"You don't know the problems that this money bring, You don't know the extra shit that come with fame" — Lil Lonnie in "Pain"
One thousand eight hundred forty-nine miles away from Jackson, Nipsey Hussle, 33, bent down to pose with a young fan - - a toddler—on March 31, 2019. The rapper and businessman was dressed comfortably in a white T-shirt and red basketball shorts with a white durag on his head—an outfit fitting for a Sunday afternoon in South Central Los Angeles. Casual, comfortable.
No bodyguard accompanied the rapper that day when he ran into his Marathon Clothing store to give some clothes to a friend who had just been freed from prison. It was supposed to be a quick trip, and Nipsey Hussle was supposed to be safe in a community he was born and raised in and was trying to do so much to lift up.
March 31, 2019, was supposed to be just like any other day in the neighborhood. But a 29-year-old man from the same neighborhood, Eric Holder, was later arrested for walking up and shooting Hussle six times, then kicking him twice in the head before fleeing the scene, police and witnesses say.
A year before, Jackson, Miss., mourned the loss of local rapper Lil Lonnie, 22, who died on the cusp of national success. He had just left the movies and was on his way to give someone a charger when he was shot and killed while driving his SUV down Montebello Drive the evening of April 29. Lil Lonnie—born Lonnie Taylor—did not know his killer, his family says.
Though these incidents were a nation apart with nearly a year in between, the loss is similar. We can never know what could have been if Nipsey had gotten to see his Puma line launch, or who his 2-year-old son would become. We'll never know if Lil Lonnie's first album could have drawn a Grammy nomination, or how Lil Lonnie could help Jackson become a real contender in the hip-hop arena. We lost mentors.
We will never know what either of them would give back to their home cities.
Both musicians were moving into even greater heights, but success isn't always sweet. It can bring jealousy, competitiveness and even death.
'He Just That Funny Dude'
A group of Mississippi musicians were tucked in the front, left-hand corner of Offbeat, a record store on Wesley Avenue in midtown Jackson on Sept. 15, 2019. Five rappers, one photographer and a journalist sat at a square gray table talking about Lil Lonnie and his lost potential.
While some rappers had personal relationships with the young artist, who attended Callaway High School and Powell Middle School, others barely knew Lil Lonnie before he passed. "We went to middle school together," Yung Jewelz said.
"I felt like even though I didn't personally know Lonnie, I had known the people he had touched, and I felt his energy even beyond knowing him," Vitamin Cea told the group.
Rapper Jo'De Boy said Lil Lonnie was a good dude, goofy and that when he smiled, you would, too.
"I remember one time we was at the celebrity basketball game at CM&I College and before we got in the game, we was on the bench and stuff. He was like, bruh I'm bout to score 30 points. He was just talking like he was this amazing hooper. He got in the game, and he shot an airball. When he shot the airball, he turned around, and he was like 'sub me, sub me.' He just that funny dude," Jo'De Boy said.
"You could see him anywhere. Last time I saw him, it was at Texaco (gas station). He probably one of the few rappers that call me by my government name. That man was cool," Yung Jewelz added.
Rapper DevMaccc said he didn't know Lil Lonnie that well and only met him once, but Lonnie's death affected him more than he thought it would.
"When he passed away, it really did something to me. I can't explain (it). It really was a shift, and it made me work 100 times harder," DevMaccc said.
"The city, they didn't even know how big he was in the rap game until he passed away. Seeing people like Young Dolph, 50 Cent, cats like that be like 'RIP Lonnie,' for BET to do that type of stuff. A lot of people didn't know that he was that big. To see somebody of that stature fall because of the stuff we got going on in our city, it was very heartbreaking," he added.
Maccc was raised on the west side of Jackson until his family moved south of Jackson to Florence. Since moving back to Jackson, he's been trying to reacquaint himself with the city, which he said people in Florence see as "crime infested" and filled with "a bunch of drugs."
But he sees Jackson differently.
"I know that it's really a lot of art and great things that's in Jackson. Lonnie was a solid dude from everything I've heard and everything he's done for the city, and I really hate that we never got that chance to link up. We're going to do what we need to do for him," Maccc pledged.
Jo'De Boy said music can put rappers in a place where they're constantly grinding with the support of people pushing them to go further. But there's another side to it as well. "Once you actually get to this place of actually succeeding in other people's eyes, it brings envy and jealousy because it's like 'You got it, and why I ain't got it yet'? Then if you don't give me a handout to give me something, we supposed to be boys," he said.
"If he made it, he can't just take it and be like, here go you $100, here you go you $50, oh your bills need paid, when he got his own life going on," Jo'De Boy added.
In "I Wish," Lonnie addressed exactly that: "I wish everybody didn't always have they hand out, Guess that's how it is when they see that you the man now."
Rapper Dolla Black said he met Lil Lonnie through a brief interaction, but he could tell from his interviews that he believed and embodied what a lot of Mississippi rappers want to come forth from the city. He said hearing the news of his passing was devastating, but it was a double blow because Lil Lonnie died on Dolla's birthday.
"He in college with a 4.0 GPA, rapping, moving around and getting a lot more movement than what we doing and actually wanting to give back to the community. It really made me feel like if they'll do that to him, they'll do that to me," Dolla Black said.
Lil Lonnie made appearances at the annual back-to-school events at Lake Hickory Park, he gave free snow cones to the children in his community Virden Addition, and he participated in the Jackson Celebrity Basketball tournament, his sister Crystal Capler said.
Dolla Black said Lonnie's passing caused him to distance from music and other rappers to take a step back from the music scene. "A lot of people who had music, if they just had one or two more steps, they was right behind Lonnie," he said.
He said Lonnie's passing has prompted him to be more aware of his surroundings and people's energy because some don't care or understand what he's giving to the culture if he's not giving it to them solely.
"With Lonnie being the dude that he is, when he's going back to his hood or whatever he going to, that's his home. You like I'm finna go to Northside Drive. I'm finna go over here. You ain't thinking about nobody actually touching you. It's like for that to happen to, bruh, that's why you felt it because it's like that's us. That's me," Jo'De Boy said.
'Crabs In A Barrel'
Crystal Capler, Lil Lonnie's sister, says he was the baby of five children and described him as funny and athletic. Because they were so close in age, some of her greatest memories of him are the sibling arguments they used to have.
"We used to play together. When we were younger, I was the (only) girl around my cousins, and with my brother being there, we used to play football, basketball, all of that. I really spent my childhood growing up with Lonnie," Capler said.
The family grew up in Virden Addition, which Capler said was drug-infested and impoverished. Despite their circumstances, Lonnie's family members were motivated to push forward and become something greater, she said.
"I think it shaped us to say this is where we come from, we respect that, we understand that, but we want to do better than what we come from," Capler said.
When Lonnie was 5 years old, their oldest brother, Lorenzo Taylor, featured him on a song. From there, their brother bought Lonnie a beat machine, computers and other equipment, and he started to make his own beats. Around eighth grade, Lonnie stopped playing sports and started to take music more seriously, Capler said.
"He was selling beats; he was rapping as well. It was a point in time, 9th grade or 10th grade, he stopped selling beats and focused on him as an artist," she said. "He started with two of his friends. They started a group, and then you know how all groups split up. Then, his solo career took off, and he focused on Lil Lonnie as the artist."
After graduating from Callaway High School in 2013, Lonnie attended Hinds Community College pursuing his associate's degree in general studies. He transferred to Jackson State University in 2014 and studied mass communications while balancing his music career.
Capler said Lonnie ran all his music by her, and she remembered months before his death when he let her listen to his song "Action" while they were sitting in his car. "I liked it. I was like, 'This is the one.' Any song Lil Lonnie dropped, we (his family) were always saying, 'This is the one.' We were his biggest supporters. No matter what he put out, we were all in," Capler said.
"Colors" went viral in summer 2015, attracting Lil Lonnie national attention, and in November 2015, he released his first mixtape, "They Know What's Going On." The project had more than 180,000 streams and 100,000 downloads.
He released a sequel, "They Know What's Going On 2" in June 2016, which included features from Bryson Tiller, Slim Jimmy of Rae Sremmurd, K Camp and Moneybagg Yo. His third project, "Vi$ions," and fourth project "They Know What's Going On 3" dropped in 2017. "True Colors," Lil Lonnie's posthumous album was released on May 5, 2019, also "Lil Lonnie Day" in Jackson.
The consistency with which Lil Lonnie released music and the support from various peers in the music industry attested to his rising stardom. But fate had other plans that dark night in April 2018.
Marshun Carr, Monya Davis and Antoine Carr were indicted on murder charges, and the family is now waiting for a trial date, Capler said. Friends close to her brother said he didn't have any previous interactions with any of his killers, she said.
"Being envious and jealous with a person that has the shiny cars, money, jewelry and the status, it makes people that's insecure about themselves feel that type of way," Capler said.
"To the point where that will make a person kill you because you have worked hard and diligently to get to your success."
She said Lonnie never confided in her that anyone was treating him differently following his fame. "Some people don't want to see you elevate, and they'll try their best to pull you down. Just like with Nipsey Hussle. He was in an impoverished neighborhood, but he was giving back, and it was still people out there that was envious and jealous towards him," Capler said.
"Crabs in a barrel," she added.
'In The Soil'
Chuck "Jigsaw" Creekmur, CEO of All Hip Hop, said the genre of hip-hop grew from the bottom, and rappers have an obligation to stay grounded around people they came up with or those who supported them. When you lose that connection, you lose the people, he said.
"Nipsey was the best representative of an artist who continued to give back in his community and unfortunately paid a very dire price for that. I'm not familiar with Lil Lonnie, but he seemed like a solid dude," Creekmur said this month.
Creekmur said we live in an era where we see extreme levels of success and with that the level of violence has increased. "Back in the day, you had haters that would sneer at you, would get better as artists, and they would come up to be competitive with you. Now, you have haters that will kill you. They will do whatever it takes to stop you from shining," he said.
Creekmur said social media can play a role in the bombardment of success that people see. He said people don't share their losses or their bad days, only their wins.
"It only really makes people more jealous. Some people get depressed or motivated. (But) we pretty much learn that there is an adverse effect on the psyche when there's this happiness in other people. I think it increases people's negative feelings about themselves," he said.
Creekmur said he met Nipsey Hussle through community work they did together, as well as a panel that they were on together talking to kids about getting their life together. He remembered Nipsey being a good guy and said his death really hurt.
"It really brings the community down when they see a young star that's positive, but getting snuffed out like that," he said. "When you see that person continue to evolve, become a genuine person you can be proud of and for there to be a disregard for his life, it saps your soul. It really takes your energy."
It also makes it harder for the next person to come up due to a lingering fear that the same thing might happen to them: "I've done my share of community work, and you just kind of wonder what it's all for? What are we doing when anyone of us can get killed like that in any given point in time?" Creekmur said.
Dr. Rhea Williams-Bishop, director of Mississippi and New Orleans programs for the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, said black people have been dehumanized for so many years and have eternalized this negativity that they can eventually lash out at anyone, even those who are trying to do something positive.
"If any people have been dehumanized over time, you've got to figure out a way to create opportunities for them, so that they see themselves in a more positive light, to do more positive things," she said.
Dr. Rodney Washington, chairman and associate professor of education at Jackson State University, said what he notices about young, black men he works with is that they view entertainment or sports as an avenue to move their families out of poverty.
"It's like the thought process is never in a singular effort. When they get to that level of consciousness, it starts to look differently to folks they connect with. Friends that they had don't identify with that anymore because it doesn't look the same, and that's where I think that harmful feelings start to move forward, and that evolves sometimes through conflict," Washington said.
For Washington and Williams-Bishop, the topic was complicated to break down, especially the "why" behind the culture of success in hip hop. However, Washington, Williams-Bishop and Creekmur all concluded that an emphasis on self-worth could be a great solution to combat the violence that can sometimes accompany the culture of success.
"It has to be changing this narrative of how people see themselves. We have to normalize young brothers being decent young brothers, and it doesn't have to be this hyper-toxic masculinity thing that seems to be the bravado that everyone has to subscribe to in order to be OK," Washington said.
Creekmur said that we must remember those rappers who are getting killed and aren't making headlines because they are important, too. "It's not the music that's driving it. As much as we may want to blame it on the music, we have to remember this is a really sick country right now, and a lot of this is in the soil," Creekmur said.
'Bigger Than Him'
Rapper Dolla Black remembered his producer, AVEVO, introducing him to Nipsey Hussle through Hussle's ninth mixtape, "Mailbox Money." On the project, he recalls the rapper discussing topics such as equity, musicians owning their own masters and ways to promote their music. "I'm listening to it, (and) it was like one of those situations where I'm like, oh shit I'm not wrong. Prior to, I'm telling my people in my squad I don't want to drop on iTunes, I want to put it on my website. But they like you don't have enough reach," he said.
"We can make people come to the website. We can make people come to me for the music. We can make people if we get big enough and if we use our voices and we get the momentum going."
Hussle's words confirmed that he was making the right choice in betting on himself, Dolla Black said. The L.A. rapper was the blueprint, and his untimely and unfortunate passing was devastating. "I still don't believe it," Dolla Black said.
Yung Jewelz said Nipsey Hussle stood for something bigger than music. "The art plays a major part in what you do for your community and even bigger than your community. Nip employed so many people and had so many different businesses and stuff," she said. "He bought the whole block where he started, and that was strategic, monumental and played a big part. He gave a lot of kids our age or younger something to look forward to."
Jo'De Boy, who was raised on the music and teachings of Tupac Shakur, said when you look into his eyes, you could see something bigger. He placed Nipsey Hussle in this same caliber, heralding him as a teacher and big brother.
"Lonnie was in Jackson, and we felt that, and we like that's us. But when you look at Nip, that's us. It's a bar for black excellence, as a culture, for him to be able to be like I'm taking the extra long route. I don't care what nobody else say about me. I'm standing on mine. I'm gone die for this. To see how he left, to me I felt like it's prophecy," Jo'De Boy said.
That was an apropos statement given that Nipsey Hussle's birth name, Ermias Asghedom, means "God will rise," a fact Yung Jewelz pointed out.
"As artists, a lot of times our main motivation is: I know that I can use my art to help my family. I know that I can use my art to put us in a better position," Vitamin Cea said at Offbeat.
"To know that, it was that 100 times over for him, and that was his purpose, and he had been taken away. That's one of those things where I look at our soul and the moral compass that a lot of humans lack when they make these hasty decisions."
DevMaccc noted the similarities between Nipsey Hussle and Lil Lonnie: they were both murdered and in their hometowns. He said the parallels reminded him of something rapper David Banner, who grew up in Jackson, said years ago.
"David Banner always said if he really died somewhere, he always felt like it would be in his hometown, and it just shows me like it doesn't matter how big of a positive influence you have on your home, people still will try to gun you down," he said.
"It was another wake-up call, but I do think in losing him, we gain a lot of insight, a lot of vision and kind of refocusing your vision for the purpose, because he moved in purpose in everything he did. It was always strategic and bigger than him," Vitamin Cea said of Hussle.
'One Hell of A Drug'
Jackson author Angie Thomas
explored these issues in her second best-selling young-adult novel, "On The Come Up," set in a fictional city called Garden Heights, which can sound a lot about Jackson, where she grew up in Georgetown. In the book, rapper Bri, the main character, makes a song that earns her praise and acclaim throughout her community. Yet, her success is accompanied by negative stereotypes, assumptions and drama.
While all this ensues, Bri is also struggling to get out of her father Lawless' shadow, He was also a rapper and considered an underground legend in their community. Similar to Nipsey Hussle and Lil Lonnie, individuals in his community murdered Lawless. Thomas told the Jackson Free Press that Bri's father is similar to many rappers who are successful and believe they can stay within their communities, not realizing their friends are becoming their enemies.
"With Bre, what does it mean when you're young and black in a neighborhood like Garden Heights, and you're trying to make something of yourself in a world that doesn't want you to succeed. And then two, what does success look like for a person, and how do they define it, but more importantly, how do they define themselves after they've gotten success," she said.
Thomas, a huge Tupac fan who mourns the lost potential of Nipsey Hussle, said even though she didn't know much about Lil Lonnie before his passing, she was angry about his death all the same. "Here's this young man who was showing kids in Jackson that there's a way out, that they can use their gifts and their talent, and his life is cut short before he can even see his full potential," the author said.
Thomas said she has observed that the culture of success within hip-hop shows means many young rappers get into positions where they have more money and means and feel that they are invincible.
"It's easy to think you can just stroll back into the areas where you used to go all the time, and people will receive you the same kind of way. But the fact is, jealousy is one hell of a drug," she said.
"When you don't see a way out for yourself, and you don't have the resources available to you to make a way out, you feel stuck. It's easy to fall into a feeling of jealousy. When you don't know how else to process that, because we're not addressing mental health, you're going to process it another kind of way, and sometimes that is through violent means," she said.
Thomas said racism plays a huge role in perpetuating the "crabs in a barrel" mentality, which she has felt as a black author.
"I have, but not to the extent that some of my peers have because I'm fortunately and unfortunately in a position of people are looking for something that is going to be the next me or the next my book. And that's a weird spot to be in," she said.
Her peers have told her that publishers told them that they're looking for the next "The Hate U Give," her debut novel and now a film dealing with a police shooting of an unarmed black teenager, which makes her works a standard to be compared against, she said. Despite these unfair expectations, Thomas said black authors should be able to tell the stories they want.
"When Stephanie Meyers was putting out 'Twilight,' they were buying vampire books like crazy. Nobody was telling that to white authors, but with authors of color, 'Oh, we already have this.' Even with LGBTQIA authors, they hear it all the time, 'Oh, we already have a gay book.'
"Are you kidding me?" she said.
Thomas sees this same mentality in hip-hop. "We can only have one female rapper who is successful, or we can only have one rapper from the South who is the big shot. No Limit and Cash Money could make money at the same time; it didn't take away from either of them. You know what I mean?" Thomas said.
"You did not see Steve Jobs beefing with Bill Gates. They don't give a crap. They know it's enough money out here for everybody," Thomas added.
'More Love Than Hate'
So what's the solution?
"I don't feel like it'll ever be a way to stop it because it's way before us," Jo'De Boy said. "But at the same time, it's like you can't satisfy everybody, and the moments of trying to satisfy everybody (mean) you end up losing yourself."
DevMaccc said he doesn't think there is a solution because jealousy and envy will always be there, but he suggested focusing on self. "Personally, I don't see competition in the city because I see myself as my competition. So I don't worry about what Dolla, Vitamin, Jewelz or Jo'De has going on. Not because they're not competition, but that's not who I'm competing against," DevMaccc said.
Dolla Black said communication is vital, and it's a strategy that he's used in the past when people have had problems with him. "I call them, hey what's good? You straight? I'm hearing that it's x, y, z, and they like nah. I feel like if the communication is important or inserted in the situation, it won't be no problems, no jealousy or envy," he said.
"We can't worry about what they got going on. We ain't even supposed to be pressed about what the people we love got going on when we focused," Vitamin Cea told the group.
"I just feel like if you hating it's just cause you can't achieve what's being done and that ain't no reason to hate, but you know it creates the envy. And I understand it because sometimes you see something, and you're like why it ain't happening to me?" Yung Jewelz said.
"Just because I'm shining in the light don't mean I don't have my own problems, so I just feel like I really don't know what's the solution. We got to come together more as a people, I know that much because it should definitely be more love than hate," Jewelz added.
'Footprints on the Moon'
Similar to Nipsey Hussle, Angie Thomas is making strides to help improve the Georgetown community, which fostered her beginnings as a writer. She said she is partnering with New Horizon Church and New Horizon Ministries to rehabilitate Aaron Henry Park in the community.
She said the park is three doors down from her house, and when she was a kid, she was almost caught up in a shootout there. "That park means a lot to me not just because of that moment and what that moment led to, that moment led to my mom taking me to a library, but that park was my escape. It was my place to escape," Thomas said.
The author said she wants to make the park something that kids living in Georgetown can be proud of, and this project is one of many she wants to do to help build the community up.
"My dream is to take businesses and business spaces in Georgetown that have been overlooked and make them into sources of jobs for people. There's a whole shopping center in Georgetown that one day I hope to purchase and renovate and allow folks in my neighborhood to have a decent grocery store to go to and that sort of thing," she said.
The best approach to eradicating the challenges of success lie in investment in the community so that everyone has opportunities and aren't concerned with what others are doing, Thomas said.
"A good solution would be having jobs and having skill sets and being able to take care of yourself and have for yourself where you're so busy and you're so good, you're not worried about what the next person got. I think that would go a long way," Thomas said.
From Lil Lonnie's influence and passing, Thomas said she hopes that Jackson's young people learn to not take life for granted and that they can make an impact in a short amount of time. "The love I've seen this young man get and the outpouring of love I've seen him get is amazing, and it shows you he really affected some people, and he affected some lives. They can do that and more," Thomas said.
Jackson gets a bad reputation, and people make assumptions about the young people who live here before they get to know them, Thomas added.
"I wish that the kids in Jackson knew how much potential they have and to not let outside forces change the way they view themselves," Thomas said. "There's so much you can do and so much you can accomplish. The sky isn't even the limit; there are footprints on the moon. So go for it."
'A Legacy In This Life'
Crystal Capler said she always used to send her brother Lonnie videos of the work Nipsey Hussle was doing in his community. She said Lonnie's long-term goal was to invest in real estate, but more than anything, he also wanted to shine a light on Mississippi.
"He wanted to say 'hey, I'm Lil Lonnie, and I represent the state of Mississippi, and there's other artists here who have this same talent.' He wanted to make sure that people know Lil Lonnie is from Mississippi," his sister said.
"If I ain't ever shine, I'ma shine right now," Lil Lonnie rapped in "Right Now."
Capler said it brings her a sense of peace knowing her brother will always be immortalized through his music.
Two weeks ago, a fan from Australia reached out via email and let the family know that he still listens to her brother's music, and he also bought some merchandise from Lil Lonnie's website.
"It lets me know that people still listen to him and his voice is still being heard, even though he's not physically here with us. His voice is still living on, and he's still motivating people each and everyday,"
The marathon continues with Nipsey Hussle, but what will Lil Lonnie's legacy be in Jackson and the state?
"I know Lonnie's legacy is no matter what you do, no matter what they say and no matter how much they tell you you can't make it from one place, you can," Jo'De Boy said. "No matter how much work you put in, they say it can't reach certain doors, it can. No matter how much your peers, your surroundings or your circumstances make you feel like you can't make it, you can."
The memory of what Lil Lonnie did and what might have been can help, his
sister believes. "I think his legacy is to inspire the kids coming from the ghetto, coming from nothing, that your end result can be something," Capler said. "Lil Lonnie has inspired me to leave more than memories, but a legacy in this life."
Follow Culture Writer Aliyah Veal on Twitter @AliyahJFP. Send her neighborhood, local culture and music story tips to firstname.lastname@example.org.