle’s connection to his fans, Eritrean and American alike, has taken on a far more tragic valence. On Sunday afternoon, Hussle was fatally shot outside the store he co-owned in South L.A., the neighborhood Hussle celebrated in his music, advocacy, and philanthropic ventures. The Los Angeles Police Department has since apprehended a suspect in the case, but the rapper and activist’s killing remains a devastating blow to his family and to fans around the world, many of whom have likened him to the late Tupac Shakur.

The news of Hussle’s death spread quickly, especially among the rapper’s supporters—that day, an impromptu vigil was held outside the Asghedom brothers’ store, The Marathon Clothing. Local fans and friends lined the corner of Victoria Avenue and Crenshaw Boulevard, playing Hussle’s music and reflecting on a man who “poured positivity into the streets,” as one attendee told the Los Angeles Times. Within 24 hours, Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook users had begun sharing flyers for candlelight vigils organized in cities around the country, including Atlanta, Chicago, New York, and Dallas.

Many of the memorials were organized specifically by Eritrean diasporic communities, their ad hoc appearances a direct reflection of the rapper’s importance to those who share his heritage. Among the first gatherings announced after the rally in Los Angeles was a vigil to be held Thursday in Washington, D.C., which boasts one of the largest East African populations in the United States.

Messai Belayneh, one of the D.C. organizers, was initially stunned when he heard of the rapper’s death Sunday evening. By Monday morning, the first generation Ethiopian American had reached out to Naomi Demsas, who works with the Eritrean Diaspora Network, to offer grieving fans a place to gather in the city. “We’re not just losing an artist; we’re not just losing a visionary—whether people are figuring it out now after his passing or whether they did appreciate him that much before,” Belayneh said when we spoke before the vigil. “We’re losing someone who can basically be related to anyone here.”

Fans left an Eritrean flag among the dedications to Hussle outside his L.A. store. (Ringo H.W. Chiu / AP)

For Eritrean fans around the globe, Nipsey Hussle was never just a musician. The scrappy street rapper, born in 1985 to an African American mother and Eritrean immigrant father, had long been a rare model of public acceptance to young people who trace their heritage back to the small East African country, which formally won its independence from the neighboring Ethiopia in the early 1990s. (Ethiopia had annexed the nation under Emperor Haile Selassie’s rule in the 1960s, and the war for Eritrea’s independence was a multi-decade period of protracted bloodshed.)

The past year has seen the countries thaw their diplomatic tensions, and many Ethiopians and Eritreans refer to a sense of shared identity with the politically complicated umbrella term habesha. Indeed, the two nations share many cultural hallmarks—among them, food and some languages, including naming conventions. Ermias Asghedom, for example, is the kind of name that immediately evokes the Horn of Africa. Even so, many young Eritrean Americans, including Hussle and the actor Tiffany Haddish, grew up bristling at how often they were mistaken for their Ethiopian counterparts in the West—and feeling a deep sense of pride in their nation’s struggle for independence.

The Asghedom brothers, who were raised in their American mother’s Los Angeles home for many of their formative years, first traveled to Eritrea in 2004, when Hussle was 18. “As I got older, my pops tried to keep me involved with the culture by telling me the stories of the conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea, how he came to America, and about our family back home, because all that side of my family, my aunties, grandparents, is in Africa,” he told Complex in 2010. That first visit “put me in touch with my roots. If you don’t know your full-throttle history, the whole story of how you came to where you are, it’s kind of hard to put things together,” Hussle said. “That filled in a blank spot for me, as far as understanding myself.”

If Hussle’s trips to Eritrea helped the musician connect his American upbringing to his African roots, then his music—and the simple fact of his prominence—did the same for younger habeshas. The 24-year-old Ethiopian and Eritrean American rapper Aminé recalls discovering Hussle in his childhood—and finding inspiration to pursue music despite the admonitions he’d heard about choosing a stable career. “The first ever habesha person I ever saw do anything, like, dope that wasn’t a doctor or lawyer was Nipsey,” the Portland-bred musician said when we spoke over the phone recently. “I seen him and I was like, ‘Wow, this is crazy!’ And I showed it to my mom when I was in high school and she was like, ‘Oh, he’s Eritrean?!’ She was super shocked that someone was successful in something that wasn’t what the norm was.”

Belayneh, whose work in the D.C. area falls largely within entertainment and event planning, also looked to Hussle as a possibility model for creative pursuits. “It’s that extra step of connection. Not only was he the template of success for so many people, but for us, specifically, there’s that deeper root, like I know exactly what he could be going through in his upbringing, his household, the values that people have instilled in him family-wise,” Belayneh said of the late rapper’s significance to habesha youth. “So for us, it’s like the American dream is that much more attainable.”

Part of Hussle’s influence stemmed from his straightforward detailing of the violence and inequality he regularly faced in South Central, and in America writ large. In his music and in interviews, he didn’t shy away from discussing his gang affiliation—or from critiquing the systems of discrimination that foster violence within his neighborhood and others like it. Through the fact of his life, he also validated the experiences of young habeshas around the country whose trajectories didn’t bear the hallmarks of neat success stories. Hussle’s public persona wasn’t one concerned with adhering to restrictive notions of respectability.

Zimam Alemenew, one of the volunteers organizing the New York City vigil to be held Thursday, grew up listening to Hussle’s music in Fresno, California. Records such as Bullet Ain’t Got No Name Vol. 2 and the song “Hussle in the House” helped the Ethiopian American understand the violence that claimed her brother’s life when she was younger, and that continues to affect young habeshas in the area. “I’ll never forget—I used to go every summer to L.A., and I bought his mixtape. I never ever bought a mixtape before, and I bought his mixtape at a swap meet,” she told me, with a laugh. “I felt like because he was habesha, I wanted to buy his music, and because everything he was saying was so real and I felt it.”

Hussle wasn’t perfect, but he was certainly real. For many who belong to an immigrant group that grapples with both intra-community pressure and external hostility from broader American society, his openness about hardship was refreshing. Another New York City vigil coordinator, Abraham Paulos, spoke of Hussle’s transparency about his street life. “It’s a very, very complicated kind of existence,” the Eritrean American organizer said. “And some of [the youth] do have to find safety in the streets and in gang life. So [it’s important] to say, ‘We’re not gonna shun you; you’re not a disgrace to our community.’”