DJ Khaled’s ‘Higher’ is a heartbreaking victory lap for Nipsey Hussle ‘Almost like church,’ the song is part history lesson, part manifesto

Back in March, a smirk flashed across Nipsey Hussle’s face. Pictures of him and DJ Khaled in the studio had surfaced on social media. The two had known each other for some time, even joining an investment group last year in an attempt to purchase the luxury Viceroy Santa Monica hotel. But how would a collaboration between the two sound, he was asked on Power 106’s The Cruz Show.

“It’s crazy,” Hussle said. “It’s like a real album favorite, you know what I’m saying? It’s one of them ones I think you gon’ appreciate the album for.”

Three weeks later, Hussle would be gunned down in front of his Marathon Clothing store near the corner of Crenshaw and Slauson in Los Angeles. Hussle’s death reverberated worldwide. Former President Barack Obama wrote a letter read to mourners at his funeral, a massive gathering held at the Staples Center in his hometown of Los Angeles. In the month and a half since Hussle’s death, he has become almost a religious figure in hip-hop. He was a man who stayed, in his words, “10 toes down” to the community that he not only represented and believed in, but also invested time, money and, most importantly, his soul in.

That was the background when a flood of new music and projects invaded streaming services on May 17, including Megan Thee Stallion’s Fever, Tyler, The Creator’s IGOR and Chance the Rapper’s “GRoCERIES.” Yet another project, Khaled’s Father of Asahd, carried with it a sense of wistfulness. Not just because the typically loquacious Miami-based DJ adopted a reserved approach for the album’s rollout. But also because it includes a cut called “Higher,” a collaboration with himself, singer John Legend and Hussle — the first new work from the rapper since his death.

Khaled announced a day before the album came out that Hussle’s death had changed the energy behind the album. “Higher” “reminds us that vibrating on a higher level was the essence of Nipsey’s soul,” Khaled wrote in a statement posted on Instagram. All of the song’s revenue, he said, would go to Hussle’s children, Emani and Kross.

Before his death, Hussle stressed the record and the visual’s importance. It wasn’t intended to be a No. 1 record. But “Higher” would undoubtedly resonate in a way no Khaled record had before. “It almost sounds like church,” he said.

With Hussle decked in a fitted blue satin shirt and pants, his angelic aura in the visual for “Higher” is no coincidence. Though not as morbid as Tupac Shakur’s “I Ain’t Mad at Cha” video — like “Higher,” the last one Shakur filmed before his death — it is part history lesson and part manifesto.

“My granny had 13 pregnancies and has two kids. She had 11 miscarriages from my uncle to my mom,” Hussle revealed earlier this year. “She was just telling me, ‘Imagine if I would have gave up on my 10th miscarriage, my ninth miscarriage.’ … I never thought about it. I wouldn’t be here. You can never repay your mom, your granny, with material s—. You gotta repay them with standing up in life, being something they could be proud of.”

Even through the pain his grandmother endured, he was a product of her faith. Her relentlessness. Her pride. Her love. “My granny 88, she had my uncle and them/ A miscarriage back-to-back every year for like 10,” Hussle raps on “Higher.” “Pregnant with my moms, doctor told her it was slim / Was bed rode for nine months, but gave birth in the end.”

A sense of peace amid chaos looms over “Higher.” It is apt, too, considering the concern expressed by Hussle’s team on the day of the video shoot at an Inglewood parking structure in late March. Security was added to prevent an attack on Hussle, TMZ reported. Whatever tumultuous energy surrounded him that day, Hussle appeared to handle it with street-savvy grace.

DJ Khaled reveals the official cover for his new album Father of Asahd while visiting Extra at the Levi’s Store Times Square on May 15 in New York City.

Photo by Monica Schipper/Getty Images

Maturity isn’t necessarily a product of age. Instead, maturity evolves through life experiences and how a person chooses to grow. Careening through his parents’ love story into his own with actress Lauren London, he says on “Higher”:

“Pops turned 60, he proud what we done / In one generation, he came from Africa young / He said he met my moms at the Century Club / Los Angeles love kinda like Hussle and Boog / Mani turned 10, Kross turned 2 / Startin’ to see this life s— from a bird’s view.”

That evolving sophistication, akin to what happened with Biggie Smalls, is a painful musical “what if” he leaves behind.

“[Nipsey and I] used to talk. We gotta go. We don’t know if we gon’ go at 80, 60, 30 or 20. But the one thing is to make sure when you go, you go the right way,” Samiel “Blacc Sam” Asghedom, Hussle’s older brother, said, fighting back tears at the funeral last month. “You stand up for what you believe in.”

The edict the Asghedom brothers lived by is at the heart of both the song and the video for “Higher.” From the obvious gospel influences to Legend’s mammoth presence and the video’s references — the 25-second mark symbolizes the gates of South Central heaven in the form of his partners in the street opening up as Hussle, back turned, stares at a bright beam of light — the song feels Hussle’s entrance into the same heavenly ghetto his idol Shakur once eulogized.

“South Central state of mind, high crime rate / Homicide, hate, gang banging’ll get you all day” — Hussle forecast the environment he grew up around and died attempting to shift the narrative it carried. But not before the song’s hardest-hitting and most painful bar: “And look at my fate.” Unless other tracks are tucked away, those are the last words we’ll ever see Hussle spit in a music video. It’s inspiring, yet chilling. Stirring, yet macabre. “Higher” is a fitting connection to a life whose spirit will loom over hip-hop, the home turf that now bears his name and a promise he made only months earlier.

“I’d just like to have laid the blueprint down that other people could follow that come from similar situations,” Hussle said of how he wanted to be remembered. “Elevated my team, my family, myself and inspired [others]. [That] would be the most important thing looking back 10 years from now.”

“Lookin’ back at my life make my heart race / Dance with the devil and test our faith, he waxes. I was thinkin’ chess moves but it was God’s grace.” “Higher” feels like the soundtrack that accompanied Hussle into the afterlife.

“Higher” is a beautiful reminder of who Hussle was as a man and artist, and also a tragic reminder of the reality he leaves behind. The first release from a deceased artist, in particular one slain in the manner Hussle was, is always a unique experience. There’s a human desire to have one last conversation with a loved one who has died. In the days after Hussle’s death, his music streams increased by nearly 2,000 percent. But moving forward, this is the new normal. We watch Nipsey while Nipsey presides over the marathon he mandated continues even without him.

A black neighborhood’s complicated relationship with the home of Preakness Baltimore’s storied horse race faces an uncertain future in the city

In Northwest Baltimore’s Park Heights neighborhood, more than 100,000 people are expected to gather Saturday to watch the 144th Preakness Stakes at the rundown Pimlico Race Course.

However, few residents of this depressed, low-income and largely black community will be attending the second leg of thoroughbred racing’s Triple Crown. But for generations, they have made extra cash allowing race fans to park on their front lawns and selling cooked food or trinkets from their stoops. Corner stores and carryout spots have charged fans anywhere from $5 to $20 just to use the bathroom. Even the drug dealers clean up on Preakness Day.

“The white folks come up here once a year to gamble and get drunk. Some of them come across the street and buy a little weed or some crack. The police just sit there and don’t do nothin’ because they get paid off by the corner boys to look the other way,” said 51-year-old Ray Johnson, who grew up in the neighborhood. “When the race is over, they get outta here before it gets dark. They don’t give a f— about this neighborhood until the next year.”

Park Heights is one of several Baltimore neighborhoods where gun violence is endemic. But residents here also have concerns about whether the city will continue with its revitalization plan demolishing unsightly and deteriorating buildings – or even the racetrack. And they are not alone in pondering the possibility of this home to horse racing being torn down, and its signature event – the Preakness – being moved to Laurel Park racetrack midway between Baltimore and Washington, D.C.

Eight miles away from Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, where businesses have struggled to attract tourists since the city’s Freddie Gray uprising in 2015, bright yellow hydraulic excavators rest their arms and dirt-caked bucket lips on vacant lots along Park Heights Avenue. They’ve ripped through arched windows, gnawed out rotted beams, and scooped up brick foundations from boarded vintage row homes and dilapidated businesses built many decades ago.

Melvin Ward, the 58-year-old owner of Kaylah’s Soul Food restaurant, came to Park Heights with his family when he was 5. “I saw this neighborhood when there were no black people here. My family was one of two black families in this neighborhood. It’s gone far down since then. I don’t think the neighborhood will get worse if they move the Preakness to Laurel,” Ward said.

Until the Martin Luther King Jr. riots of 1968 combined with a mass exodus of whites and professional blacks to the suburbs, this was a largely close-knit Jewish neighborhood with thriving specialty shops, synagogues and Hebrew schools, and homeowners who swept the alleys. The entire stretch of Park Heights, from Park Circle to Pimlico, quickly transformed racially from almost entirely white to largely African American.

In 1947, Life magazine declared that horse racing was “the most gigantic racket since Prohibition.” An estimated 26 million people went to the tracks at that time. Big races attracted all kinds, from nuns to black numbers runners to then-FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, who traveled from Washington, D.C., to Pimlico on Saturdays in a bulletproof limousine.

Along Park Heights Avenue, decades of divestment and a grim litany of urban problems are evident. But the sites won’t be captured for television audiences on Preakness Day. Viewers won’t see the dumped mattresses, tires and garbage on desolate blocks, the high concentration of liquor stores and convenience shops. Nor will they see the hollowed-eyed, gaunt drug addicts lurking along the sidewalks or nodding off at bus stops.

The 5100 block of Park Heights Ave is the closest thoroughfare to the race track. The area is in need of investment and redevelopment, and many shops are vacant or boarded up. The Preakness has not brought any significant opportunity to the area over the years.

André Chung for The Undefeated

Residents here joke that most viewers outside Baltimore probably have no clue that the Preakness happens “in the middle of the ‘hood” instead of beautiful horse country.

If you stand at the corner of Park Heights and West Belvedere avenues, you can see there’s a commercial district neighboring the track where the Preakness has been held since 1873. There’s detritus and despair, thick veils of cigarette smoke, the smell of liquor and urine heavy in the air.

Over the past few months, the Canadian-based Stronach Group, which owns and operates Pimlico, has been locked in a feud with city officials over Pimlico’s future. It has become increasingly clear that Stronach wants to move the Preakness from Baltimore and tap $80 million in state funds to build an upscale “supertrack” in Laurel Park, where it has invested a significant amount of money.

City officials want to revitalize Pimlico and keep the Preakness, but a study conducted by the Maryland Stadium Authority estimated that it would cost more than $400 million to rebuild the racetrack.

Tim Ritvo, Stronach’s COO, indicated that Pimlico is “at the end of its useful life” and is no longer a safe and viable site for the Preakness. Baltimore filed a lawsuit alleging that Stronach “systematically under-invested in Pimlico” while pouring most of the state funds it receives into improving the Laurel Park facility. Former Mayor Catherine Pugh, who recently resigned over financial improprieties, argued a rotting, unsafe race complex helps the company justify moving the Preakness from Baltimore.

Track workers prepare the track for the two weeks of racing to come as Preakness nears on the calendar. Pimlico race track is falling apart and the owners would rather take the historic race out of Baltimore than repair it. But who is left behind? The black community that surrounds Pimlico.

André Chung for The Undefeated

In mid-April, proposals to finance improvements at Laurel Park were debated and failed in the Maryland General Assembly. Stuck in an unfortunate status quo with no real agreement on how to move forward, Baltimore’s new mayor, Bernard C. “Jack” Young, is expected to continue Pugh’s efforts to fix Pimlico and build a new hotel and grocery store for the community.

Local media coverage has indicated that popular bars and restaurants in areas such as Federal Hill, Towson and Fells Point would feel the pain if the Preakness leaves. They’ve raised bigger questions: Does the wider racing world care if the race is moved out of Baltimore? Does the Preakness have to stay in the city for it to retain its cachet? In all this debate, missing from the conversation are black voices, which reveal a deeper story about the social costs of sports as America’s inner cities are struggling to reimagine themselves by using sports stadiums to spur economic growth and demographic change.

The fate of Pimlico as home to the Preakness and as a racetrack is also balanced against the views of its African American neighbors, who have seen their communities deteriorate even more over the past half-century from absentee owners, intentional neglect, the war on drugs, and other failed local and national American policies.

Do the people of Park Heights really care about keeping the track — perhaps the area’s only surviving historic landmark and focal point? Would Pimlico’s Canadian owners be so willing to leave if the surrounding neighborhood were white and middle class? Stronach Group did not respond to requests for an interview for this story.

Melvin Ward, who grew up in the Park Heights neighborhood near Pimlico, is the owner of Kaylah’s Soul Food near the race track.

André Chung for The Undefeated

A number of residents like to put on their conspiratorial hat when they talk about what’s happened to the racetrack. Many residents believe that the owners let the track rot to justify a move to Laurel Park. The conditions at Pimlico symbolize how the city has neglected black communities for decades, and they see letting Pimlico and the rest of the neighborhood die as the start of gentrification.

Most people here halfway accept that the Preakness might leave Park Heights. “They’re moving it to Laurel. Period!” declared Roderick Barnette, a 56-year-old resident of Park Heights.

The question is: What then? How will the site be used? Would Sinai Hospital on one side of Pimlico obtain some of the land if it becomes available? If any of the land is redeveloped for housing, would it be affordable, market rate or a combination?

“Pimlico is not a sign of life for this neighborhood,” Ward said. “Horse racing is dead. The Preakness does nothing for the community. If it leaves, things will be the same as they always are here.”

Andrae Scott, 37, whose father owns Judy’s Caribbean Restaurant, on Park Heights Avenue across from the track, said white people come through not to buy food but to use the bathroom, which they are charged for, since many come in drunk and vomit. “They’re already pushing black folks out of the area. You can already see them knocking down houses and tearing up streets,” Scott said.

Fears of gentrification and displacement are legitimate. Baltimore ranks fifth among cities such as New York, Los Angeles, Washington, San Diego and Chicago for the highest rate of gentrification and displacement of people from 2000 to 2013, according to a recent study by the National Community Reinvestment Coalition.

Some residents want the Preakness to stay. Prince Jeffrey, 28, is a Nigerian immigrant working at the EZ Shop directly across from the racetrack. On Preakness Day, his store can make upward of $2,000, versus his daily average of $600, with sales of junk food, chips, water and crates of juices. “I think they should leave it. Development would make the whole area better. If they move the track, this place will go down,” Jeffrey said.

LaDonna Jones, 53, believes that Pimlico’s owners have sabotaged it to have an excuse to leave. “Some other tracks across the country have live racing from now until late fall. This track runs races for two weeks for the Preakness. They don’t try to get any additional business.”

Jones noted that there have been efforts to arrange concerts there, but the number of outside events has declined — Pimlico is not seen as a welcoming place.

LaDonna Jones owns property near the track. Her cousin, Roderick Barnette helps her take care of it. Their views differ on whether or not the track should close. Jones wants it to stay but wants to see reinvestment into the community and Barnette would rather see it go because it’s never benefitted the community.

André Chung for The Undefeated

Her friend Roderick Barnette, who is convinced that the track will be closed, said, “There’s no money here. This is a drug haven. White people come here once a year, they gamble, make their money and get the hell out. In Laurel, they can make more money because there’s more white people. I’m just keeping it real.”

When Jones suggests that “they can revitalize here,” Barnett interrupts. “This is Park Heights! This is a black neighborhood! They’re gonna get rid of all these black people around here just like Johns Hopkins did downtown.”

Jones concedes while noting that “this racetrack matters to black folks here. It’s part of their life and the way they’ve always lived. They look forward to the races. They make a little quick money. If it shuts down, Pimlico will be just another vacant building and another eyesore for Baltimore City.”

Overall, Park Heights residents seem less concerned about losing the Preakness than addressing more immediate problems of crime, poverty, broken schools, lack of retail and jobs, food deserts, poor housing, shabby services, disinvestment and endless failed urban renewal plans over the past 30 years.

Beyond the once-yearly activity and attention that come with the Preakness, Park Heights still creates a sense of possibility in the face of its challenges. Some Caribbean groceries sell fresh foods. The recent election of Baltimore City Council president Brandon Scott, who grew up in Park Heights, is seen as a sign of hope. While Park Heights is generally a hard place to live, it is a community where some decent people find joy in the face of uncertainty and believe in the spirit of the place they call home. The fate of the Preakness will have an impact, but it will not define them.

Meanwhile, the latest news is that the Preakness will stay in Baltimore another year. But beyond 2020, the future of the race remains unclear.

Life After Nipsey: heartbroken Los Angeles tries to keep running Hussle’s marathon Slain Los Angeles rapper laid to rest Thursday at Staples Center

“When you seen so much death you start dealing with Christ / If you ever make it out you give em different advice / Put my truth in this music hope I’m givin’ em light / Just another flawed human trying to get this s— right…”

— Nipsey Hussle, “Blueprint” (2016)


LOS ANGELES — Ermias Asghedom was Marcus’ boss at Marathon Clothing, a tech-friendly shop located near the corner of Crenshaw and Slauson in South Central Los Angeles. Ermias “Nipsey Hussle” Asghedom, with a team of business partners, owned and operated the store, a neighborhood staple since it opened nearly two years ago. Hussle was shot and killed in front of his store in the afternoon of March 31. A suspect has been apprehended. Hussle’s funeral, to be held at Staples Center — home to the Los Angeles Lakers, Clippers and Kings — is set for Thursday, after what is reported to be a 25-mile procession.

Hussle’s “Smart Store” was a definitive moment for South Central. The space was Hussle, a child of cracked concrete, not only giving back but planting deep roots in the community where he was born and raised. The neighborhood came out in droves to the store, as did celebrities such as Russell Westbrook, DeMarcus Cousins, 21 Savage, Jim Jones and Hussle’s longtime partner, the actress Lauren London. “I remember being shot at by the police in that parking lot,” Hussle said earlier this year. “Getting taken to jail, raided in that parking lot … to actually owning that building.”

Marcus (not his real name), though, is a young man from around the way and was hired shortly after Marathon opened by Hussle’s brother and Marathon co-owner Samiel “Blacc Sam” Asghedom. “Nipsey just set off that vibe,” Marcus said via FaceTime. “You wanna be just like him. He’s not just a rapper. [He’s] a motivation. Even me working there, seeing him all the time when he comes through, you’re like, ‘Oh, s—. It’s Nip!’ You can see him every single day and it’s still a shocking surprise.”

The two bonded over financial literacy. Marcus yearned to learn more about investing and stocks. Hussle loved to create a cycle of independence those around him would take pride in. “Lead to the lake if they wanna fish,” he rapped on “Hussle and Motivate” from his Grammy-nominated 2018 Victory Lap (which re-entered the Billboard charts at No. 2 this week. Marcus, like Hussle, wanted his money to make money. “[Our last conversation] was more of a business talk.”

On the afternoon of March 31, Marcus was working in the stockroom. Loud pops rang out. He figured they were from nearby construction sites, but something told him to walk outside and check. Chaos had erupted in the parking lot of Marathon. The pops were actually gunshots. “I just seen him laying there,” Marcus said. “He was still breathing, still fighting, but the conditions were critical. It was blood everywhere, man.” Two other men were also hit.

“Nipsey just set off that vibe … You wanna be just like him. He’s not just a rapper. [He’s] a motivation.”

Instead of panicking, Marcus called Samiel Asghedom. Marcus said he attempted to console co-workers and, as he puts it, to “be mentally cool and stable in that situation.” Hussle died a short time later. Two days later, alleged gang member and struggling musician Eric Holder, 29, was charged with his murder, two counts of attempted murder and possession of a firearm by a felon.

Hussle’s death capped what Los Angeles law enforcement officials are calling a “troubling surge” that included 26 shooting victims and 10 fatalities over a week. The Los Angeles Police Department police chief stated last week that Hussle and Holder knew each other and the “dispute” between the two was a “personal matter.” Tears led to questions. What exactly did Nipsey mean by his last tweet? What was going through his mind in his final moments? His partner, London? His family? Did he know how much his death would shake South Central?

“You get your real random moments [when you think about it]. I think about Nipsey before I go to bed,” Marcus said. “I just been keeping my mind distracted.” While the world mourns Hussle’s death, all it takes is standing in the parking lot of the Fatburger restaurant near Marathon Clothing for a new truth to become clear. Hussle was well on his way to becoming a global star in the entertainment universe. And when he was pronounced dead, Hussle took a piece of South Central Los Angeles with him.


They love me all around the world, my n—a / What’s your problem?

All Get Right” (2013)

Grief’s black cloud is everywhere. Washington, D.C., Miami, San Diego, Milwaukee, Philadelphia, New York, Atlanta, Houston. London and Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Fans in these cities have paid respect to Hussle through candlelight vigils. Celebrities are deeply moved, some to tears: Westbrook, Snoop Dogg, LeBron James, Rihanna, Beyoncé, Meek Mill, Issa Rae, Jalen Ramsey, Drake, John Legend, YG, Kawhi Leonard, Stephen Curry, James Harden, Odell Beckham Jr. and countless others. Both Hussle’s hometown basketball squads, the Lakers and Clippers, paid homage to him. The Eritrean community (Hussle’s father was born in Eritrea) was hit noticeably hard.

Some fans find solace in Hussle’s music — even as hip-hop struggles to find peace just six months after the soul-shattering death in September of Mac Miller. Hussle’s childhood poems — unearthed by an elementary school classmate, revealing a child with vision and empathy beyond his years — have gone viral. Many think constantly of Lauren London and his children, Emani and Kross, as well. There’s also the too-familiar, agonizing pain of Hussle’s parents, siblings, close friends and others — survivors of gun violence, struggling to make sense of it all.

What has so struck countless people — such as Rep. Karen Bass, who’ll honor Hussle this week on the House Floor — was Hussle’s philanthropic and entrepreneurial spirit. There were his real estate ventures — such as placing a bid on luxury beach hotel Viceroy Santa Monica with partners Dave Gross, DJ Khaled, Luol Deng and others. There’s the community pride via Hussle’s advocacy of Destination Crenshaw, a 1.3-mile open-air museum that pays homage to the black history and art of Crenshaw Boulevard. He was active in community revitalization projects, such as refurbishing and reopening L.A. skating rink World on Wheels.

He also launched Vector90, a coworking space, and Too Big To Fail, a science, technology, engineering and math pad where young boys and girls could obtain professional development skills. Deeply personal for Hussle was eliminating the gap between Silicon Valley and children in his Crenshaw community.

At the base of the fanship is Hussle’s mission to have been the master of his fate and captain of his soul. This mindset resonated deeply with fans.

Hussle’s death has shifted pop culture’s needle unlike any since Prince nearly three years ago. Hussle’s homegoing service figures to be the biggest funeral — upward of 12,000 are expected — in Los Angeles since Michael Jackson’s a decade ago.

Staples Center sources say that some of Hussle’s friends will be sending signed National Basketball Association memorabilia. This includes Westbrook’s 20-20-20 game-worn jersey and and sneakers, as well as jerseys from LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, Lou Williams, James Harden, Isaiah Thomas, DeMarcus Cousins, Kyle Kuzma and others — all featuring personal handwritten messages to Hussle. At the base of his loyal fanship, which includes these star athletes, is Hussle’s mission to have been the master of his fate and captain of his soul.

This mindset resonated deeply with fans: “Royalties, publishing, plus I own masters,” he boasted on “Dedication.” “Taught you how to charge more than what they paid for you n—-s / Own the whole thing for you n—-s / Re-invest, double up then explained for you n—-s” was his truth on “Last Time That I Checc’d.”

“To lose a changemaker like that, it just feels like a sucker punch to the gut. How could you take such a good person like that?”

This being Los Angeles, there is no shortage of celebrity deaths. Eazy-E died of complications from AIDS. Hattie McDaniels of breast cancer at 57. Michael Jackson died of cardiac arrest, Richard Pryor of multiple sclerosis. Whitney Houston and Ray Charles both died in Beverly Hills, California. Sam Cooke, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, Marvin Gaye and The Notorious B.I.G. were all murdered in the city. Tupac Shakur’s spirit eternally looms over the City of Angels, although he died in Las Vegas.

But Hussle is the first musical artist of his stature, native to Los Angeles, to die in such a violent manner. Hussle’s bodyguard, J Roc, retired immediately because he was so overcome with grief and survivor’s remorse. “I would switch places with you any day,” he wrote. “The world need you here … ”

School officials in South Central spoke off the record to say students have been deeply shaken by the tragedy. Who do we look up to now? some ask. Others remain committed to continuing Hussle’s marathon. Others wonder if this endless cycle of violence is the life they’ll always be forced to endure.

“Losing someone like [Hussle] … he was proud to be from here. He was never afraid to represent and say what he’s done in his life — good and bad. It’s tough to swallow that,” says Los Angeles music reporter and photographer Mya “Melody” Singleton. “He was only 33. He was blessed to know what he was put here on this Earth to do. … To lose a changemaker like that, it just feels like a sucker punch to the gut. How could you take such a good person like that?”

Making sense of senselessness is an exercise in futility. Hussle’s death gave immediate rise to countless conspiracy theories. And a running sentiment is that Hussle was killed over jealousy and hate. Hussle, a man of both principles and flaws, didn’t always say the right thing at the right time, but did tend to own up to his shortcomings. And when discussing Hussle’s death, in particular in Los Angeles, it’s important to look at and listen to to black women. He gushed over having his grandmother in his final video. His mother, Angelique Smith, shared a poignant message about strength, fearlessness and empathy. Samantha Smith, Npsey’s sister, honored her brother as a real-life “superhero.”

Asia Hampton, 26, visits makeshift memorial for Nipsey Hussle at his store The Marathon and shooting scene on Slauson Avenue on April 02, 2019 in Los Angeles.

Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

“I need you, I need you please let me hold you again,” she wrote in a heartfelt Instagram post. “I love you forever, and I will cry forever.”

“I’m feeling heroic but life is a dice game / And they dare you to blow it / You might get a stripe man, but that ain’t gon’ pay for the strollers.” Like so many Hussle lyrics now, this one from 2016’s “Picture Me Rollin’” — about his daughter, Emani — is agonizing to hear: “It’s never enough to console her / Telling, your daddy’s a soldier / She needs you right now in this moment / Not dead on your back pushing roses.” Hussle’s relationship with London was another growing branch on his tree of life. The two first met in person at The Marathon Clothing. London called Hussle her best friend, sanctuary, protector and soul in her first public statement after his murder.

LAPD officer Jonathan Moreno, left, receives a bouquet from Rochelle Trent, 64, to be placed at a makeshift memorial for Nipsey Hussle at his business The Marathon and shooting scene on Slauson Avenue on April 02, 2019 in Los Angeles.

Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

“When I think of myself as a black woman, and him as a father, and I think of him having Lauren as his partner, I feel like that has to be one of the worst nightmares that any black woman can go through,” says Singleton. “I think about [his children, Emani and Kross] and what they’re gonna have to endure as they get older. I thought [he and Lauren] were one of the cutest couples. It was so cool to see that they really were each other’s equal. And it’s heartbreaking to see that she has literally become part of a sisterhood that nobody wants to be in.”

The despair is palpable for Los Angeles DJ Iesha Irene. “I knew Nipsey knew this. [But] I just want black men to know we really ride for y’all. Nobody is gonna understand you like us. Nobody is going to love you like we do. Even when you leave this Earth, we still mourn you in death. It makes me sad that the world doesn’t love you as much as I do.”


“Where Nipsey got caught up is where so many other n—as got caught up,” says my Uber driver, Chris. He’s a Watts native. Chris didn’t like when a clearly grieving Westbrook, a Los Angeles native, apparently shouted out Hussle’s Rollin 60’s Crips set after his iconic 20-20-20 (equals 60) triple-double against the Lakers on April 2.

“You can’t have one foot in the game and one foot out. It’s just not how this works. But beyond all that … Nipsey … should be saluted because, while I wasn’t the biggest fan of his music, it’s no denying [he] had a good heart, regardless who he banged with. He was actually doing something positive. That’s more than I can say for a lot … out here. But still, if you from here, you know how they get down. And Russ from here!”

“Here” are the ’hoods of Los Angeles — and there’s a long and complex history of gang culture. Yet on April 5, hundreds of Bloods, Crips and other gang members held a private a ceremony at The Marathon Clothing. Leaders from Compton, Inglewood and Watts met the day before and decided to honor Hussle with a peaceful demonstration.

Instagram Photo

“We having a gang truce and rally so all the different gangs in L.A. can get together and celebrate the life and gift of Nipsey,” said Eugene “Big U” Henley, a 60 who managed Hussle during his career’s early stages. “It’s a lot of people who were calling who said they wanted to get together and come to the vigil and pay respect.”

Most are taking a wait-and-see approach, but there is some hope that Hussle’s death can produce some change moving forward, both within gang culture and in the city and country’s collective mindstate.

“I don’t know if we’ll ever recover from this,” says Irene. “But … I would like to hope that these gangs continue not just talking the talk for the sake of what’s going on right now. I would hope that they continue to promote unity. Beyond that, I hope that the rest of the nation, especially us as black people, [we] take notes from what Nipsey was doing, and what he was trying to do and what he did do, and try and implement that in our daily lives.”


The walk to Hussle’s memorial is nerve-wracking. LAPD officers are blocking off streets but mostly keeping to themselves. The Nation of Islam distributes copies of The Last Call with Hussle on the cover while directing pedestrian and street traffic. But along the way, so many landmarks command attention. There’s the liquor store where part of the “Rap N—as” video was filmed. The ’hood staple, Woody’s Bar-B-Que. The Slauson Donuts where Hussle and London did a portion of their recent, and now painfully immortal, GQ shoot. There’s the sign on a garage door, alongside photos of Muhammad Ali and biblical passages, that says, “LET THE HEALING BEGIN … ”

Racks in the Middle,” the last single Hussle released before his death, now sounds like a self-created eulogy, and it blares from cars. Those walking on the sidewalk rap along with Hussle. Others passionately sing Roddy Rich’s hook. It’s like Shakur’s “I Ain’t Mad at Cha” was 23 years ago — a goodbye first to his slain best friend Stephen “Fatts” Donelson. Then to himself. “We just embrace the only life we know / If it was me, I would tell you, ‘N—a, live your life and grow’ / I’d tell you, ‘Finish what we started, reach them heights, you know?’ ” Hussle’s cries kick down the doors of the soul.

Because his voice booms out of every car speaker, the closer The Marathon Clothing becomes, the harder it is to make out which Hussle songs are playing. The black All Money In (his record label) truck still sits in the parking lot, as does (at least as of last week) his black Mercedes GLE 350. In front of the Shell gas station at the corner, locals sell paintings and portraits commemorating Hussle, while music directs mourners to an informal memorial’s line. South Central’s ode to its own royalty.

“I would switch places with you any day … The world need you here …”

The line lengthens as afternoon transitions to dusk. To get to the parking lot and the memorial, mourners must walk through the same alley Holder ran through once he permanently altered the course of Crenshaw’s history. This is walking through trauma to attempt to deal with trauma. Perhaps no better description of life in the ghetto. “Put a circle around Nipsey,” a man says, holding a slab of ribs while waiting in line, tears streaming down his face from behind black sunglasses. “He put a circle around us.”

The number of mourners on the evening of April 6 reaches nearly 500. A potluck of ages, races and ethnicities converge on Hussle’s final living place. Saying goodbye is what brings them all here. Love for Hussle keeps them. African Americans are 20 percent more likely than the overall population to suffer from severe mental health problems. Among these conditions, is post-traumatic stress disorder: black people are more likely to be victims of violent crime. Black children are more likely than other children to witness violence. It’s difficult not to think of these hurdles walking around Hussle’s ground zero.

For many, this isn’t their first makeshift memorial. Nor will it be the last. Barriers block off the parking lot where Hussle last stood. That’s part of the moment’s symbolism too. Hussle died on the land he owned. Now the neighborhood tries to piece together how life goes on without him.

Outside what was long ago dubbed by the community as “Nipsey’s Fatburger,” a man and woman console one another through conversation. “You going to the funeral?” she asks. “We have to. We owe that m—–f—– that much.”

“Hell, yeah, I’m going to that m—–f—–,” responds the guy, pulling on a cigarette. “Without a m—–f—ing doubt.”

Similar conversations are heard inside the Fatburger. “It’s a shame Nipsey had to die for the ’hoods to come together like this,” a woman says, eating her fries while looking at the different gang sets and neighborhoods standing in line for food. “I guess … everyone needs a reality check and a starting point. If they come together, and we stay together, at least it feels like Nip didn’t die in vain.” That’s true, yes, but 3420 W. Slauson Ave. is, unfortunately, rap’s newest public tombstone. It follows Koval and Flamingo in Las Vegas and Fairfax Avenue and Wilshire Boulevard only 7 miles from where Hussle died.

On March 31, the world lost a man, a father, a partner, a visionary and an activist. Los Angeles, in particular South Central, lost a lifeline. Hussle’s creative spirit was lighthouse of prosperity built by a person who refused to give up on blocks many deemed a terror zone. Hustle had the swag and the community activist spirit of Tupac. The spectacular cool and charisma of Biggie Smalls. And the enterprising foresight of Jay-Z. While he surely Slauson’s Malcolm X, make no mistake — Nipsey Hussle was Nipsey Hussle. And one day soon, the corner of Slauson and Crenshaw will bear his name.

“My city won’t ever be the same. I won’t ever be the same,” Irene says. “He was the black American dream. That’s why this hits different. You found yourself in him.”

A visit to Louisiana State Penitentiary, and a lesson in forgiveness NFL wide receiver Torrey Smith shares his ministry experience at the prison

Editor’s note: Louisiana State Penitentiary is the largest maximum security prison in the United States. Also known as “Angola” because it was built on a former plantation that held many slaves from the African country, the prison has a long and notorious history, including convict leasing in the 1800s. It was also once dubbed “the bloodiest prison in America.”


A few months ago, I received a text from my former teammate Steve Smith Sr., a man who is like a brother to me:

“For the last few years I’ve been asked to do a prison visit by a friend named Lenny. He is the team chaplain for the Buffalo Bills. Last year, I finally went and it was a remarkable and unforgettable experience for me. I know everyone has their own things going on, but I told myself I wouldn’t be silent and keep it to myself. So I’m just doing what was placed on my heart. Pray about it. If what you read interests you hit me back. If it doesn’t I completely understand.”

After I read Steve’s text message, I thought about the many times I’ve visited prisons during my career, including San Quentin in California, so I knew what to expect. I responded and let Steve know that I was interested in joining the trip. I would later find out I was wrong. The visit to the Louisiana State Penitentiary, also known as Angola State Prison, turned out to be a transformative experience for me — an emotional journey that challenged my assumptions about rehabilitation and forgiveness.

Buffalo Bills Chaplain Len Vanden Bos leads a prayer on the field after a game against the Miami Dolphins at New Era Field. Buffalo beats Miami 24 to 16.

Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports

Steve’s friend Lenny turned out to be Len Vanden Bos, my chaplain at Pro Athletes Outreach, an organization that builds community among pro athletes and couples to grow spiritually and have a positive impact around them. Through his Higher Ground Ministry, he takes current and former NFL players, along with Christian leaders, to prisons to spread the gospel and encourage people who are incarcerated.

I knew that Angola was a maximum security prison filled with people who were facing lengthy sentences, some convicted of violent crimes like murder or rape but others convicted under the state’s harsh habitual offender laws for which Louisiana is famous. I also assumed from everything I had heard that people would be locked in small cages with little interaction with each other outside of the prison yard. As we toured the former plantation, built on more than 18,000 acres, however, I was shocked to see men walking around, cleaning up and washing cars as if they weren’t incarcerated at all. Some were dressed in plainclothes; no one wore chains. The men slept in a big room with bunk beds, which reminded me of the 1999 movie Life, where Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrence play two Harlem bootleggers sentenced to life in prison for a phony murder charge. The reality of what I saw was a lot to take in, and as we walked around, I wondered how could the most violent men in Louisiana live together in what appears to be a very peaceful environment.

I don’t mean to glorify this prison. It is a prison, after all, and people are held in cells and often forced to work in sweltering heat with little money. And as we continued to walk through the prison grounds, I saw men working, some for as little as 2 cents an hour, making T-shirts for the government and license plates for every driver in Louisiana, or raising cattle to be sold on the market.

A prisoner walks thru a fenced section toward a guard tower at Angola Prison in 2013.

Giles Clarke/Getty Images

Three things struck me as we toured the grounds.

First, I feel strongly that this was modern-day slavery, and it was wrong. Then I remembered slavery is still legal as defined by the 13th Amendment, which says, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, EXCEPT as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” Angola, like other prisons, benefits from this exemption. And I realized, yes, this is America.

Second, I witnessed how people accused of even the most serious crimes and living in extremely difficult conditions could work, live together peacefully and change. I wondered if those people working so well together were really still even a danger to anyone. This experience drove home the importance of second chances, because people change, even those who have caused terrible harm.

As we passed a church on the property that was built by the men, for example, I was struck by what they had accomplished — and what it demonstrated. I saw two incarcerated men working on a building with all of the tools they needed: hammers, nails, screwdrivers, screws, it was all there. It was a striking visual that remains stamped in my memory. Although I strongly believed that it was wrong that they were working for pennies on the dollar, their ability to do so conveyed a sense of collaboration and responsibility that led me to also believe they had hope.

The system is complicated.

The Louisiana State Penitentiary, also known as Angola, and nicknamed the “Alcatraz of the South” and “The Farm” is a maximum-security prison farm in Louisiana operated by the Louisiana Department of Public Safety & Corrections.

Giles Clarke/Getty Images

Throughout my visit at Angola, I saw men working and trying to better themselves through a variety of impactful programs offered there. Yes, some will, in fact, die in prison, while others will earn the second chance they deserve.

Unfortunately for the men awaiting their second chance in America, their fate rests with the political, and not with what is right. In several states, freedom is not just determined by one’s actions while incarcerated or even by the parole or pardon board. In some cases, situations like pardons require the signature of the governor of that particular state, whose contact with the person who is incarcerated is limited to a manila file folder even if the state-approved board has deemed the person worthy of a second chance.

Legislators have the power to change that, and in some cases, states have created a “no action” law that allows for pardons to go through with the recommendation of the board if it is not signed before the governor has left his term. This takes the burden of a final decision off the back of the governor, who may or may not have political concerns, while offering the offender a second chance based on the approval of the experienced members of the pardon board.

Many men and women who deserve second chances remain in prison because of politics or because they are considered a high-profile case in their state. It’s not fair to the incarcerated men and women or the bodies that govern them.

And then a third thing occurred to me.

Overall, spending time with the people at Angola led me to question my own views of forgiveness. As a follower of Christ, I believe that we are forgiven. But I had to ask myself, “Am I really forgiving others? If my forgiveness is conditional, is it real?” I’ve spent many years holding grudges against people who’ve wronged me in some way, and I imagined the grace summoned by victims of crime when they forgive those who have harmed them. I seek the peace and freedom that the forgiven men feel.

Wide receiver Steve Smith #89 of the Baltimore Ravens prays with teammates and player from the Philadelphia Eagles after the Baltimore Ravens defeated the Philadelphia Eagles 27-26 at M&T Bank Stadium on December 18, 2016 in Baltimore, Maryland.

Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Many of the men at Angola had already found peace through Christ, which allowed them to feel forgiven. As I prayed with them at the end of our visit, worshipping alongside men who had committed violent crimes and were now paying their debt to society, I witnessed the power of real forgiveness. It was a lesson that I carried with me when I left, and it is a lesson that I will share with the hope that others can accept and give forgiveness too.

HBO’s new ‘Native Son’ still can’t figure out Bigger Thomas Latest adaptation of Richard Wright’s novel excises some of the crucial violence against a black woman

Nobody knows what to do with Bigger Thomas.

The lead character of Richard Wright’s seminal 1940 novel, Native Son, is one of the most frustrating in American literature. The latest evidence is a new film adaptation written by the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks and directed by visual artist Rashid Johnson in his feature film debut. It airs at 10 p.m. Saturday on HBO.

The Bigger Wright left us on the page is a 20-year-old black man who lives in a one-room Chicago tenement with his brother, sister and mother in 1939. In Wright’s opening scene, Bigger wakes up in the family’s freezing apartment and pounds a giant rat to death with an iron skillet. Bigger is bitterly aware of the limitations his race and class have predetermined for him, and so are his friends. They have nothing, and so they rob other black folks of their tiny bit of something. Bigger seems doomed to a small, miserable life until he gets a job across town as a chauffeur for a wealthy white family, the Daltons. The Daltons don’t consider themselves racists, but they benefit handsomely from the structural circumstances that have placed a boot upon Bigger’s neck.

What follows is tragic: A panicked Bigger accidentally kills the Dalton heiress, Mary, whose kindness and uninformed, if well-intentioned, habitual racial line-stepping do more to endanger Bigger than help him. After a night out with her boyfriend, Jan, Mary drunkenly invites Bigger, who’s driven her home, to her bedroom. Bigger assents, hoping to simply settle Mary in her room before stealing off to his own in the back of the house. Instead, he smothers her to death out of fear they’ll be discovered and he’ll be fired. Afterward, Bigger shoves Mary’s body into the mansion’s furnace.

When reporters discover bones and jewelry among the furnace’s ashes, Bigger flees. He explains to his girlfriend, Bessie, how he ended up killing Mary, then rapes and kills Bessie too, disposing of her body down an air shaft. When he’s finally caught, Bigger is bound for the executioner’s chair.

Needless to say, this is not a character who inspires sympathy. The HBO movie is the third attempt to bring Bigger to life on film. (In 1941, Orson Welles produced and directed the story as a play.) Wright actually starred as Bigger in a 1951 version of Native Son filmed in Argentina by the Belgian director Pierre Chenal. A 1986 version, with Victor Love as Bigger, had a big-name Hollywood cast, including Matt Dillon, Elizabeth McGovern, Geraldine Page and Oprah Winfrey.

Each of them has had to struggle with hard questions about Wright’s central character: How much of Bigger’s awfulness can be attributed to a country that twisted him into a murderer and how much of his evil is individual? Is cruelty from those denied dignity inevitable or a choice? Is Bigger a person or a literary device manufactured to inspire horror?

Nearly 80 years after Native Son was first published, we’re still searching for answers.


Ashton Sanders, as Bigger Thomas in HBO’s Native Son, stands in front of “The Bean,” a landmark public sculpture in downtown Chicago.

Chris Herr/HBO

This latest film adaptation, produced by A24 (the company behind Moonlight, Lady Bird and First Reformed) has the distinction of being the brainchild of a student of James Baldwin — Parks studied creative writing under Baldwin at Mount Holyoke College.

Baldwin famously seethed at Wright’s interpretation of black life and dismissed Native Son as a “protest novel” full of one-dimensional stereotypes, and he likened Bigger to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom.

“Bigger is Uncle Tom’s descendant, flesh of his flesh, so exactly opposite a portrait that, when the books are placed together, it seems the contemporary Negro novelist and the dead New England woman are locked together in a deadly, timeless battle; the one uttering merciless exhortations, the other shouting curses,” Baldwin wrote in the essay Everybody’s Protest Novel. And yet Baldwin softened his stance toward Wright and Native Son after Wright’s death in 1960. Wrote Baldwin in Alas, Poor Richard:

Shortly after we learned of Richard Wright’s death, a Negro woman who was rereading Native Son told me that it meant more to her now than it had when she had first read it. This, she said, was because the specific social climate which had produced it, or with which it was identified, seemed archaic now, was fading from our memories. Now, there was only the book itself to deal with, for it could no longer be read, as it had been in 1940, as a militant racial manifesto. Today’s racial manifestoes were being written very differently, and in many languages; what mattered about the book now was how accurately or deeply the life of Chicago’s South Side had been conveyed.

The ambivalence Bigger inspires in Baldwin and others has come to be one of his defining characteristics. In 1986, Temple University professor David Bradley, writing an introduction for a new edition of the novel, shared his roller coaster of emotions about Native Son, which fluctuated with each new reading.

Is Bigger a person or a literary device manufactured to inspire horror? Nearly 80 years after Native Son was first published, we’re still searching for answers.

Both the 1986 film and the new one struggle with the monstrousness of Bigger’s actions — and both decided to dull them. Neither one includes Bigger’s rape and murder of Bessie. It’s the biggest omission from both versions, and especially notable in this latest adaptation, given how much Parks and Johnson elected to change.

They removed Bigger from the South Side of 1939 and dropped him into modern-day Chicago, simultaneously eradicating the bleakness of Bigger’s life as Wright fashioned it. Bigger no longer shares a one-room apartment with his mother, sister and brother but rather a multiroom unit with space for a dining table where the family gathers regularly. His mother, Trudy (Sanaa Lathan), is an ambitious paralegal eyeing law school, not a desperate washerwoman consigned to abject poverty. Trudy has a romantic partner, a do-gooder lawyer named Marty (David Alan Grier). The Thomas household is warm and structured, and there isn’t nearly as much pressure on Bigger to get a job to prevent his family from being turned out on the street.

Bigger, too, has undergone renovation. Played by Ashton Sanders (best known for portraying high school-age Chiron in Moonlight), this modern Bigger sports green hair, black fingernail polish, and an assortment of black coats and jackets customized with graffiti and patches. He’s an Afropunk and an anarchist who prefers the sounds of Bad Brains, Minor Threat and Death, as opposed to, say, Chief Keef. Sanders is tall and lanky, and he mostly plays Bigger as a quiet kid who folds into himself but who can be goaded into violent outbursts. His girlfriend, Bessie (KiKi Layne), has been transformed from a figure of pitiable, gin-soaked scorn into a sober and sensible hairdresser.

From the book to the screen, Wright’s white characters remain the most static. Mrs. Dalton is always blind, and Mr. Dalton is always the dutiful limousine liberal who sees himself as doing what he can to help the downtrodden Negroes on the other side of town. Mary Dalton (Margaret Qualley) and her boyfriend, Jan Erlone (Nick Robinson), remain a couple of rebellious anti-capitalists (here, they’re Occupy Wall Street sympathizers) thumbing their noses at Mr. Dalton’s money and privilege while simultaneously enjoying it.


Ashton Sanders and KiKi Layne in Native Son.

Thomas Hank Willis/HBO

The urge to use a new adaptation of Native Son as a corrective to the perceived faults of Wright’s original work is understandable, especially when its setting, Chicago, is repeatedly slandered as a cesspool of black cultural pathologies. Its murder rate trails that of several other cities, and yet it’s seen as an avatar for gun violence and a favorite example of those looking to deploy the whataboutism of “black-on-black” crime. Chicago is the home of Emmett Till and Laquan McDonald, and somehow also the place that produced Barack Obama and Harold Washington. Victims of white supremacy and heroes who manage to dodge it are much easier to hold in one’s head. But where do we place Bigger?

If we take him as Wright wrote him, perhaps the only appropriate place is exile. Maybe that’s why the resulting Bigger imagined by Parks and Johnson is far more sympathetic than Wright’s original rendering. For instance, Johnson neglects to show Bigger decapitating Mary once he realizes her body is too big to fully fit in the furnace. And in this modern version, Bigger never makes it to jail, much less a trial. He’s gunned down by Chicago police officers the moment they find him.

Parks and Johnson gesture at Bigger’s violence toward Bessie — he begins to strangle her but doesn’t go through with the deed. Bigger’s sexual violence, though, is completely eliminated. When I spoke to Johnson recently at HBO’s offices in New York, he told me that he thought of Bessie’s survival as the truest outcome for this retelling.

“We can’t murder and rape Bessie.”

“Between 1939 and today, stories around violence towards women and the way that we interpret them has changed dramatically,” Johnson said. “I was raised by a black woman who’s an academic and a feminist. I am not capable of telling stories where a woman is treated violently in the respect that Bigger treats Bessie in the book. That’s not something that I’m interested in.

“I think it neuters the other aspects of the story that are quite complicated around both race, class, etc. I think that it does a damage to the story and its contemporary telling, that story cannot survive. So we’d originally written it with the murder of Bessie and the rape of Bessie and the story, and I read that version in the script because we tried to keep as much in as possible in our early stages of interpreting it. And I called Suzan-Lori Parks very early in the morning and I said, ‘There’s something that is very challenging for me,’ and she said, ‘We can’t murder and rape Bessie.’ ”

Yet black and Native American women today experience the highest rates of death as a result of intimate partner violence, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Wright’s Native Son, in part, is a tale of black masculinity, disfigured by white supremacy and run amok. It is a horror story, in the way that Toni Morrison’s Beloved can be seen as horror too.

In 2015, when Straight Outta Compton was released, hip-hop journalist Dee Barnes wrote about the violence she experienced at the hands of Dr. Dre. “There is a direct connection between the oppression of black men and the violence perpetrated by black men against black women,” she wrote. “It is a cycle of victimization and reenactment of violence that is rooted in racism and perpetuated by patriarchy.”

It’s impossible to separate the murder and rape of Bessie from any discussion about how race and class have victimized Bigger. The same factors contribute to Bigger’s abuse of Bessie, although they do not excuse it. We can see a contemporary example of this dynamic in Erik Killmonger, the villain of Black Panther. Like Bigger, Killmonger is meant to engender sympathy, for the United States turned him into what he is: a psychopathic human instrument of death seeking revenge and power. And yet, for all his wokeness regarding imperialist theft, Killmonger has little regard for women. He does not hesitate to kill them, and he certainly doesn’t have any remorse about it.

When we turn away from black misogyny, as Parks and Johnson do, and as filmmaker F. Gary Gray did in Straight Outta Compton, we do a disservice to black women’s lived reality — the stories preserved on-screen tell an incomplete truth.

This new Native Son from Parks and Johnson doesn’t answer many of the questions Wright presents. Rather, it leaves us with even more questions: How can a film adaptation work if it excises one of the most horrifying scenes in its source material? And can Native Son truly capture the worst effects of America’s subjugation of black people if it turns away from the mortal injuries that befall black women as a result of it?

We lost more than a rapper today: Nipsey Hussle, killed at 33 The beloved, Grammy-nominated rapper was the best of us

Ermias Davidson Asghedom — better known as rapper, businessman and philanthropist Nipsey Hussle — was killed today, gunned down in front of his own Marathon Clothing Store in his hometown of Los Angeles. Two others were wounded. Hussle was 33 years old. Hussle’s acclaimed 2017 Victory Lap was nominated for a Grammy in the Best Rap Album category. He is survived by his two children and by girlfriend, the actor Lauren London.

Standin’ so tall, they think I might got stilts / Legendary baller, like Mike, like Wilt.

I spent 10 minutes staring at a blank word document. Then wrote the above paragraph. Then stared that that paragraph for another 10 minutes still in shock at what I’d just typed. In one afternoon Nipsey Hussle went from living the inspirational tale of how one man can ascend beyond the conditions of his childhood and become a pillar in his community to being shot to death by an assailant or assailants yet to be arrested.

In 2018 Hussle opened a STEM center and a cowork space called Vector 90 in Palo Alto — Silicon Valley’s other-side-of-the-tracks. Now the avid Lakers fan is also another reminder that escape from the so-called ‘hood can be a fleeting dream for even the best of us.

And by all accounts, Nipsey Hussle was one of the best of us. In addition to being an undeniably authentic rapper, he was a disrupter in the business of music, banking on himself by selling albums for $100 and for $1,000 each, respectively — moves that inspired Jay-Z to buy 100 copies of the former. Hussle pumped resources back into his beloved Crenshaw neighborhood, including investing in the real estate that housed his Marathon Clothing store. His business acumen and philanthropy had become as legendary as his mixtapes and albums.


We lost more than a rapper today. We lost someone who loved us. As of this writing there are no suspects in the shooting, and it’s easy to feel there never will be. Bullets that end in black bodies after flying out of unidentified phantoms is far too common in America. Hussle never shied away from his troubled past, he was a member of the Rollin’ 60s Crips and focused a lot of his early music on the life he lived before turning himself around. Like he said on “Grindin’ All My Life” from Victory Lap: Damn right, I like the life I built / I’m from west side, 60, shit, I might got killed / Standin’ so tall, they think I might got stilts/ Legendary baller, like Mike, like Wilt. He rapped about all of it.

“I grew up in gang culture,” he told the Los Angeles Times last February. “We dealt with death, with murder. It was like living in a war zone…people die on these blocks, and everybody is a little bit immune to it. I guess they call it post-traumatic stress, when you have people that have been at war for such a long time. I think L.A. suffers from that because it’s not normal yet we embrace it like it is.”

We lost more than a rapper today. We lost someone who loved us.

I often think about a study released in 2017 by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It stated that it takes twenty years of nothing going wrong in a person’s life — perfect education, great college decisions, financial perfection — to escape poverty. Two decades. I think about what that means for people like Nipsey Hussle — black people who had to claw to survive and, no matter how much money he makes or how much good he does, the bullets still find him. He escaped poverty, but he couldn’t escape America.

The best we can do is keep his memory alive the best we can. For Nipsey. For Mac Miller. For Tech 9. For Tupac, Big L and Biggie before them. And far too many others. Learn his lessons. Give back. Believe in ourselves. That’s their legacy, and the real victory lap for Nipsey Hussle.

 

A look back at ‘Above the Rim’ on its 25th anniversary Tupac in trouble, Georgetown hoops on the rise, a sports film rises to cult classic

Marlon Wayans can still smell the thick aroma of Tupac Shakur’s marathon marijuana sessions. Wayans and Shakur, both performing arts high school products, had become quick friends while Shakur was filming 1992’s Juice alongside Wayans’ friends Omar Epps and Mitch Marchand.

By 1993, it was Wayans working with Shakur on the street basketball coming-of-age film Above the Rim, which celebrates its 25th anniversary on Saturday. Shakur was the sinister and charming drug dealer Birdie, who was trying to monopolize a local streetball tournament. Wayans played Bugaloo, a round-the-way kid who was often the target of Birdie’s vicious verbal taunts.

“ ‘Above the Rim’ is the most true, ball-playing cinematic movie.” — Leon

Shakur and Wayans shared a two-bedroom trailer on set. They made each other laugh. They talked about themselves as young black creatives in a world that often sought their talents but not the soul behind them. And the two got high together — in a way.

“’Pac smoked a lot of weed,” said Wayans. “[He] would roll like nine blunts … he’d be listening to beats.” Wayans chuckles at the memory. “I’d catch the biggest contact.”

One day, Shakur refused to step out of his Rucker Park trailer. Director Jeff Pollack was confused. Everyone was ready, cameras in place. All they needed was the enigmatic Shakur. “Kick the doors off the Range Rover!” Shakur yelled as he emerged. “Real n—as don’t have doors on Range Rovers!” Shakur wanted the doors off so he could just jump out and directly into his lines.

“In my head, I’m thinking, ‘Yeah, ’Pac’s a little high,’ ’’ said Wayans, laughing. “I don’t think ’Pac knew how much that would cost production.” Shakur eventually came down off his high. And the doors stayed on the Range.




Above the Rim was part of a 1994 Hollywood basketball renaissance. A month before the film hit theaters, Nick Nolte, Shaquille O’Neal and Penny Hardaway starred in Blue Chips. Later that year came Hoop Dreams, the masterful Steve James documentary. Lodged midway was Above the Rim.

Each of the three films offers a perspective of basketball as more than a game. Blue Chips focuses on the lucrative and slimy underbelly of big-business college athletics (and art imitates life a quarter-century later). Hoop Dreams is an exposé of the beautiful yet heartbreaking physical and emotional investment of the sport. Above the Rim uses New York City basketball as the entry point into the deeper story of two brothers and their tie to a young hoops phenom attempting to leave the same Harlem streets that divided them.

Set and filmed mostly in Harlem, the film was written by Barry Michael Cooper and directed by Pollack and also features Leon (Colors, The Five Heartbeats, Cool Runnings, Waiting to Exhale) as Tommy “Shep” Shepard, Shakur’s older brother and former basketball star. Martin (White Men Can’t Jump, Scream 2, Any Given Sunday) portrays Kyle Lee Watson, a high school basketball star hellbent on attending Georgetown.

Tonya Pinkins (Beat Street, All My Children) portrayed Kyle’s mother, Mailika. She hasn’t forgotten what the role meant for her career: “Probably the most I’ve ever been paid for a film,” she said. “The cast was phenomenal. It was really a party, and I was kind of the only … woman with lines in the movie.” And making his film debut was Wood Harris (Remember The Titans, The Wire, Paid In Full, Creed and Creed II) as Motaw — Wee-Bey to Birdie’s Avon Barksdale.

Bernie Mac (Def Comedy Jam, Mo’ Money) is Flip, a local junkie responsible for the movie’s most prophetic and eerie line, especially given how many key figures from the film have since died (Shakur, Mac, Pollack and David Bailey). “They can’t erase what we were, man,” Flip says to Shep toward the beginning of the film.

Marlon Wayans, who played Bugaloo in the movie, on Tupac: “Pac’s greatest attribute is he was supercourageous, but sometimes that can also become your Achilles’ heel.”

Courtesy of New Line Cinema

Above the Rim, too, entered the culture during that 1986-97 era when films such as House Party, New Jack City, Malcolm X, Boomerang, Juice, Menace II Society and others had already stitched themselves into the fabric of the ’90s black cultural explosion. Those movies did so with black directors calling the shots. Above the Rim was brought to life by Benny Medina and Pollack, who had already struck gold with The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, at the time roughly halfway through its iconic run.

Above the Rim was different, though. “It was … without a doubt a story of the inner city,” said Leon, who at the time was fresh off his powerhouse role as J.T. Matthews in The Five Heartbeats. In Above the Rim as Shep, he returns to Harlem after falling on hard times. Leon is biased about the film’s cult status, and proud of it. “[Above the Rim is the] most true ball-playing cinematic movie,” he said.

Leon is humbled and entertained by the internet’s reaction to Shep, in corduroy pants, dropping 40 second-half points in the movie’s championship climax. “There’s just been so many memes people send me … it’s hilarious,” he said, laughing. And the level of on-set hoops competition, as he remembers, was electric. Many of the film’s ballplayers were just that: ballplayers.

“It was strictly about hoops, wasn’t nothing about acting. When you get on the court, it’s like either you could go or you can’t.” — Leon

In real life, Martin starred as a guard on New York University’s Division III squad in the late ’80s. He was a first-team All-Association selection in 1988-89 and was the Howard Cann Award recipient that same season as MVP. Leon, who grew up hooping in the Bronx, New York, attended California’s Loyola Marymount University on a basketball scholarship (guard) before focusing on acting.

It was while playing professional basketball in Rome and filming 1993’s Cliffhanger with Sylvester Stallone and John Lithgow (in Rome as well) that Leon was approached about starring in Above the Rim. The role was first offered to Leon’s friend (and fellow heartthrob) Denzel Washington, who had just starred as Malcolm X in the iconic Spike Lee biopic. “Don’t know why it was,” Leon says when trying to recall why Washington decided against the role. “Don’t care.”

People in Hollywood knew Leon could hoop, but word-of-mouth was only a down payment on respect. “Everyone could really ball. … Everyone had all-everything in their city credentials,” Leon said. “We’d scrimmage at NYU. All the top players from the [Elite Basketball Circuit] and the Rucker, everybody was down there trying to get down. It was strictly about hoops, wasn’t nothing about acting. When you get on the court, it’s like either you could go or you can’t.”


Georgetown University doesn’t have any scenes in Above the Rim. Nor does the school make or break the plot. Yet the Washington, D.C., campus’s role in the movie is important, and seamless. Pollack (who died in 2013 at the age of 54) and Medina, as writers, had already managed to weave Georgetown into the narrative of a 1992 Fresh Prince episode. And it’s Georgetown’s role in the story of black America that gave the film authenticity.

Maybe it was because Georgetown had a successful black coach manning its sidelines in John Thompson. Maybe it was because Thompson did so during the decade in which hip-hop started to grow up, and crack cocaine was blowing up during and after the days of President Ronald Reagan. Or maybe it was the type of players Thompson recruited — and the fearlessness they played with.

Except for Michigan’s Fab Five, no team held the gritty cultural cool that Georgetown (seen here with Allen Iverson and coach John Thompson in 1994) did in the late ’80s and early ’90s.

Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

“We didn’t apologize for who we were. We didn’t ask permission to be who we were,” Thompson said earlier this month. “Then there was the rap explosion, and people started wearing Georgetown-style gear because they were so moved. Once we started seeing the Georgetown gear in TV and movies, there was definitely more of a sense that we had arrived.”

Except for Michigan’s Fab Five, no team held the gritty cultural cool that Georgetown did in the late ’80s and early ’90s. “Georgetown represented for us,” said Wayans. “It made college look cool to young black kids. That team … it made us go, ‘Yo, I wanna wear that blue and gray.’ … For kids that grew up … in the ’hood … it became cool to be smart and educated.”

Wayans, who attended Howard University from 1990-92, said, “It absolutely [made Georgetown feel like a historically black university].” And it was Allen Iverson’s impending arrival that thrilled all parties involved with the film.

Iverson’s role in basketball lore is one-of-one, and by 1994, his image was, in many ways, as controversial as Shakur’s. To one segment of America, Iverson was a goon, a two-sport local superstar who deserved to have his future stripped away after a 1993 bowling alley brawl. Iverson’s 1993 trial and eventual conviction remains a benchmark of racial divisiveness in the Commonwealth of Virginia.

Yet, to a whole other segment, Iverson held superhuman characteristics. He was a larger-than-life counterculture rebel who remained true to himself at all costs — in tats, do-rags and baggy jeans. Iverson, a free man in March 1994 after being granted conditional clemency by Virginia Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, was an unspoken factor in Above the Rim’s authenticity. Iverson’s story is loosely tied to that of Kyle Lee Watson.

“[Iverson] was big,” Leon said. “Having a … prominent black coach who we know would take a chance on a player [like character Kyle Lee Watson] and give him a scholarship, much the way [Thompson] did with Allen Iverson, it just made sense.”

Wayans agrees. “Allen Iverson represents the concrete and the hardwood. [Even then], he made you believe that even though you was groomed and raised in the streets, you could still amount to something great, and not let go of your culture.”

But if Iverson’s legacy is in unanimous good standing with the Above the Rim community, the reviews of the film were anything but. While Above the Rim has risen to cult status in the quarter-century since its release, many at the time blasted the film for hackneyed dialogue and situations. The Washington Post dubbed it a “stultifying cliché of a movie” that “doesn’t get anywhere near the rim.” Variety said the movie was composed of enough clichés to fill an NBA stat sheet. Roger Ebert felt similarly but praised the film’s ingenuity in character development.

But if there was praise that was near universal, it was for Shakur. “As the strong-arm hustler who darts in and out of Above the Rim, Tupac Shakur proves, once again, that he may be the most dynamic young actor since Sean Penn,” an Entertainment Weekly critic wrote in 1994. “The jury is out on whether he’ll prove as self-destructive.”


Shakur entered a particular read-through of Above the Rim’s script in typical Tupac Shakur fashion. Loud. Bodacious. Arrogant. Leon appreciated the spectacle.

Every actor and actress has his or her own way of mentally preparing for a role. This was Tupac’s. He walked right up to Leon, his estranged brother in the film, and bowed his head. “You ain’t gonna have a problem with me because you in The Five Heartbeats,” Shakur said. “That’s my movie.”

Above the Rim marks a transitional period in Shakur’s life. His rising fame ran concurrent with controversy. Vice President Dan Quayle called for his 1991 debut, 2Pacalypse Now, to be removed from shelves, claiming its lyrics incited the murder of a Texas state trooper. And in 1993 alone, Shakur released Strictly 4 My N—A.Z., a profound sophomore effort headlined by the singles “Holler If Ya Hear Me,” “I Get Around” and “Keep Ya Head Up,” and starred with Janet Jackson, Regina King and Joe Torry in Poetic Justice.

Duane Martin and Leon Robinson were two of the stars in this film that was part of a 1994 Hollywood basketball renaissance.

Courtesy of New Line Cinema

But also in 1993, Shakur was charged with felonious assault at a concert at Michigan State University. He fought director Allen Hughes on the set of Spice 1’s “Trigga Gots No Heart” video and was later sentenced on battery charges.

By the time Above the Rim’s production was underway, Shakur’s legal dramas only intensified. In November 1993, he was charged with shooting two off-duty suburban Atlanta policemen. Those charges were eventually dropped. But shortly before Thanksgiving, Shakur, along with two associates, was charged with sexual assault of a woman in a New York City Parker Meridien hotel room. The case remains an indelible stain on his career, and Shakur, until the day he died less than three years later, maintained his innocence, even as he served much of 1995 in prison for the crime.

Shakur’s legal proceedings were a constant backdrop during the filming of Above the Rim, the stress of which took its toll on the cast. “It affected all of us, you know? We had to change the shooting schedule and delay production,” Leon said. “This stuff was all going on at the same time, and it could be a bit of a distraction.”

“He was great,” Martin said of working with Shakur, “when he wasn’t in trouble.”

“It must be hard for [Pollack] to have his main character in jail and you have to shoot tomorrow,” Shakur told MTV News. “But they never let me feel that.”

In a landmark 1995 VIBE prison interview, Tupac talked about hanging around with hardened street players who showed him the baller life that New York City had to offer. Two in particular were Jacques “Haitian Jack” Agnant and James “Jimmy Henchman” Rosemond — both of whom Shakur would later implicate, respectively, in the sexual assault case levied against him and the attempt on his life in 1994 at New York City’s Quad Studios.

“I would often have conversations with him about some elements around him, but I wasn’t abreast of it all because I wasn’t there every time he was getting in trouble,” said Wayans. “I’d just say, ‘Yo, you have the power to make different decisions, watch out for this, watch out for that … You have to dodge traps. You can’t run into them.’ ’Pac’s greatest attribute is he was supercourageous, but sometimes that can also become your Achilles’ heel. Sometimes the thing that is your superpower is also your flaw.”

“You ain’t gonna have a problem with me because you in The Five Heartbeats. That’s my movie.” — Tupac Shakur

Pinkins only had one day of working with Shakur, but his confidence impressed her. “We sat and talked [for a long while],” said Pinkins. “Everyone was so excited and hype, but he was just mellow … cool, and articulate. He was funny too. Someone who made you think he was already at that level of international phenomenon.”

Shakur rarely got much sleep while filming Above the Rim. He’d leave set once the day was over, go to the studio to record and come back to set the next morning primed and ready. “[Shakur] was as dedicated as I was. He was on point,” Leon said. “He had to be because so much of my acting was done silently with my eyes.”

Shakur was Above the Rim’s emotionally charged ultralight beam. His smile could light up a room, and his rage could clear one. Shakur, Rolling Stone lamented shortly after the film’s release, “steals the show.” His portrayal of Birdie was a “gleaming portrait of seductive evil.”

Shakur’s presence in the film is a beautiful reminder of what was. Wayans can still hear his own mother warning him. “ ‘Baby…’ ” Wayans re-enacts her, “I want you to be safe. [Shakur’s] a wonderful kid. I can see the talent in him. But you be careful of the elements around him.”

Above the Rim was filmed on a budget of approximately $3.5 million. In its opening weekend in March 1994, the film recouped that sum, amassing $3.7 million — and $16.1 million overall. It lives on in the conversation of best ’hood movies and one of the definitive sports movies of its era. Above the Rim lives on via streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime.

HBO’s ‘Leaving Neverland’ never lets Michael Jackson steal the spotlight Two men who say Jackson molested them reveal how a star weaponized his own magnetism

Leaving Neverland knows you love Michael Jackson.

It lets you love him until, finally, it’s impossible.

HBO’s two-part, four-hour documentary, which first airs March 3 and 4, intentionally mimics the contours of the sexually exploitative relationships Jackson allegedly had with two of his victims, Jimmy Safechuck and Wade Robson.

It’s that ability — that compassion, and that patience — that ultimately makes Leaving Neverland so devastating. Its beginning lulls and seduces you. You’re humming along to the melodies of “Smooth Criminal,” smiling with Jackson as Safechuck is photographed jumping beside him after doing a Pepsi commercial with the King of Pop. You’re marveling along with Robson when he meets his idol at age 5 after winning a dance contest in Australia. You’re thrilled, thrilled, just like young Jimmy and young Wade, when they’re first invited to Neverland Ranch and stay up past their bedtimes to eat junk food and watch movies that aren’t even in theaters yet. How glorious it is to feel liked, to feel special, because one of the most liked, special people in the world sees something in you.

Leaving Neverland is not a character assassination of Jackson. It gives you permission to like him, to like his music, even to love him, because Robson and Safechuck did, and so did their families. It does not demand your immediate sympathy for Robson and Safechuck, nor does it demand immediate condemnation of Jackson.

It only trusts that you will listen.

“He was one of the kindest, loving, gentle, most caring people I knew,” Robson says, “… and he also sexually abused me.”

Jackson’s estate filed a lawsuit against HBO in hopes of stopping the network from airing Leaving Neverland. The suit claims that the cable network violated a non-disparagement clause in a contract it entered to air Jackson’s Dangerous concert in 1992.

Leaving Neverland, directed by Dan Reed, shows how to make a documentary about sexual abuse without allowing the star power of the celebrity in question to upstage his victims. Lesser directors would be tempted to home in on the lurid details of Jackson’s alleged sexual predation and repeat them for shock value. It is the sledgehammer approach to storytelling: Start with the most horrifying, salacious parts, insist repeatedly that the subject was unfathomably monstrous, and then roll credits.

Reed, on the other hand, places his viewers squarely in the mindset of both Safechuck and Robson. He demonstrates how they could be persuaded to lie repeatedly to their parents, to law enforcement officials, and even on the witness stand, to protect Jackson. Yes, Jackson manipulated his young victims by telling them that he and they would go to jail if anyone found out about their assignations. But Jackson didn’t need to resort to violent threats to get what he wanted. He simply withdrew his love, knowing that his young friends would continue to seek it and do whatever was necessary to remain in his good graces, because that is what children do.

Michael Jackson and Jimmy Safechuck (front).

HBO

Perhaps the most challenging aspect of the story is that, from a distance, it’s so easy to judge the mothers of Safechuck and Robson as fame-seeking fools who were blinded by celebrity. But Leaving Neverland illustrates how Jackson also endeared himself to the families of his victims. His ingratiating neediness convinced them that they, in some small way, had power over him because he loved them so much. Robson’s mother, Joy, explained that when Jackson died in 2009, she felt as though she’d lost a son.

“Everybody knows he didn’t have a childhood,” she says.

“It was like hanging out with someone your age,” Safechuck explains.

The big reveal of Leaving Neverland is not that Jackson allegedly molested children, or the details of the acts Safechuck and Robson accuse him of committing. It is the emotional time bombs that continued to detonate long after his relationships with Robson and Safechuck ended.

Robson and Safechuck, who did not know each other as children, experienced mirror images of each other’s traumas later in life, from problems with depression to waves of crushing anxiety that developed after their own children were born and they began to imagine their sons experiencing what they did with Jackson. It’s the rifts within the Safechuck and Robson families that distanced both Wade and Jimmy from their own mothers. The actions of one man had consequences that rippled through multiple generations of these two families. Leaving Neverland briefly asks us to consider the same for other victims who did come forward as children, only to be smeared as liars and money-grubbers.

Jackson didn’t need to resort to violent threats to get what he wanted. He simply withdrew his love.

Jackson’s response to being investigated for sexual abuse feels all too familiar. Just as he manipulated the Safechucks and the Robsons into seeing him as a victim in need of love and protection, Jackson did something similar with black people as a whole. Viewers will recognize a commonality with other famous black men accused of sexual assault, such as Bill Cosby and R. Kelly, who publicly fashion themselves as victims of their own success in a racist country seeking to take them down a peg. Jackson made his appeal in a speech at the 1994 NAACP Image Awards, where he equated his legal battles against accusations of child molestation with the organization’s fight for civil rights.

“For decades, the NAACP has stood at the forefront for equal justice under the law for all people in our land,” Jackson said before an enthusiastic crowd brought to their feet by his mere presence. “They have fought in the lunchrooms of the South, in the hallowed halls of the Supreme Court, and in the boardrooms of corporate America for justice, equality and the very dignity of all mankind. Members of the NAACP have been jailed and even killed in the noble pursuit of those ideals upon which our country was founded.

“None of these goals is more meaningful for me at this time in my life than the notion that everyone is presumed to be innocent. Everyone is presumed to be innocent and totally innocent until they are charged with a crime and then convicted by a jury of their peers. I never really took the time to understand the importance of that ideal until now. Until I became the victim of false allegations and the willingness of others to believe and exploit the worst before they have had the chance to hear the truth. Because not only am I presumed to be innocent, I am innocent. And I know that the truth will be my salvation.”

Jackson is magnetic. He is radiant. He is a consummate performer, and he revels in his command of the crowd.

“We love you, Michael!” an audience member shouts.

“I love you more,” he responds, beaming.

Leaving Neverland does not blame Jackson’s fans for the love and faith they poured into him for decades. It simply exposes that as much as Jackson might have needed it, that love was never going to be reciprocated. Perhaps it couldn’t be.

“People think his music’s great, so he’s great,” Safechuck said.

Leaving Neverland doesn’t explain or excuse how Jackson became the man he did. There are interviews with Oprah Winfrey and Ed Bradley and Martin Bashir and plenty of others that attempt to do that. Instead, Leaving Neverland redirects the spotlight in the hope that its audience, like Safechuck and Robson, will finally see the truth.

HBO’s ‘Say Her Name’ has few answers about what happened to Sandra Bland But new documentary gives her a voice, even in death

The mother of Sandra Bland, the Illinois woman who committed suicide in a Texas jail after being hauled there for back-talking a police officer during a traffic stop, still doesn’t believe her daughter took her own life. In a new documentary, Say Her Name: The Life and Death of Sandra Bland, which premieres Monday on HBO, directors Kate Davis and David Heilbroner follow the Bland family as they attempt to get answers about what happened.

Bland, 28, was starting a new life and career at her alma mater Prairie View A&M when she was pulled over by Texas Department of Public Safety trooper Brian Encinia on July 12, 2015, for failing to signal a lane change. Camera footage from the stop shows that Bland was compliant, but apparently insufficiently deferential to Encinia. He arrested her and took her to the Waller County jail, where she was charged with assaulting a law enforcement official.

Three days later, Bland was dead. A state autopsy and an independent autopsy concluded she died by asphyxiation, the result of hanging herself in her cell with a noose made from plastic garbage can liners. The independent coroner, in presenting her findings to the Bland family, surmises that law enforcement was indirectly responsible for Bland’s death — “Someone’s spirit can be broken in a short amount of time,” she said.

Bland’s death highlighted the fact that unjustified police violence, followed by character assassination via media release, is not only experienced by black men and boys.

The circumstances surrounding Bland’s death are still characterized by frustrating uncertainty. A jail employee who was supposed to check on Bland every hour while she was in solitary confinement falsified official reports of his work. He simply didn’t bother to walk down the hall to check that Bland was alive, but marked that he had.

Waller County Sheriff R. Glenn Smith insists that Bland’s death had nothing to do with race. The state trooper who reached into Bland’s car to drag her out of her vehicle, as captured by dashcam and bystander phone camera footage, faced infuriatingly few repercussions. A grand jury indicted Encinia on a perjury charge that was later dismissed after he agreed not to work in law enforcement again. He was fired from his job as a state trooper, and that was it.

A makeshift memorial to Sandra Bland.

Courtesy of HBO

While the filmmakers gesture at broader issues of race and policing in Waller County, a couple of threads would have benefited from further exploration. Waller County is home to Prairie View A&M University, a historically black college. A Prairie View resident proclaims that the jurisdiction is overpoliced by five different law enforcement agencies, including the sheriff, state troopers, Prairie View police, and campus police. I wish Davis and Heilbroner had followed up with statistics comparing arrests in Prairie View with the larger, whiter community of Waller County at large.

Similarly, the film mentions that the Hempstead City Council fired Sheriff Smith from his previous job as Hempstead police chief due to complaints of misconduct and racial bias, but doesn’t provide further details. Smith was subsequently elected as county sheriff anyway.

Although Say Her Name leaves gaps in reporting the context of institutionalized racism that ultimately doomed Bland, it successfully communicates that she was a woman who was well aware of racial injustice and had a fierce passion for fighting it. The most compelling, but also heartbreaking, elements of Say Her Name are the Facebook videos Bland recorded on her phone to educate her friends and community about racism. She called them “Sandy Speaks.”

Bland talked about black-on-black crime. She blamed racism on both black and white people, saying both groups needed to make more friends across racial lines. She also cheerfully referred to the black people watching her videos as “kings” and “queens.” She was dedicated to educating herself and others — she recorded one video from the DuSable Museum of African American History in Chicago, radiant with pride and enthusiasm.

“Sandy is gonna speak whenever I see something wrong,” Bland informed her audience. More than anything, the value in Say Her Name lies in its refusal to allow Bland to be silenced, even in death.