“Conspiracies come from a place of pain”: director Ben Zand on ‘The Mysterious Murder of Nipsey Hussle’

The BBC Three film seeks to unravel theories around the rapper's death, and prompts the question: what do they say about modern America?

When 33-year-old Nipsey Hussle was fatally shot last year, outside his Marathon clothing store in Crenshaw Boulevard, the city of Los Angeles didn’t just lose one of its best rappers, but also one of its most altruistic community leaders.

The shop, just a stone’s throw away from where the artist grew up, was designed to revitalise a downtrodden area, providing jobs for ex-convicts and gang members. It was an extension of Nipsey’s blossoming business empire. The clothing store was situated in a plaza that the rapper owned, and in which he planned to open a barbershop and restaurant. He also owned a co-working space in Crenshaw designed to inspire young black people to enter the world of technology.

It isn’t uncommon for rappers to preach societal change from behind the walls of a mansion in Calabasas, but Nipsey was really on the ground, fighting to make a difference to working-class black people in an area where gang-related murders are just a normal part of life. When Hussle was killed, though, his clothing store – once the epicentre of one man’s fight against the gentrification destroying his community – became a notorious crime scene.

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Although Police believe Nipsey was murdered in an act of brutal revenge, locals are convinced that there’s more to his death than meets the eye. ‘The Mysterious Murder of Nipsey Hussle’ , a new BBC Three documentary, unpacks these conspiracy theories with aplomb.

NME caught up with the documentary’s director and presenter Ben Zand to find out what he learned from the experience and what the theories surrounding Nipsey Hussle’s death might say about America at large.

What inspired you to make this documentary? 

“I was a reasonable fan, but the conspiracies around his death definitely made me a lot more interested. Every time a big rap artist dies, all these rumours come about, and we wanted to explore what’s really fuelling this. Having been on the ground in Crenshaw and Slauson, where Nipsey grew up and died, it was obvious that the locals there have a pretty awful relationship with the police. Many of them have seen family members shot dead by police officers or feel like they’ve been mistreated.” So the idea Nipsey was assassinated doesn’t feel unusual. In fact, it speaks deeply to their everyday experiences as young black Americans.”

Credit: press

Some of the more common conspiracy theories centre around this idea that Nipsey was killed by higher forces. Why do you think that is?

“It is historical. If you go back further, the murders of black activists such as Fred Hampton and Malcolm X were linked to the police and FBI. The fact people believe Nipsey could have been killed in this fashion shows that there is a legacy to Black America’s pain. For them, the idea that the police could have had something to do with it isn’t beyond the realm of possibility.”

When you spoke to police officers, did you get a sense of their feelings towards Nipsey?

“It was clear there was a dislike for him – they had arrested him more than 20 times. His businesses were being investigated and the police didn’t like that they were linked to gang activity. Nipsey was a hero who did so much good for the black community, but he was also a gang member.” The police definition of gang members is so simplistic and binary that it would have been hard for them to recognise the good things he was doing or the fact he was trying to create peace in the community by uniting Bloods and Crips.

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“Remember, this was a man leading the fight against gentrification in the area. He was opening black-owned businesses to try to fight back, and that would have irritated a lot of people with money.”

So are the conspiracy theories more reflective of the fact that people don’t want to let Nipsey go?

“When someone lived such a purposeful life, it’s hard to accept they didn’t experience a purposeful death, too. The idea that someone like Tupac Shakur or Nipsey Hussle could be killed because they were caught up in avoidable gang violence doesn’t make sense to a lot of people. We wanted to show with this documentary that the young black people who believe in Nipsey Hussle conspiracy theories aren’t just crazies. They are rather believing in ideas that really reflect their experiences of being mistreated in America.

One of the women we spoke to, who worked with Nipsey, saw her husband get shot to death by a police officer. The fact young black people believe there was more to Nipsey’s murder highlights just how bad their relationship is with the police, and how broken race relations are in America.”

Ultimately, what would you like people to take away from this documentary?

“I want people to see that a lot of conspiracies come from a place of pain and we shouldn’t just laugh at them, but explore what’s driving them and try to fix it. Nipsey and his family were caught up in gangs, which he didn’t leave behind even after he got famous, but why was that? Why do people like Nipsey and Tupac get famous and still remain wrapped up in criminal activity?”

And what’s your answer to that?

“I think it’s because they don’t want to leave behind the people that made them who they are. Both of them loved their communities, but you could also argue that this was their undoing. One of the people we interviewed said Nipsey’s story will live on forever like a passage in the Bible, and it’s hard to disagree. He was very prophet-like and determined to help people.

“There’s no denying he remained on the edge of a criminal lifestyle, but in an area of such low resources, it’s also difficult to escape gang life completely. He was one of the few people who didn’t want to run away from gang members, but would rather sit down and listen to what they had to say. That’s so rare. It’s the reason his name will live on.”

– ‘The Mysterious Murder of Nipsey Hussle’ is available to watch on BBC iPlayer now

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