Nipsey Hussle, Gang Culture, and The Depth of How Much Black Lives Matter
For Monique Mitchell, the most magical friend a girl could ask for.
A few years ago, LA-based artist and activist Ernesto Yerena, disciple of Shepard Fairey, stood in his airy Boyle Heights studio and showed me a video of Aaron Huey’s Ted Talk on the Black Hills of South Dakota, home of the indigenous Lakota tribe, and the chaotic, calculated fall from grace of a once holy, majestic indigenous community. The photographer slides through dozens of arresting images of the families of the Sioux nation going about their daily activities...fusing native life with broken remnants of the American dream. Riding buffalos, street art, mattresses and broken bottles, joy, love, heartache, longing, emptiness. In the last minute of the talk, he talks of addiction, domestic abuse, and other cliches of impoverished people, looks at the camera, and says, “The end of any successful oppression is when the oppressor can say, “Look...look at what these people are doing...they’re killing each other.”
I looked at Ernesto and it flashed in my mind: this is going to be the next big social movement. Three months later, President Obama, my rabbi Susan Goldberg, my Sundance-y filmmaker friends, and thousands of others traveled to South Dakota in their coziest furs: Standing Rock. I’ve always considered myself a bit of an amateur trend forecaster, as well as a kind of casting director, especially for social movements. I knew Emma Gonzales would land with audiences; I knew Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez would land; as will Pete Buttigieg.
But nothing will come close to pulling my heart strings and impacting my life the way one social movement does: Black Lives Matter. I’ve always been a deep admirer of Black culture. My favorite shows as a tiny Jewish lesbian growing up in West Hollywood were Smart Guy, Sister Sister, and The Cosby Show (RIP). I watched them alone in my room like an obedient only child while my mom worked to support our cute little family. I loved Angela on Boy Meets World; I loved Nebula in Zenon: Girl of the 21st Century. I craved my perfect Disney Channel Original Movie best friend. And one day, I found her. Or, she found me.
She was walking out of the Vermont Ave. metro stop with long braids and a perfect maroon crop top as I was walking into Chipotle to get lunch. I saw a gorgeous girl breezing down the street, hoops jangling, and I thought to myself, Is that Monique Mitchell? I had seen videos of her performing original poetry & giving inspirational talks on YouTube, and I was a humble fan. We stared at each other, West Side Story-style. But we didn’t speak. Fifteen minutes later, I found her sitting in the lobby of Get Lit, where I worked at the time, a unique and empowering space & lab for young storytellers & poets & filmmakers. She was meeting with our founder, Diane. Yes! She had been a Get Lit poet! Diane pulled me over to introduce me, and I nervously shook her hand. So, so lovely to meet you. I...I saw you outside of Chipotle.
She had quit her job at a local production company and wanted to volunteer her time at our big annual festival, the Classic Slam. Over the next few days, she gently and calmly converted our chaotic processes and wild archives of poetry into five succinct binders. I marched up to Diane’s office and triumphantly whispered, Hire this girl.
Diane smiled. It was her plan all along. Over the next few weeks, I started to realize I was making a friend the way that six year olds make friends. We were making bracelets, swearing our mutual dedication and admiration, giggling, taking photos of each other. We were falling in love. We spoke of our crushes, of our dreams, of our promises to fight the revolution. To work for justice.
And she confided in me that her lifelong best friend, Bryce DeJean Jones, a professional NBA player, compassionate human, and unequivocal dreamboat, had just been murdered in Texas by a man who was scared when Bryce knocked on his door by accident and tried to get in, thinking it was his own apartment. (He had just been transferred to a new team, new city, new apartment, new life). But when you’re Black, being disoriented can be dangerous. Being frustrated can be dangerous. These are the rules written on the chalkboards of society, in invisible ink.
At Get Lit, there was a young poet I adored named Winston. He wore giant diamond studs and grew up in Watts. I asked him to record a poem of his for a series we were producing with KCET, and he gladly, bashfully obliged. The day of the recording, he came in a three piece suit. He had come from court after being arrested for walking home from school and looking suspicious; recorded his poem flawlessly; and then took the bus from Burbank to Watts to go to prom.
Long days are normal when you’re Black and poor.
You don’t always get to go home and change.
There is a cliche in the social justice world that some kids who grew up in LA have never been to the beach.
The reality is some kids have never been four blocks away from their house.
And yet, these same kids create and control culture as we know it.
From their homes, from their stoops, from their Soundclouds.
The first boys I saw wearing wire frame glasses were boys on Compton Ave. and 60th, and now the exact same glasses are in Gucci and Chloe print ads on every model. But Black kids are often not awarded for their brand consulting. They are spiritually raped and pillaged.
And that’s how our country was built. In Between the World & Me, a contemporary seminal text, Ta Nehisi-Coates waxes rhapsodic on the American Dream: “The Dream smells like peppermint but tastes like strawberry shortcake. And for so long I have wanted to escape into the Dream, to fold my country over my head like a blanket.” But the Dream, he says, is only available to a select few. He grew up in a project in Baltimore, seeing the world of white picket fences on television and knowing that there was a veil between the world...and him. And race, he posits, is the child of racism, not the father.
I volunteered at a teen girls’ prison camp in Santa Clarita. I was terrified, excited, curious. When I got there, I breathed a sigh of relief and almost boredom.
The girls...were exactly like me.
They were cool, gorgeous, interesting, freckled, tattooed young women, with wavy ocean hair and stories. “Miss,” the first girl I spoke to said to me, “You have lipstick on your teeth.”
And she licked her finger and tenderly wiped it off.
Anyway, back to me and Monique. As she started to work at Get Lit, our friendlove got deeper and more real. And I learned the glory of Mo, her story, and her aura of goodness. We snuck into Chuck E. Cheese, and she took photos of me in a fur coat (none of the employees questioned it). She became friends with a homeless man outside our office named Sincere who pulled twenty dollars out of his shoe and insisted on buying us lunch. She invited me to the release party of her friend, this musician called Duckwrth, at a warehouse space in the arts district. And while we were there, dancing away, it occured to me. I needed a roommate. She said she needed an apartment. But I didn’t know if maybe she meant like she wanted her own apartment, or maybe wanted to buy an apartment. All I had to offer was a bright room in my lovingly decorated shabby chic apartment in Highland Park. She gasped and squealed, site unseen, “I’d love to!”
She never came to see the apartment until the day she moved in, when she brought me her month’s rent and security deposit in cash. Mo’s brother, Dante, drove the U-Haul up to the driveway, built her bed, and sighed, “It just feels so good to do nice things for people.” Who were these angels?!
I’ll skip ahead to the part where we have been best friends and roomies (or, as we like to say, Rumis) for almost four years. Never has my love wavered for a moment. The sun to my moon, the happy to my home, my authentic bae. We have stood by each other in moments of ecstatic joy, intense rage, and immense sadness. Through lovers and fuckbois and crushes and betrayals and accomplishments and brilliant art.
But, in the words of Emma Gonzales, “None of that matters now.”
Nothing compares to the moment she walked out of her room on Sunday, after returning from a writing retreat in Portland.
She was weeping and couldn’t speak.
She couldn’t get it out...what she was trying to say.
“You know...Nipsey Hussle?”
“Yeah, of course.”
“They...they killed him...they killed him outside of his store.”
My heart sunk.
My best friend was heartbroken.
This was the face of someone grieving...and used to grief.
Mo had spoken of Nipsey many times. They had grown up together in Leimert Park, along La Brea about twenty minutes South of where I was hanging out on Melrose, vintage shopping with my friends at Jet Rag after rehearsal for our childhood musicals at the Youth Academy of Dramatic Arts.
Twenty minutes separated two completely...different...planets.
Nipsey had had plans to support Get Lit.
To give workshops.
I had known he was an intense, authentic community advocate and luminary.
She had already lost so many people.
Her mom to cancer.
Her best friend Bryce.
Her dad to prison.
Her ex to prison.
And so, so, so many others.
Dead or kept away, kidnapped by bias, re-branded as temptation.
Killed by police.
Or, or or...does it matter?
This is why it matters.
Nipsey was planning some big meetings to try to end gang violence in LA.
He was killed by a gang member who, presumably, didn’t want anyone messing with his culture. And of course.
Can you blame him?
Would you want someone destroying your tribal religion, tradition?
If you have nothing, no jewelry-making winter camp, no ice skating & Mayan hot chocolate, no butterfly face painting birthday parties & Mrs. Field’s macadamia nut cookie cakes…
Of course you’d join a group of friends.
Protection. Action. Love.
It’s the only sane choice. I would do it in a second.
And so would you.
And if you didn’t have to make that choice, I think that’s called privilege.
But this country ignores what is happening right in front of us.
We are taught to judge, to scorn, to bleach out darkness.
That is the nature of white supremacy. And capitalism. To take. To squint. To fear. To fill.
And, when in doubt, to say that these kids...these students, these scholars, these artists, look dangerous.
Well, in the words of Pocahontas, These white men are dangerous.
And in the words of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, We’re killing people.
Some Black and Brown kids have zero opportunities to excel, no roadmap, so they suffer. It’s not scary to live life in prison, because you have no life to give. Who fucking cares. You truly have nothing to lose.
In the words of Pete Buttigieg, being gay has “brought me closer to God.”
It’s given me an inkling of the sensitivity that oppressed people, truly oppressed, might feel.
And with that, I will spend my life fighting for justice.
So that everyone feels safe.
In their bodies.
In their homes.
In their stores.
I will work to make every white person understand what I have the gift of learning because of my magical best friend. That the essence of Blackness, if there is one, is tenderness, kindness, lovingness, yearning, creation, discipline, understanding, and life.
Life. Life. Life. Life. Life. Life.
There is simply no America without the liveliness and light of Black life.
And I’m not even saying Black lives are superior (though I believe they might be, personally).
All I am saying is that Black
Black lives matter.
Black lives matter.
Let there be darkness. Let there be light.
Let there be poets and prophets and dresses with pockets.
Let there be culture.
Let there be life.
One of the most devastating aspects of Nipsey’s death
Is that no one is really surprised.
Shocked in the moment, yes.
Like a sting.
Then...how much more of this do we have to take?
How much more of this do we have to take?
The status quo changes, starting today.
With you. With me.
With our perceptions.
With our energies.
When you see a man in need, look him dead in the eye, and fear him not...but reach out your hand.
Look your Black family, friends, lovers in the face, and ask them what they need this week.
Rumi says, “Sell your cleverness, and buy bewilderment.” I dare you to talk to strangers, to drive to “dangerous” neighborhoods, to explore the unknown, to travel within your very own city.
There is an ancient Cherokee tale:
“There are two wolves in each of us.
And the one that wins is the one you feed.”
Compassion or blindness.
Empathy or materialism.
Bliss or fear.
Togetherness or superiority.
Wonder or lack.
Community or selfishness.
Today, which wolf will you feed?
What will your first step be?
In the words of Andre 3000, I seem to want to talk more and more ‘bout what really matters…