What I love about hip-hop music is the ability to hear and connect with underrepresented voices. It’s a chance to hear stories that otherwise aren’t being given a platform. It's the auditory embodiment of a victory lap for the oppressed. Some artists use their past as an anecdote to explore issues of race and class. But the best artists do more than simply shed light on social inequities — they offer a solution.
On March 31, California hip-hop artist Nipsey Hussle, whose debut album “Victory Lap” was nominated for Best Rap Album at this year's Grammys, was murdered outside of his own Los Angeles store, Marathon Clothing. Nipsey, whose real name is Ermias Joseph Asghedom, was set to speak with city officials the next day about increasing community efforts to further curb gang violence. He’ll always be remembered as an artist who went above and beyond to use his platform to help those around him.
Nipsey Hussle seems to have teleported here from hip-hop's golden age — the 1990s — to remind contemporary listeners what authenticity sounds like. Listening to Nipsey for the first time was reminiscent of the first time I heard Eazy-E or Snoop Dogg. It was otherworldly. It’s funky, menacing and autobiographical. Nipsey — like his forebears — oozes authenticity with every line. There would never be a petty debate regarding ghostwriters with Nipsey. Nobody can sound or write like him. When you hear it, you know it’s real.
Nipsey began making noise in the mid 2000s, often getting lost in the shuffle of big-name, blog-era rappers like Kendrick Lamar or Drake. Although Nipsey has worked with both artists, he never made the same chart-topping impact, a testament to his inability to compromise artistic integrity for radio success. He was always more focused on remaining local, both in sound and soul.
Influenced by the West Coast G-funk that preceded him, Nipsey added a fresh take to a timeless sound. His breakout mixtape, 2013’s “Crenshaw,” made headlines after Nipsey priced the physical albums at $100 each. Only 1,000 copies were made, and Jay-Z bought a hundred because he respected the hustle. His lyrics are often dark, but motivational — taking listeners to the darkest corners of his neighborhood and then leading them out. It’s this brand of unbridled optimism that separates Nipsey’s crime-ridden tales from his peers.
Just a year ago, Nipsey opened a co-working space and STEM center of which the main goal was to increase diversity in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields by acting as a vessel between underrepresented groups and Silicon Valley corporate partners.
For better or for worse, Nipsey was tethered to his roots. The same affection and care Nipsey showed his community through his unflinching art and selfless philanthropy was not returned to him. His impact will surely linger in the years to come. What he began locally, and within the hip-hop community, is too vital to fail. Nipsey couldn’t fail if he tried, and if there’s anything we learned from his classic Marathon mixtape series, it’s that no matter what, you don’t stop running.