Beyond his music, Nipsey resonated because of his political consciousness and leadership.
“Can we talk about Nipsey?”
I should have been prepared for that question, but I was not. It had been two days since his murder, and Nipsey Hussle’s sudden demise still gripped my students. But how was I going to work Nipsey’s life into a class about the Black athlete?
My first instinct was to shift the subject, get the students discussing a more specific conversation related to this class. I knew in that moment, however, I couldn’t avoid the topic. Nipsey was on their hearts. His life meant something to them.
Until his death, I hardly knew anything about him, but the information I gleaned from the press after his murder gave me enough of a picture to fit his narrative into my class. Beyond his music, Nipsey resonated with folks because of his political consciousness and his leadership in his community.
In short, Nipsey had an economic vision for his community that exemplified black capitalism. It was a belief that if he invested in his community, with his black dollars, the money would be recycled in the area and revitalize the community.
In the wake of his murder, black athletes like Baron Davis , James Harden, and LeBron James all mentioned Nipsey’s commitment to his community as part of his legacy. They admired him for his vision. He walked the walk. He talked the talk. As they noted, he was special because his fight to use black capitalism as a weapon was rare among celebrities, and particularly black athletes.
A number of black athletes have made, and continue to make, economic investments, but few do it with a specific racial focus to invest in their community to make sure the dollars stay in their community. Indeed, Nipsey’s narrative fit perfectly into a discussion about the black athlete.
There’s not a shortage of black athletes that have invested in real estate. This has a long history. In the 1890s, prizefighter George Godfrey owned more than $40,000 worth of property in Boston. Jack Johnson invested in real estate in Chicago. Harry Wills famously owned buildings in Sugar Hill, Harlem, and he became a shining beacon for the black community.
Ike Williams had $80,000 worth of real estate in New Jersey. Sugar Ray Robinson owned a building of businesses in Harlem. You can watch the ESPN 30 for 30 film Broke and hear stories about athletes making investments. But this is largely a history with individuals who have invested for themselves, not the community. These investments potentially line their pockets, but this is not what moves the people.
During the Civil Rights Movement, however, Black athletes openly discussed their investments in the black community as part of a political strategy to help solve the problems of structural racism. While integrationists at heart, these men were inspired by Malcolm X and others espousing black power rhetoric that explicitly linked black economics to uplift and freedom.
AFL running back Cookie Gilchrist, for example, told a reporter, “Every black lawyer, doctor or athlete who has made it, has an obligation to the kids who are still in the ghetto. If we don’t invest some of our time and money, how can we ask the rest of society?”
Jackie Robinson, who believed the “ballot and the buck”were the two most powerful weapons for Black Americans to wield, helped to start Freedom Bank in Harlem, a Black controlled bank that gave locals access to capital to invest in their own community.
“If we organize our political and economic strength,” Robinson said, “we would have a much easier fight on our hands.”
Robinson also advocated for Black Americans to invest in franchises, specifically targeting the fast food industry. And most famously, Jim Brown quit the NFL in 1966 and created the National Negro Industrial and Economic Union, later the Black Economic Union, to get athletes involved in Black economic uplift.
As Brown told Alex Haley, Black athletes had to “work inside the ghetto to eliminate the effects of racial prejudice and discrimination by helping black people acquire the green power they need to make life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness a tangible reality rather than an empty catch phrase.”
Although Brown’s social life is problematic as hell and can’t be erased from his legacy, his economic prescriptions for the black athlete is important to any conversation about black athletes making an impact in their community. His ideas about “green power,” as he called it, attracted nearly 100 black athletes to give their time and money to invest in the NNIEU.
But by the 1970s, most of this rhetoric about investments from the black athletes stopped. It’s hard to clearly pinpoint why, but I think there are two main reasons for this shift. For one, I believe practical issues stopped black athletes from investing in their community. To be sure, most found little success and often spoke about their frustrations with investing in their community.
A history of structural racism made it hard for black folks to acquire the capital needed to invest in small businesses with the athletes, and equally important, few trusted the process. And then there’s the reality that small businesses fail. Few athletes were willing to tank their salaries into something advisors were telling them would not work.
Moreover, the economic success of OJ Simpson showed a model for athletes of what happened if they stayed quiet on race issues. Once the endorsements came, athletes prioritized the company over the community. Any talk about black capitalism could be damaging to one’s career.
“A Negro who speaks out,” Cookie Gilchrist once said, “is always branded a troublemaker.”
In the early 1990s, however, we saw a renewed effort of black capitalism amongst the black athlete with Magic Johnson and Craig Hodges, but these were two different visions with two different results.
Impacted by the 1992 South Central rebellion, in his post-basketball career, Magic started to invest in black communities with the belief that if he brought in businesses, then more dollars would follow and thus revitalize the community. With tens of millions from investors, he built theaters, Starbucks, Fatburgers, and TGIF’s.
Although many thought it was impossible, Magic found immediate success and was touted as a savoir to South Central. But Magic’s appeal worked partly because he presented a model of apolitical black capitalism. He invested in the community without the overtly Black power rhetoric. To be sure, he had the same self-help mindset, and openly discussed his role in the community, but coming from Magic it felt more paternal than political.
He also often invested into the community without the community. By inviting investors and big businesses to come into the community, money was not necessarily recycled back into the community. Outsiders got their cut too.
Still, Magic brought hope, and he also showed a safe model other black athletes can follow. It’s a way for them to invest in their communities without them necessarily having to talk about black power politics, but still reap the benefits of being seen as someone giving back.
But there’s another model that is more aligned with racial uplift and black power and more aligned with Nipsey.
In the early 1990s, Chicago Bulls sharpshooter Craig Hodges, who was the most politically conscious athlete of his generation, re-imagined the role of the black athlete. Hodges, who had helped lead a boycott campaign of Nike because of their lack of investments in the black community, and who also asked black athletes to boycott the NBA championship series after the beating of Rodney King in 1991, asked Michael Jordan to ditch Nike and start his own shoe line and produce them in Chicago.
This, Hodges saw, was an opportunity for Jordan to give back and invest in black folks. According to Hodges, Jordan wanted no part of that. On another occasion, Hodges urged his black Bulls teammates to pull their money together to build factories in their hometowns to create jobs and opportunities. They all rebuffed him. Hodges felt defeated in this moment. He complained that too often black athletes had white advisors steering them away from their communities.
If black athletes had more race conscious advisors, Hodges envisioned, black athletes could make revolutionary changes in their communities.
Looking back, Hodges said in his book Long Shot, “I envisioned the Chicago Bulls making history in the most meaningful way possible. We were more than just athletes if we wanted to be. We could be freedom fighters, too, on the front lines of the second civil rights movement in the United States, fighting for justice.”
And for his race conscious attitude, he quickly found himself out of the league.
The outpouring of love and respect from black athletes for what Nipsey Hussle did in his community shows that there is potential for a new rise of the overtly political black athlete that will use black capitalism as part of their activism.
If they’re going to make a move, now is the time. They have the money, they have the blueprint, but the question remains, do they have the will?