Why can’t we let our heroes rest in peace?

Last week NBA Superstar LeBron James posted on Instagram wearing a custom-made LA Lakers jersey with « Crenshaw » on it, causing a lot of hype on social media. The jerseys are a supposed tribute to recently-deceased rapper Nipsey Hussle. There are doubts about whether or not the Lakers would go through with it, but given the amounts of fans on social media that have been clamoring for these to release, it may cause the organization to at least entertain the thought.

At face value, the jersey is heartwarming, as it’s a tribute to a beloved figure that left a lasting impact on not only on his hometown of Los Angeles, but also in the wider landscape of hip hop. But one cannot shake the feeling that the Lakers organization and, in extension, the league are cynically weaponizing the memory of Nipsey just to make a quick buck. In a roundabout way, it speaks to the questionable relationship among celebrities, branding, autonomy and its audience. There’s this pervasive idea that entertainers are obligated to everything in their fans best interest, no matter what. It makes sense as fans are what keep the entertainment industry going. These are the people that will buy your merch, go to your concerts, and even get your name out there through word of mouth. In some ways, entertainers are only as big as their fan base. However, there are times when fan culture can rear its ugly head, revealing the massive sense of entitlement people have towards other human beings. The idea that the consumer’s interests are important above all else, even in death.

The worst part about it is that the more toxic aspects of fan culture are encouraged mainly by the industry that pays them. When an artist dies their label puts out a greatest hits album. Street wear brands put out knock off merch with their face plastered on it. Tribute concerts are held in their name. Studios create biopics and documentaries portraying them as larger than life personalities, adding to their status as icons. While it’s nice that they’re getting praise and adoration from practically everyone, how much of that is done out of genuine love for this person? How much of it is done for clout?

It’s not to say that the Crenshaw jerseys aren’t a cool idea and didn’t come from a genuine place, but it raises questions of whether it’s okay to use someone’s likeness without their permission, especially when said person isn’t there to prevent it. Because that person can’t control their likeness, brands turn that person into a mascot. People like Tupac and Bob Marley come to mind.

These were people who had fairly anti-establishment politics in their music. Marley was a staunch believer in Pan-Africanism, expressed anti-war and anti-imperialist views in his work, the best example being his 1980 album Uprising. Yet in the wider lens of pop culture he’s only really known for being a weed smoker that made music for hippies. Tupac’s gangster image overshadowed much of the socially conscious, introspective themes he portrayed in his first two albums (thanks, Dan Quayle). Outside of the hip-hop community most people only remember him for being a foul-mouthed thug.

This is the path that I fear Nipsey’s image will go. Another dead rapper to put on a t-shirt of some attention-seeking fashion snob. Another person whose “hustler” image will take away much of the wisdom that he conveyed through his music. Whose image will overshadow the amount of entrepreneurship and philanthropy that he did leading up to his death. This is not to say LeBron is in the wrong; he’s just showing love to a fallen brother. However, I fear that he’s adding on to the cottage industry that co-opts the aesthetics of artists and using them to further their own agendas. Instead of buying merchandise from big companies that don’t care about the culture, the best way to respect the memory of our legends is taking the lessons they taught all of us and aspire to be the best people we can be. It is only in that way that our heroes can finally rest in peace.