You will probably not find the Underground Museum if you are looking for a museum. It has a black, nondescript storefront entrance on a wide berth of West Washington Boulevard, leading visitors through its gift shop and into the main gallery space. The family-owned collective and cultural hub is known for attracting a multiethnic crowd of Angelenos to the Arlington Heights neighborhood, typically for film screenings and album launches. On Monday, it welcomed mourners for Nipsey Hussle — the rapper, entrepreneur, philanthropist, and neighbor to most everyone in attendance who was fatally shot a day prior.
Patrisse Cullors, the co-founder of Black Lives Matter greeted them with hugs in the backyard, standing barefoot in the gravel. Vigils are rarely organized with sufficient notice, but Cullors had managed to gather dozens to the museum, where they sat on chairs, rugs and purple pillows listening to last year’s Grammy-nominated Nipsey Hussle album, Victory Lap, the title of which was suddenly more haunting and poignant. A candlelight memorial with Nipsey’s photo was set up in the sculpture garden. The abundant plant life that enveloped the space, no doubt fed by the winter’s heavy precipitation, was a verdant symbol of the mood. It had rained so much in Los Angeles lately. Now it was time for something to grow.
Cullors and her fellow Black Lives Matter organizer, Melina Abdullah, led a remembrance steeped in traditions from throughout the African diaspora and from their activist forebears. It featured tears, rage, laughter and strategizing. And yes, lots of his music. The evening was a reminder that providing an open and free space for black Americans to grieve, to fume and build community can be in itself a revolutionary act.
The Black Lives Matter service took place a little more than 24 hours after Nipsey was murdered in front of his Marathon Clothing store on West Slauson, a part of South Los Angeles where Nipsey used to hustle on, and later tried to change. It was an area that he sought to reshape not just with the mere proxy influence of his celebrity, or that he might inspire locals with a few appearances or a shout-out in a lyric. Instead, Nipsey did it with on-the-ground investment in projects like the store and other retail businesses, as well as the recently launched STEM center and co-working space Vector90.
“His activism was based on ownership and not just consumerism,” Iddris Sandu told Rolling Stone at the vigil. The 21-year-old wunderkind architect and engineer designed the Marathon Clothing store after a chance meeting with Nipsey at a Starbucks a couple years ago. “So, that’s how we can truly continue the legacy. We can grieve, and he would want us to grieve absolutely — but only for a limited amount of time. Then, focus on picking up the pieces exactly where he left it off.”
Another vigil for Nipsey, the one that actually made the news that night, was happening simultaneously in front of that store. At least 19 people were injured in a stampede that Los Angeles police say erupted after someone brandished a gun. The only clue that any chaos was ongoing a short drive from where we we stood was the police helicopters and the sirens that occasionally made it difficult to hear the mourners at the microphone.
After Abdullah performed a libation ceremony to honor Nipsey as an ancestor, Sandu and his business manager, John Rhodes, were the first to speak. It seemed, for a minute there, that they might be some of the only ones. But alongside the steps that led down from where the microphone stands were staged, the line grew longer as the program went on. “The idea that we need to breathe together is right,” Abdullah told me later that evening. “And I don’t always honor that. I’m thankful that there was a space of release, especially for my children.”
The speeches varied so much to the point that some weren’t speeches: one woman simply led those assembled through a breathing exercise. A former high school classmate of Nipsey’s combined a heartfelt remembrance of “Ermias,” calling him by his given name, with a cathartic rant about the good that his murder prevented him from doing. Cal State LA adjunct professor Funmilola Fagbamila, a member of the local BLM chapter and the daughter of Nigerian immigrants, reminded the crowd of how Nipsey spoke to his Eritrean parentage (and initially, his estrangement from the culture’s traditions) in a song from his 2011 album The Marathon Continues: “We used to be connected, who detached us.”
Kendrick Sampson, the Houston-born actor and activist of Insecure fame, also spoke to the crowd. “His life should be seen not just as like, ‘Hey, he excelled,’ but that he actually broke free of something that was built to hold him in,” Sampson told Rolling Stone at the event. “The success was what he was able to achieve on this earth despite all of the forces that were literally built in order to make sure that he didn’t ever even think that way.”
Rhodes lamented Nipsey’s death for another reason. “I was able to spend time with Tupac years ago,” he told me. “[Nipsey] was really focused on a long-term play — he wanted to keep this going for a very long time. He didn’t embrace death like Tupac did. He really embraced life.”
That is why his murder, so sudden and senseless, left me more angry than anything. I was hardly alone. Another South Los Angeles native, who said she didn’t know Nipsey, said simply, “This is not sad. I am enraged.” And this was not just about Nipsey being dead. Who could possibly pick up his torch and buy up property in South Los Angeles to not only give locals needed jobs, but also to guard it from gentrifying developers? And since Nipsey’s death was part of a recent surge of Los Angeles gun crime, with 26 shootings and 10 deaths in the last week or so, would the violence provoke a response from the LAPD that would make things worse?
“I take this personally. I’m from here. I’m from Los Angeles. Nipsey feels like family,” Cullors told me Monday night. “There’s that, people also need direction right now. As organizers, we’re supposed to provide the container for that direction. I do know that [his killing] has a great impact. And what I do know is when killings happen in our communities, in black communities, police make it their mission to over-police and some ways overreact.”
Steve Soboroff, the president of the Los Angeles Police Commission, hopes to assuage those concerns. Speaking with Rolling Stone on Tuesday morning shortly before his joint press conference with Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, LAPD chief Michel Moore, and other city officials, Soboroff emphasized that the LAPD is focused upon de-escalation and community policing.
“We can grieve, and he would want us to grieve absolutely… Then, focus on picking up the pieces exactly where he left it off.”
He also confirmed what he had tweeted in the wake of Nipsey’s murder: that the rapper had requested a meeting with him. Per a February 26th email sent to Soboroff by Roc Nation on Nipsey’s behalf to help facilitate the meeting, Nipsey sought to “work with the department” and to “help improve communication, relationships and work towards changing the culture and dialogue between the LAPD and the inner-city.” He also wanted to find out how he could help stop gang violence. Both Soboroff and a Roc Nation source confirmed to Rolling Stone that the meeting was scheduled for April 1st, the day after Nipsey was killed, and that it will happen at a later date.
“I’d put my clothes out on Sunday,” Soboroff said. “I was excited about the meeting. And, then I got a call from the chief that he was assassinated, that he was murdered. Many communities have higher crimes than we have in other places in Los Angeles, but the kids and the people deserve something else. They deserve to be surrounded by jobs, by education opportunities, by people who respect and love them — instead of by gangs and jail cell walls. And this gentleman understood that and he was doing something about it.”
Shortly after the city presser and less than 24 hours after the vigil, the LAPD arrested a 29-year-old suspect in the shooting. He is reportedly being held in solitary confinement on more than $7 million bond. “I’m so deeply sad and frustrated that anyone would kill Nipsey,” Cullors told me shortly after news of the arrest broke. “The fact that the suspect is another young black man is particularly painful. I hope we all get justice. And I hope justice looks like less harm and violence and more care and community. Nipsey stood for the latter.”