At the age of 19, Nipsey Hussle took the money he earned hustling on the streets of South Los Angeles and bought a plane ticket to his father’s homeland — a tiny country in eastern Africa that fought a brutal war to secure its place in the world as Eritrea.
That trip split his life into before and after, from a young man steeped in gang culture with aspirations of being a rapper, to a community activist with an entrepreneurial spirit who earned a Grammy nod.
Hussle, born Ermias Asghedom, stayed in Eritrea for three months in 2004. He made meaningful connections around the dinner table with family he had never met. But most of all, Hussle, for the first time in his life, lived in a place where people with chocolate skin like his own were in charge.
When he returned to L.A., his eyes opened to “the way things could be.” The world was suddenly bigger than the Crenshaw district of South L.A., where he grew up with his mother and grandmother, and where neighborhoods often determine gang ties. He said in interviews and in rap lyrics that he was tied to the notorious Rollin’ 60s Crips, but police said it was likely a personal grudge, not gang violence, that led to Hussle being fatally shot outside his clothing store last Sunday. He was 33.
Eritrea had a powerful effect on Hussle, and Hussle had an equally powerful effect on Eritrea.
“If you don’t know your full-throttled history, the whole story of how you came to where you are, it’s kind of hard to put things together,” he said in a 2010 interview with Complex magazine. “That filled in a blank spot for me, as far as understanding myself.”
When Hussle died last week, Eritrea’s minister of information, Yemane G. Meskel, offered his condolences on Twitter. In cities from Washington, D.C., to Portland, members of the Eritrean diaspora have held candlelight vigils in the rapper’s name.
Los Angeles is home to one of the largest enclaves of Eritrean immigrants in the United States, and they have watched Hussle — or Ermias, as they call him — grow from a precocious child into an influential young man. On Sunday, many in the immigrant community are holding events in his honor, including a spiritual healing session at an Eritrean church.
Hussle’s death has left many in mourning. But for lots of Eritreans, it’s as if they have lost a son. To them, he was the embodiment of the dream for those in the Eritrean diaspora who hoped to secure a better future for themselves and their children.
A broom-shaped country the size of Tennessee, Eritrea is home to about 5 million people in the Horn of Africa. It’s a former Italian colony, and after World War II Eritrea was absorbed into neighboring Ethiopia, plunging the region into war.
Between 1961 and 1991, hundreds of thousands of Eritreans fled the country, planting roots in North America, Europe and the Middle East. One of them was Hussle’s father, Dawit Asghedom, who was among the first to arrive in L.A. in the 1970s.
Today, Asghedom remains a familiar face and a pillar of his local Eritrean community. He and Hussle’s mom, Angelique Smith, who is African American and traces her roots to Louisiana, gave birth to Ermias in Los Angeles in 1985. Ermias, which means “God is risen,” Smith says, is their second born after Samiel. The couple divorced in 1987.
Hussle lived with his mother and, later, his grandmother. Still, Asghedom made sure Hussle and his brother were exposed to Eritrean food and culture. As an adult, Hussle continued that tradition and enrolled his 10-year-old daughter in a school where she studied Tigrigna, the official language of Eritrea, and played soccer, Asghedom said.
In ways large and small, Hussle helped Eritreans feel seen. Every year, people from the diaspora gather in Washington, D.C., for a festival. Last year, Hussle performed a few of his hits there and took questions from youth, remembered Sallina Yehdego, a 19-year-old Eritrean American from Inglewood.
“It’s kind of disappointing that nobody knows about my country and the beauty it holds, the people and the culture and all the traditions that we have,” she said.
Some in the first generation — tired of explaining their heritage — have given up. They simply say they are Ethiopians. Some identify themselves using the term “habesha,” which some consider controversial. The term was initially used to describe people who originate from Ethiopia but now includes Eritreans.
“It’s kind of hurtful,” Yehdego said. “We had a 30-year war. We fought for our name.”
But Hussle unabashedly embraced his Eritrean heritage. On Twitter last year, he posted, “Happy Independence Day to my people.” and when a follower confused him as Ethiopian, Hussle corrected him.
“He was able to proudly say it to the world,” Yehdego said. “He held so much power and made us Eritreans feel more visible in a world where we think we are invisible.”
Seyoum Kidane, an Eritrean Ethiopian who goes by DJ Axubela, said Nipsey “had some songs where he talked about being proud of where you’re from and having an awareness and connection to your background.”
“That was something that was very, very necessary that was reflected throughout his music,” he said.
For the first generation of Eritrean Americans, who are millennials, Hussle meant even more. They shared his aspirations for pursuing riskier, potentially less-lucrative careers than their parents would prefer.
Hussle showed that “you don’t have to be a surgeon to be successful,” said Awet Weldemichael, a professor of African and world history at Queen’s University in Ontario.
Biliana Mikail, another first generation Eritrean American, from Mid-City L.A., said Hussle taught the children of African immigrants that, with one foot tied to their Eritrean tradition and customs and another steeped in American life, they could forge their own path.
“It’s not easy making a name for yourself and your family back home,” she said. “Creating a seat at the table, so not only you can eat but everyone in your life can eat, too. To show our parents that their struggle was indeed not in vain and that we are grateful for their sacrifices.”
Mikail found herself touting Hussle’s rise to fame last year when explaining to her parents why she wanted to shift careers.
For years, Mikail followed her parent’s dreams for her to become a nurse. But one day in late 2017, after the food was cleared from the dinner table, they discussed colleges. Mikail revealed that her passion lay in public relations. Maybe, she hoped, she could become a publicist for entertainers and entrepreneurs like Hussle.
“Look at Ermias and what he created for himself – the brand, the name, everything,” she told her parents.
“That’s a shot one in a million,” she recalled her parents saying. “It doesn’t happen to everybody, and it’s unlikely to happen to you or the person next to you.”
Hussle returned from Eritrea to South Los Angeles in 2004 with seeds planted in his head of communities run by residents. He plotted a long-term strategy that he dubbed “the marathon,” planning to run it with his brother and friends.
To make money, he started out selling socks and T-shirts. He started making mixtapes, eventually developing a novel strategy of selling physical copies — like collector’s items — for $100. Rapper Jay-Z bought 100, raising Hussle’s profile in the hip-hop industry.
Then, with his team, Hussle created the record label All Money In and signed a deal with Atlantic Records, but still owned the master copies to his music. He also opened a clothing store in South L.A. branded with his motto “The Marathon” in 2017, doing so at a time when retailers were moving away from brick-and-mortar stores.
“He always said take the stairs,” his brother Samiel said.
The bigger picture was to own the strip mall that housed the Marathon Clothing store and eventually build a residential and retail complex there that would be the catalyst for revitalizing his neglected neighborhood.
Last year, Hussle returned to Eritrea with his father and brother.
Over the years, the country has struggled to find a way to rebuild, said Ghirmai Negash, a professor of English and African literature at Ohio University. The current government, in place since the country’s independence in 1991, has been compared with North Korea.
The Eritrean diaspora is highly divided, he said. But its members have rallied behind people who are international icons and share Eritrean heritage, including Hussle, actress Tiffany Haddish, also from South L.A., and marathon runners Meb Keflezighi and Ghirmay Ghebreslassie.
“The history of our country, our struggle and the underdog story, the resilience of the people, and our integrity is something that I feel pride in being attached to,” Hussle said in an interview last year with Eritrean media.
Last year, Hussle, his brother and his father visited historical landmarks in Eritrea, met the country’s president, and broke bread with Hussle’s grandmother. Much of the time, Hussle represented his other ’hood an ocean away, sporting a snapback ballcap with “Crenshaw” written across the front.
“I want to say how gratifying it is for us to be able to come home and be able to have a country that we can call our own. Where the leaders, the police, politicians, business owners and entrepreneurs look like us, and are in charge of their own destiny, and each has a say in the overall power structure,” he said in an interview. “It is just so impressive.”
His legacy lives on from the streets of South L.A. to those of Eritrea.
Last year, Mikail, the aspiring publicist, visited Eritrea shortly after Hussle had spent three weeks there. As she enjoyed coffee along the palm-tree lined streets of Godena Harnet in the heart of Eritrea’s capital, Asmara, she kept hearing a familiar name.
“Nebsi.” It rolled off the tongues of young boys selling gum and food in the coffee district. They spoke it as they greeted each other.
The youth, inspired by Nipsey Hussle, incorporated his name into their native language of Tigrigna. It’s slang for “homie” or “buddy.”
“Not just a typical homie,” said Kidane, the DJ. “It’s someone that you have a lot of love for.”