Near the spot where homegrown South L.A. rapper Nipsey Hussle was shot and killed Sunday afternoon, Louis Aikens had two reasons to mourn the loss.
“I wasn’t only a fan of his music, but of the man that he was,” said Aikens, 29, who stopped by Monday to pay his respects.
Joseph Walker, 30, wore a Crenshaw T-shirt from Hussle’s Marathon clothing line and needed just one word to describe what the rapper’s life and music meant to him.
“Inspiration,” he said.
To the throngs of people who took photos near the candles and the bouquets of flowers, Hussle represented hope in a neighborhood of dreams dashed by decades of violence and economic despair.
He was a kid who once joined the Crips and went on to make it big, but didn’t abandon his home even as he talked about the post-traumatic stress that went along with life in the gang. Instead, he invested in the neighborhood, started businesses, offered jobs, donated to good causes. Only to be killed outside Marathon, his signature clothing store, where locals would see him come and go.
“He would come here without bodyguards,” Aikens said. “Like a regular dude.”
That made the killing all the harder to take for those who had seen signs of a neighborhood rising. Hussle had been scheduled to meet Monday with the chief of police and a member of the Police Commission to discuss ways to reduce gang violence as the city recorded an uptick in crime. Instead, he met a violent death on a sunny Sunday afternoon.
A man of about the same age, who called himself Martin G., said he himself wouldn’t have stayed around if he had struck it rich the way Hussle did.
“How are you going to be safe in the place where you come from?” Martin said, as if in a place where gangs still operate, there is no way to escape the past.
Why the recent uptick in crime?
“The economy, not enough good jobs,” said Sherard.
“The cost of living is too high,” said Martin.
“No more bloodshed,” said a sigh held aloft by Ernie Arzu, who walked in circles around the spot where Hussle went down.
“I didn’t know him for his music,” said Arzu, who told me he runs a fitness camp and holds rallies calling for an end to the banging and to the silence about young men dying as a matter of routine. “I knew him for the stuff he did. He was a community leader.”
I left the site of the killing and drove to Tolliver’s Barber Shop, a couple of miles away, where I’ve heard the regulars talk for years about their disappointment that post-Watts, and post-Rodney King, progress has been piecemeal and way too slow. Nothing has replaced the middle-class comforts that came with the long-gone jobs in manufacturing and aerospace, and the schools are as troubled as the neighborhood itself.
Lawrence Tolliver, who’s about to turn 75, said he didn’t know much about Hussle’s music, but a couple of his customers had told him about the rapper’s transformation and his contributions. Before long, a young regular walked in and gave us a tutorial on Hussle’s life and music, and on his own strategy for staying safe in “the hood,” as he called his home.
I had met Arthur Gomez in the barbershop several years ago, when he was in high school. Now he’s 25, a college grad, and he works at a Target while developing a career as a magician. He’d move to Las Vegas, Gomez said, if not for his obligations.
“My grandmother lives next door to me and family comes first,” he said. “These gentlemen in here are my family, too.”
Gomez noted that when I last saw him, he got around on a bicycle, but he wouldn’t risk that now. He said he could face resentment as a businessman, which he considers himself, “in a collared shirt.”
He drives, he said, and lives his life indoors except for running errands. He had just gone to a recycling center to cash in the bottles and cans he collects to raise a little spending money for his grandmother, who’s been sick.
“I live here, but I don’t hang out here,” Gomez said, telling me that loitering on the street can be dangerous. If he were talking to someone who had a beef with someone else, and an enemy rolled up, that could end in a bad way.
“Lights out, curtains closed,” Gomez said.
Crime is actually down considerably from historic highs, but Tolliver and Muhammad said today’s gangs aren’t as docile as the gangs of their era.
“You had the Slausons, the Gladiators, the Businessmen, the Rebel Rousers, but they were more like social clubs that banded together,” said Tolliver. The Businessmen wore sweaters with images of briefcases stitched onto the backs.
Some people joined those gangs for protection against a white South Gate gang that targeted African Americans, Tolliver said. You didn’t want to run into those guys, and you didn’t set foot in Inglewood, said Tolliver. Inglewood was white back then, and he grew up believing he could be in big trouble if he wandered into that territory.
“I was with the Gladiators,” Muhammad said, recalling the group’s lime green apparel.
When we elders mentioned that Nipsey Hussle’s stage name was sort of borrowed from comedian Nipsey Russell, Gomez said he had never heard of the comedian. Tolliver called up some of Russell’s act on his phone, and Gomez cracked up. Tolliver then took a look at a Nipsey Hussle rap video, watched quietly, and said:
“It’s a different generation.”
Gomez got a look of appreciation out of Tolliver, not a rap fan, when he said Nipsey Hussle really did hustle, selling merchandise out of the back of his car at first, then writing music that carried a powerful and positive message:
“He tried to influence black young men to get off the streets, level up, and hey…you don’t have to gang bang to make moves.”
Tolliver’s barbershop has always served as a community center, a safe haven, a place of hope and reflection that appeals to all ages — a place where youngsters respect their elders, learn about the history of Los Angeles, and gaze up at portraits of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, President Obama and Rosa Parks, among others.
It’s a place where a young Arthur Gomez once worked on his magic and grabbed a broom, too, earning a few bucks for sweeping the trimmings and taking out the trash.
Fourteen-year-old Elijah Botts arrived on his skateboard Monday afternoon and popped in to see if Tolliver had any work for him, but the trash had been emptied and Gomez had already swept.
Botts goes to Horace Mann Middle School. Tolliver told him that he did, too, back in the day.
Botts knew all about Hussle. His music, his message, his death.
“He was trying to bring people together,” said Botts, who excused himself and headed for the door.
“Be careful out there,” Tolliver said.