What Nipsey Hussle Meant To East Africans
Nipsey Hussle is gone but his legacy lives on. When he was alive, the rapper seemed very aware of the type of legacy he intended to leave behind. It was one founded on ownership and independence, marathonian patience and a worldview that puts community first. Murdered at just 33, Nipsey was robbed of the opportunity to complete the legacy himself. The burden of completion now rests with the people that the rapper inspired. And there are few places that feel that inspiration more intensely than Africa’s horn.
Nipsey Hussle was born to an Eritrean father who fled conflict in his homeland in the 70’s to settle in the United States. On DJ Khaled’s new song “Higher”, possibly the last song the prolific MC recorded before he passed, Nipsey created a timeless moment by chronicling his family’s American journey. He raps: “Pops turned 60, he’s proud what we’ve done / In one generation, he came from Africa young”.
Even though Nipsey grew up in South Central, LA, he never forgot his Eritrean roots. The rapper described his connection to the tiny east African country with great affection and credits it for helping to shape his own identity. According to him: “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”.
The affection was mutual. After news of the rapper’s death broke, Eritrea’s Minister of Information Yemane Meskel led his country’s tributes to Nipsey. The rapper had visited Eritrea on two occasions: first as an 18-year-old when he went with his family and spent three months, and most recently in April 2018 when he indicated his intention to invest in the impoverished nation. It was therefore befitting that when Nipsey was laid to rest in April of this year, there was an Eritrean flag hanging on the side of his silver casket.
I visited Ethiopia earlier in the week and explored the impact of the rapper’s life and death in Africa’s horn. Both Ethiopia and Eritrea share a deep cultural heritage, however because of its size, Eritrea has perennially lived in the shadow of its larger Abyssinian neighbor. Nipsey’s popularity, therefore, empowered Eritreans in particular and was a source of great pride for them. But for a fan like me, just being in the region at this time felt like a pilgrimage, of sorts.
Nipsey’s real name, Ermias, is popular in Ethiopia. It means “God will rise”. To some, Ermias is also a prophetic name; it strengthens the belief promoted by individuals like Jermaine Dupri who — because of his strong message, his untimely death and the conviction that the message will outlive him — have likened Nipsey Hussle to a modern day Jesus Christ.
Interestingly, Nipsey seems to have been memorialized with greater dedication in Ethiopia than he was in his home country. Eritreans in the diaspora held several ad hoc tributes to the slain rapper but in the capital Asmara, where government maintains a tight grip on social life, celebrations were small and isolated.
Contrastingly, over 400 people turned out for a candlelight vigil in Addis Ababa on 6th April. A live painting of the rapper was auctioned off at the vigil to raise money for charity. There was also a crowd funding initiative that paid for over 3,000 lunches for children in Addis. The vigil was put together by American returnee and local entrepreneur Ambaye Tesfay, who explained to me what the late rapper’s legacy meant to young people in the region.
Eritrea and Ethiopia were involved in a bitter war that lasted three decades and ended just last year. However, the friction between both countries didn’t deter Ethiopians from celebrating the life of a person many of them consider to be a distant cousin. Ambaye remarked that the vigil was the first time in his lifetime that the Eritrean flag was being flown so freely around Addis Ababa. Even in death, Nipsey was still able to inspire social change.
Nipsey’s legacy transcends his music. Even though he was a Grammy-nominated artist with several critically acclaimed mixtapes to his name, it’s the rapper’s activism and social entrepreneurship that made him such a renowned figure. Since his death, songs like “Last Time That I Checc’d” and “Victory Lap” from his last album have found their way to clubs and radio stations. But in a region where hip-hop isn’t the most dominant genre of music, Nipsey’s discography hasn’t experienced the type of posthumous boom that an artist’s death typically brings.
Ultimately, Ambaye feels the best way for fans of the late rapper to honor his legacy isn’t just by playing his music but by living out his message. On his own part, Ambaye plans to make the rapper’s tribute in Addis a yearly event and use it as an avenue to give back to his community. In addition, since returning from the States, he’s investing heavily in the Ethiopian tech space by driving a number of fast-growing startups. Although, in a country notoriously behind on technology, even by African standards, it’s proving an uphill battle. But there is perhaps no better way to continue Nipsey’s marathon than to keep on moving regardless in a part of the world already famous for long distance runners.