Nipsey Hussle's Murder Rattles LA's Tight-Knit Eritrean Community

A photo of Nipsey Hussle from his recent memorial service sits behind the bar at Industry Cafe & Jazz in Culver City. Its owner, Aron Tadesse, is part of the same tightly knit local Eritrean community that Hussle, the son of an Eritrean immigrant father, was raised in. (Leslie Berestein Rojas/KPCC)

The death last month of L.A. rapper, entrepreneur and community activist Nipsey Hussle rattled L.A.'s small, but tight-knit community of immigrants from the east African nation of Eritrea. But it also reinforced their determination to defend their country and culture.

Speaking at an Eritrean festival in Washington, D.C., last summer, Hussle said he loved a lot of things about his Eritrean heritage, including "the history of being underdogs and struggling, and having integrity, and not selling out and standing for something and fighting for what you believe in."

Hussle, who was born Ermias Asghedom to an Eritrean father and an African-American mother, was tapping into a feeling familiar to many Eritreans in L.A.

They say they share a bond born of the struggles they endured during the 30-year war for independence from neighboring Ethiopia, which sent many of them fleeing their country as refugees.

"Our independence was not given to us on a plate," said Dawit Yehdego, a first-generation Eritrean immigrant.

"We had to fight for it," he said, sitting in his home in Inglewood. "We had to die for it ... that's what makes it a very, very special country."

It's also a very young country. Eritrea, which sits on the Red Sea, didn't become an independent state until 1993.

"IT'S KIND OF LIKE HAVING A SECOND FAMILY"

The country's culture, however, is ancient, and local Eritrean community groups work to keep it alive. Organizations like the the Eritrean Cultural and Civic Center in Hawthorne, which Yehdego is a part of, do community outreach and organize events.

There are Eritrean immigrant soccer teams in L.A. and even a local Eritrean language program that teaches young people Tigrinya, a language that is distantly related to Hebrew and spoken by the majority of Eritreans.

"We're just really connected," said 16-year-old Isaias Yehdego, Dawit's son. "It's kind of like having a second family."

That connection was evident in the days after Hussle was fatally shot on March 31 outside his Marathon Clothing store in South L.A. A 29-year-old suspect, Eric Holder, was later arrested and charged with his murder. As fans organized vigils and memorials, the red, blue, green and gold Eritrean flag became a constant presence. Local Eritreans stuck close by his family's side.

Aron Tadesse, a first-generation Eritrean immigrant, said this is just what Eritreans do.

"If you've lost somebody ... and he is Eritrean, you are definitely in a matter of minutes going to go there and support [his family]," Tadesse said. "That is our culture."

Aron Tadesse plays the krar, a traditional instrument, at his Industry Cafe & Jazz in Culver City. The restaurant serves Eritrean and Ethiopian food and hosts live performances, and is a gathering spot for local Eritreans. (Leslie Berestein Rojas/KPCC)

AN EARLY ERITREAN HUB IN CULVER CITY

Many people in the local Eritrean community knew the Asghedom family, or remembered it from way back, including young Ermias.

Back in the 1980s, the first wave of Eritrean refugees in the L.A. area frequented a stretch of Washington Boulevard in Culver City, said Tadesse, who arrived in the U.S. at age 12.

"There used to be an Eritrean community office here on Washington [Boulevard]," he said. Now 52, Tadesse noted that the street was also home to the area's first Eritrean restaurant. That restaurant was a gathering place, he said, adding that Hussle's father would bring Ermias there as a young child. Tadesse spent time there too, as a young man.

"I grew up coming here, performing at that restaurant," said Tadesse, "just playing music for the community."

Tadesse still performs, playing traditional music on the krar, a stringed instrument from Eritrea and Ethiopia that's similar to a lyre.

Today, Tadesse owns a different restaurant on Washington Boulevard called Industry Cafe & Jazz, which serves Eritrean and Ethiopian food and hosts live performances. It occupies part of the same building that housed the first Eritrean community office that Tadesse remembers from his childhood.

These days, Industry Cafe & Jazz is the only Eritrean restaurant on the block—the one where newcomers gathered in the old days is long gone. Now, there are Eritreans in South Los Angeles, Hawthorne, Inglewood, Long Beach, San Diego — pretty much all over Southern California.

Although there is no official count, the U.S. Census Bureau estimates there are anywhere from about 600 to 1,000 foreign-born Eritreans in L.A. County, not counting their descendants. Community members say there are likely more and that the local Eritrean diaspora is in the thousands.

A DICTATORSHIP IN AFRICA; PRESERVING A CULTURE IN LA

Meanwhile, a small number of Eritrean refugees continue to arrive in southern California. Human rights groups say Eritrea is a dictatorship guilty of many human rights abuses, where dissidents have been arrested, tortured and disappeared.

The United Nations only recently lifted sanctions against the country that had been in place for nearly a decade, following a thaw in relations between Eritrea and Ethiopia after years of border tension.

Despite the turmoil back home, many Eritreans in L.A. fiercely support the tiny nation, and stress the importance of preserving their cultural identity.

They also say their identity as Eritreans supersedes any religious differences. Eritrea is almost evenly split between Christians and Muslims, with members of both groups living in Southern California.

"When it comes to community, we are all together," Dawit Yehdego said. "When it comes to Eritrea, first comes identity, religion is second."

One of those trying to preserve that identity is Akberet Sebhtu.

Akberet Sebhtu, an Eritrean wedding planner who lives in Baldwin Hills, sits on the throne-like chairs that she uses for traditional weddings. She says she works to keep her Eritrean culture alive in the U.S. (Leslie Berestein Rojas/KPCC)

In her Baldwin Hills apartment, she keeps an inventory of traditional items that she uses in her work as an Eritrean wedding planner.

Sebhtu travels around the region setting up traditional weddings with messob, woven baskets used for serving shared meals; leather covered drums for dancing; and even a pair of ornate, throne-like chairs for the bride and groom.

She says many of her clients these days were born in the U.S.

"They have to know their culture," said Sebhtu, who arrived in the U.S. 22 years ago after first leaving Eritrea for Sudan, as many refugees did, then living for a time in Saudi Arabia.

"I have to teach my young generation," she said.

AMERICANS OUTSIDE, ERITREANS AT HOME

Isaias Yehdego, 16, left, and his father Dawit Yehdego at home in Inglewood. Dawit is as first-generation Eritrean immigrant; Isaias was born in the United States. The teenager says Nipsey Hussle's identity as both an Eritrean and a black American helped him put his own identity in perspective. (Leslie Berestein Rojas/KPCC)

Isaias Yehdego, the teenager from Inglewood, gets that.

"It's like you've got to mix being from L.A. and being Eritrean, because we're a different type of people," he said.

In addition to the Eritrean community group he belongs to, his dad, Dawit Yehdego, is also involved with a local Eritrean language school that meets once a week. It's one way that Isaias, who was born in the U.S., became fluent in Tigrinya, which his parents speak at home.

"I always tell my children that they are Americans outside, but inside the house, they are Eritreans," Dawit Yehdego said.

Isaias typifies this dual existence. While he's proudly Eritrean, he also identifies as a black American.

And that's where it all comes back to Nipsey Hussle.

In an interview last year with 97.9 The Beat, a Dallas-Fort Worth radio station, Hussle talked about embracing his heritage.

"I'm half-American and half-Eritrean," he said. "So ... as much as I am a black person from America, I'm a black person from Africa, too. So I embrace both sides of that."

Isaias Yehdego, who said he first learned of Nipsey Hussle in elementary school, said Hussle's experience helped him put into perspective his own life in both worlds.

"People from school would always ask me, 'Where you from?' because I look different," he said.

"And I would tell them that I'm from Eritrea, and they'd be like, 'Where is that?' I would say, 'You know, Nipsey Hussle, he's from there.' We would just use his name, we were really proud."

He added, "just knowing that we had someone, it kind of felt like he was a role model to us, and we all wanted to be like him, you know?"

Editor's note: A version of this story was also on the radio. Listen to it here.