“Whole city know that you became the one, huh? They seen it from the jump, huh? The pressure weigh a ton, huh?” —Nipsey Hussle (“Status Symbol”)
Kendrick Lamar doesn’t approach fear as a sea that may drown him, but as a pool for his baptism. Throughout each of his three major label studio albums, Compton's golden storyteller has bathed within the deep-seated terrors gnawing at his psyche.
DAMN., his Pulitzer Prize-winning Trojan horse, masked the fear of damnation behind commercial-ready anthems. To Pimp A Butterfly, Lamar’s Harvard Library-acknowledged tour de force, unearthed the fear of being a mortal man while hoisted on a pedestal as the voice of a generation. good kid, m.A.A.d city, his crown jewel classic album, is without an overarching worry, but on the track “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst,” there is concern presented as a question:
The cinematic a-day-in-the-life narrative Lamar creates through the whole of GKMC is broken twice: the Dr. Dre-assisted outro, “Compton,” and his songwriter opus, “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst.”
This wall, between the artist and listener, is broken by a request:
Inspired by death, and knowing she arrives without announcement or invitation, the profound rap star uses his final verse to wrestle with the uncertainty of his immortality; to wonder about his worth; to ask if he’s accomplished enough.
No matter when the engulfing silence of death snatches Kendrick's voice, we know what the good kid has asked of us. However, this begs the question: what determines if an artist will be sung about?
Yes, timeless music can transcend modernity and avoid the decay of time, but amidst the volume of music that exists in the world, the names of classic works on the tips of tongues will decrease as the years go by. Albums can leave an impression as permanent as a tattoo, but even ink begins to fade.
It’s not a coincidence, then, on “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst,” Kendrick begins by sharing the stories of others rather than his own. Becoming a vessel for the brother of a late friend and the sister of Keisha is genius storytelling, but deeper than technique is the symbolism of how his voice is employed to speak for those who wouldn’t be heard.
The voice message his mother leaves him at the end of the penultimate “Real” can be used to decipher why Kendrick's art is inseparable from his community, and why he will be sung about:
“I hope you come back and learn from your mistakes. Come back a man, tell your story to these black and brown kids in Compton. Let 'em know you was just like them, but you still rose from that dark place of violence, becoming a positive person. But when you do make it, give back with your words of encouragement, and that's the best way to give back. To your city…”
Her message is simple: give back to your city. And she was right.
Despite how important Kendrick might be to the world, that relationship will never compare to his connection with the people of Compton. Through him they are seen, they are heard, and they are represented. He is an artist in and of the community.
Kendrick Lamar, thankfully, is still with us, but earlier this month, we received a reminder of what an artist of the community becomes after death when Nipsey Hussle was murdered in front of his The Marathon Clothing store in the same neighborhood he called home.
As a son of Slauson and as an artist who gave back to his community until his presence became priceless, what Nipsey Hussle means to Los Angeles will never be understood by an outsider. Through all the stories told since his passing, it’s clarified the impact he made goes beyond music. He touched people with his actions and his art, and both are embedded with a meaning intended to inspire. Inspiration is contagious, it's able to spread across the universe, and I don’t know anyone who hasn’t felt inspired by the magic and message Nipsey Hussle left us with.
Nipsey's nickname, Neighborhood Nip, serves as a reminder there is no separation between artist and community. As impressive as it is to be "GRAMMY-nominated rap artist Nipsey Hussle," a committee that validates albums for an awards show won't be singing his name. There are trophies that can’t be placed on mantles, and immortality is one of them.
The man born Ermias Asghedom placed an emphasis on using his progress as an entrepreneur, and his success as a rap artist to build up, encourage, and give back to home, so when his life was tragically taken, the people of his home and everyone who was impacted by the gifts he gave made sure they lifted his name to the heavens. We are still lifting. We will continue to lift.
The most striking scene in the newly released Hiro Murai-directed feature film Guava Island comes at the very end after lead character Deni Maroon (played by Donald Glover) is murdered following his performance at his music festival. The following morning the streets are flooded with the people of Guava Island, but the native community isn't in mourning. In fact, there isn't a tear to be found among them. With his music soundtracking a parade to celebrate his life, Deni’s casket is held high in celebration of his life. It’s a treatment fit for a king.
Deni was no king, though. He was merely a local artist—one who wasn’t rich nor famous. All Deni offered his community was the strum of his guitar and the saccharine sound of his voice, but when told to be silent, he chose to play. When told to leave, he chose to stay. He was murdered because he made the choice not to abandon his people.
As I watched Guava Island, I questioned the role of an artist in 2019, and what it means to contribute art without expecting any reward in return. Something about the generous artist appears superhuman; as if the act of giving is a superpower. As cheesy as it sounds, Deni believed music could stop violence and bring people together. He played his music with the hope that such a simple vision could be more than a fantasy. He died for that dream.
Deni’s life was ended, but only after death did his adversaries realize that killing the messenger only accelerates the spread of the message. The contrast to Nipsey Hussle, a man who lost his life and grew his wings in the city he refused to leave, is eerie. The similar imagery of both deaths, in particular, is so striking. It's as if Hiro Murai and the writers of Guava Island understood exactly how a community reacts when they lose one of their own.
When you sing the notes found in your environment or paint with the shades of your people or capture the essence of community, the final scene of Guava Island is the result: a selfless creative—an angel—celebrated by the people.
We will continue celebrating Nipsey Hussle, and one day Kendrick Lamar, and any other selfless artists who spend their lifetime providing us with messages that move our feet and lift our spirits.
They are worth it, and we will sing about them.