While celebrity deaths have always grabbed the nation’s attention, the consensus on Nipsey Hussle’s murder seems to be that “this one hits differently.” Hundreds of candles have transformed the now almost unnavigable parking lot of his Marathon Clothing from a crime scene to a vigil. The intersection of Los Angeles’ Crenshaw Boulevard and West Slauson Avenue is now Ermias “Nipsey Hussle” Asghedom Square.
Rep. Karen Bass formally entered Nipsey’s contributions to South Los Angeles into the Congressional Record. And the Staples Center, an arena that sits 21,000 and is home to the Los Angeles Lakers, is acting as the venue for his public memorial service.
As Nipsey’s name floats through prayer circles and peppers think pieces, his memory has begun to take on mythic proportions. Make no mistake, Nipsey was an exceptional man, but his greatness lay in his insistence that he remain accessible to a neglected community. Many of his businesses doubled as investments in the neighborhoods that had seen his highs and lows. Why should happiness, peace, or success be reserved for the hereafter or more affluent zip codes?
Nipsey was lifting as he climbed. The scale of his vision, his slow ascent to acclaim, his humility, and his youth allowed for the naive assumption that we had more time with Nipsey. It makes sense then that the only award Nipsey received while alive came from an organization just as dedicated to community revitalization, Developing Options. The non-profit organization gives the youth of the 77th I GRYD Zone in Los Angeles, CA choices beyond gangs, drugs, and crime.
Eugene “Big U” Henley is the founder and Executive Director of Developing Options and, like Nipsey, he hasn’t allowed personal success to diminish his accessibility or commitment to providing alternatives to the problems that plague South LA. Like Nipsey, Big U has the first-hand experience with the high cost of life on the streets. He’s acted as the lead man for the Westside Gang and has been shot at least seven times.
“I began adapting my way of thinking. I was trying to find a way out of the streets,” Henley told ESSENCE. Before the ideas could take root, Big U was arrested in a sting operation and sentenced to 23 years in prison.
“While I was in prison I began studying theology and reading books like ‘The Autobiography of Malcolm X.’ I formulated an idea for a way that I could make a positive impact,” he said. That idea would eventually become Developing Options. After serving 12 of his 23-year sentence, he was released.
“I’ve been home for 17 years. And I’ve been running Developing Options for 14, 15 years now,” Henley stated.
As Nipsey’s former manager he knew the late rapper well.
“That’s my little brother. If he got a problem, I got a problem,” he boasted.
While Big U no longer managed Nipsey, the pair remained close.
“We honored him while he was still here. He got [one of] our first awards. He had never gotten an award before.”
The 2018 Developing Options Banquet and Awards Ceremony wasn’t the only time Big U would salute Nipsey. Big U was instrumental in organizing a unity walk so members from various local gangs could peacefully gather at Nipsey’s storefront vigil and pay their respects to the slain rapper. “I got a call from AD about different sets wanting to come to the store. They wanted a way to come over,” he said.
His ability to assemble rival gangs can largely be credited to the 15 years he has spent working towards ending gang violence. “You have to build trust amongst the gang members. They have to trust you with their life. I hire Bloods and Crips and they have to come together if they want their check. So, I sort of had a foundation,” he said.
With Nipsey dying a day before a meeting with the Los Angeles Board of Police Commissioners and the city’s chief of police about putting an end to gang violence, it’s hard to imagine a more touching tribute than a dream realized, even if only briefly.
As far as the lasting effect of the symbolic gesture, Big U is unsure.
“I don’t know. We’ll have to wait two weeks after the funeral to really see where peoples hearts are at. We’ll have to see what happens when the murals are painted over and the flowers die,” he said.
Nipsey Hussle was many things to many people, but perhaps his most admirable trait is that he was a man doing the work. His murder has not only been a shocking loss but a sobering reminder that we must identify, support and celebrate our artists, organizers, advocates, and activists. So, ask yourself: who is the Nipsey of your ‘hood; who is your Big U; what do they need that you can provide?