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After Nipsey Hussle’s shooting, students closest to him vow to lift up their community

Kaya Buckley, left, and Kaelyn Campbell, both Seniors at Crenshaw High School talk before heading in
Kaya Buckley, left, and Kaelyn Campbell, both seniors at Crenshaw High School, talk before heading to class Thursday morning. The campus is just blocks from where rapper Nipsey Hussle was shot and killed.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

Kaya Buckley is a fan of Nipsey Hussle’s music. Her friends at Crenshaw High School shop at the clothing store where he was shot and killed Sunday, less than a mile from campus.

But the 17-year-old knew Hussle and identified with him most as a fellow community activist.

She first met him at a Hyde Park community meeting about a new Metro line. He spoke about development he wanted to see in the area, and his own investments in businesses, technology and other local enterprises.

Afterward, Kaya timidly asked Hussle for his autograph, and told him she was shy.

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Hussle “looked me in my eye and he was like, ‘You know, you can’t be shy all the time, and you’ve got to speak up’ … and he told me that a closed mouth doesn’t get fed,” Kaya said.

Hussle was embedded in the community and spent time with young people like Kaya, donating resources and speaking alongside high school students on panels about growing up in the area and the influence of gang culture. He rapped about eating cookies at his grandmother’s house near 59th Street Elementary, and refurbished the school’s basketball court last year. Because of that involvement, students at some neighborhood schools are experiencing his death in a more personal way than just as music fans.

RELATED: How Nipsey Hussle saw Slauson Avenue »

LOS ANGELES, CA - APRIL 4, 2019 - Third grade students play during recess on the 59th Street Element
Third-graders play during recess on the basketball court at 59th Street Elementary School, decorated with artwork commissioned by Nipsey Hussle.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

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On Tuesday, the Los Angeles Unified School District deployed mental health teams to campuses to provide support and counseling for students.

Tuesday’s attendance, after a school holiday Monday, was down about three percentage points at Crenshaw High and 59th Street Elementary, compared with the previous week, district officials said.

Kaya stayed home that day. Her route to school is by bus and on foot and she was afraid there might be trouble in the area, especially after a vigil for Hussle on Monday night ended in a stampede after inaccurate reports that shots had been fired. She also feared someone might seek retaliation for his death.

Police said they believe the shooting was related to a personal dispute, not to gang rivalries. His alleged assailant, Eric Holder, was charged Thursday with one count of murder, two counts of attempted murder and one count of possession of a firearm by a felon. Two others with Hussle were also wounded in the shooting, which occurred in the parking lot of the rapper’s Marathon Clothing store.

Holder has pleaded not guilty.

That first encounter with Hussle has stuck with Kaya, who has continued her activism. She’s participated in protests advocating for gun reform and confronted authorities about more resources for students. Through community organizations, she tries to educate the neighborhood about “the injustices we face.”

And when she’s nervous, she thinks of Hussle’s advice.

“When he told me those words, it really challenged me to go outside of my comfort zone,” Kaya said.

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Kaya returned to school Wednesday and heard echoes of Hussle’s music coming from students’ phones throughout campus. In math class, students discussed the alleged killer, and whether his family would be safe.

Hussle’s death affected Crenshaw students who didn’t know much about the rapper. Senior Kaelyn Campbell, 18, said she had heard of Hussle but listens mostly to pop music and didn’t know about his store or why he was so important to so many of her friends and classmates.

“Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, it was everywhere. People were talking about how they were afraid to go to school,” she said of the conversations Sunday and Monday. Campbell was in class Tuesday, but it was impossible to have a discussion without talking about him. She said she was heartened by the support students offered one another.

“Everyone was just talking about, ‘I have you, I got you, my love is here for you.’ ... It was just so refreshing to see that in the wake of tragedy that we can have that bond with each other,” she said.

Seeing how so many were affected by his death, she researched Hussle and started to understand.

“It was more so of him just giving back to the community and him trying to uplift the community through his businesses, that it was just like, dang, I wish I knew more about you when you were here, [I] could have done more to support you,” Campbell said.

At 59th Street, students had met Hussle and “felt like they knew him personally,” said Valeska Cosci, an LAUSD mental health consultant who is deployed to schools when tragedies like this happen nearby. On Tuesday she was at 59th Street Elementary to provide counseling. Teachers used writing or drawing exercises to help students express their feelings about Hussle, she said.

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FULL COVERAGE: Nipsey Hussle gunned down in South L.A. »

Some students were upset or crying, and had trouble sleeping the night before because of all the helicopters in the area, Cosci said. She saw about 18 students, in small groups or individually, in a separate classroom throughout the day.

“What we worked on was how to cope with those feelings, who can you count on, who are … the adults in your life that can help with this.”

Some students had seen their own parents crying, and many saw the surveillance video of Hussle being shot, which was circulating on social media, Cosci said.

“Some of them saw it several times, and it was difficult for them,” Cosci said. “So I would recommend limiting that as they try to make sense of their grief, and returning to their normal school routine is important.”

“Aside from the grief … a lot of the talk was, ‘Well, what would Nipsey do? He helped our community a lot,’” Cosci said.

She said students brought that up on their own, pledging to carry on the rapper’s legacy of kindness he showed them, such as keeping the school clean and being nice to one another.

The vulnerability that Kaya feels after Hussle’s death is hard for her.

“It also is kind of like an eye opener that in doing this work, I’m kind of putting my life on the line,” Kaya said.

But one way of healing, she said, is to continue fighting for change — through ending gun violence and building up the community by investing and creating generational wealth.

Since the shooting, groups such as Youth Justice Coalition and Black Lives Matter have gathered young people in safe spaces to grieve together.

Though that work is vital, it’s just as important to support the plans of students like Kaya, said Alberto Retana, president of the Community Coalition, an advocacy group Kaya is involved with.

“Adults, churches, community organizations ... need to all wrap our arms around young people and support them as they both deal with loss but also begin to imagine what they want to do” next, Retana said.

“They want to stay active, but they want to feel safe,” Retana said. “So how can we make youth feel more safe?”

Reach Sonali Kohli at Sonali.Kohli@latimes.com or on Twitter @Sonali_Kohli.


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