On March 31, 2019, rapper Ermias "Nipsey Hussle" Asghedom was murdered outside of his Los Angeles clothing store--Marathon Clothing. Here we are, one year later, "safe at home" and, some, remembering the life and legacy of “Neighborhood Nip.” Last year, when the news broke of Nipsey Hussle’s killing, not only did the hip-hop community feel a blow to the gut, but urban spaces throughout the United States, and kids in these spaces, felt it as well. Me--a girl from South Central--also felt this blow. Nipsey Hussle was more than an ex-gang member who turned into a successful gangsta rapper. A product of the same South Central streets he walked and died on, to me, he was a prime example of the type of student educators should seek to create. However, we often overlook them in our classrooms.
My younger brothers introduced me to Nipsey Hussle a few years ago on a ride home from the airport. The rebuilding of his South Central neighborhood talks about financial freedom, and cultural empowerment connected us to him immediately. He was one of "us," and, most importantly, he wanted better for "us." Where I come from, when you make it out, you stay out. But, up until the time of his death, Nipsey Hussle was proof that you could make it out of South Central and come back. His goal was to reinvest and "double-up" South Central, Los Angeles by making it better or more profitable than before. The streets that others would consider the "mud," Nipsey saw gold and treated them as such.
Nipsey was both streets smart and book smart, which made him great. These qualities also made him a role model for many young kids, from South Central, who saw no way out of their current conditions. But, like many students growing up in urban communities, his greatness was overlooked in the classroom. He often spoke in interviews about being "gifted and talented" but no one knew his status because his schools refused to test him. When they finally did, he was identified as gifted and talented but had already given up on school altogether.
Listening to Nipsey Hussle's 2018 Grammy-nominated album, Victory Lap, I wonder what else he could have accomplished in his lifetime if educators tapped into his genius before he had dropped out of school. Nipsey was a self-taught and innovative game-changer. His street knowledge took him from successfully selling $100 CDs out of his trunk to topping the Billboard charts. The passion he had for his community, and interest in math, science, and technology, motivated him to redevelop his neighborhood. In doing so, he created jobs and opened up schools and community/ business centers devoted to STEM and youth programs.
All of the greatness that flowed through the DNA of Nipsey Hussle walked through school buildings often overlooked. His peers noticed his greatness, but the educators he encountered did not. At least not enough to stop him before the streets got to him. He knew he was a genius, but he could not claim it. In his schools, they left him no platform to explain it. So, before he could graduate from high school, he dropped out. The Rolling 60 Crips, and making money selling weed, had captured his heart. Despite his success, his trajectory can be seen as a failure by educators to grab hold of him, in a meaningful way, and help him understand his true potential in the context of education.
We have Nipsey Hussles walking all through our schools feeling trapped in an education system that is failing them. But this ends today! Yes, amid a pandemic, it is time for educators to reevaluate our perceptions, and the misconceptions, of a "gifted" student. Just because a student does not fit into our narrow, standard, and, if I'm honest, the Eurocentric mold of an acceptable student does not mean they are not deserving of our real and unfailing love. Just because their cultural customs and norms do not align with theirs does not make them undeserving of quality education. Only because they express themselves in a manner that some of us would never understand, that does not permit us to discredit all the exceptional qualities and abilities that they possess. Just because they come from communities that might make some of us uncomfortable, that does not excuse you from checking your biases and privileges that might hinder them from obtaining access to an equitable education. Just because their gifts and talents are packaged in a manner that is different from what we are used to, does not mean they do not exist. Sometimes, we have to step out of our norms and comfort, connect with students, and make an effort to see what lies beneath the surface level. Sometimes, this might require us to hustle harder than we've had to do for other students and change the way we teach just for that student.
So, as you think about your students, which many of us are during these uncertain times, think about those students who you see but overlook. Who is your Nipsey Hussle? What are their passions and gifts? How can we use their positionality to address their social, cultural, and community needs in our classrooms and schools? How can we use their street smarts to push them to greater heights? How can we double up and change the game in our classes and inspire them to do so in their hoods? How can we transform the way we do teaching and learning to transform the way they view school? You know the Neighborhood Nips in your schools. Last time I checked, they were the ones who were dedicated to hustling and motivating others even when some counted them out. They've been grinding all of their lives because they believed--when no one else did--that they could go higher in life. So, go get em! Every student who reminds you of Nipsey Hussle, I challenge you to make them your ONE. Bring them into your space and show them the possibilities. Go get your "hussle on" because every student deserves an educator who is willing to run a victory lap for them.
Alexes M. Terry
Alexes M. Terry is an Educator and Instructional Success Consultant with TwistED Teaching Educational Consulting Company. She mentors, coach, and consults educators who work with students in urban schools and communities. Through TwistED Teaching, her overall goal is to “twist the way we do teaching and learning in urban schools.”
Alexes’ upcoming book--REAL LOVE--uses her personal story and professional experiences to provide educators with engaging, relevant, and practical strategies on how to educate, connect with, and transforms the lives of students, in urban schools, who see no way out of the conditions that surround them.