BOSTON — Boston Marathon jackets, with their distinctive colors to each respective year, pop up around Boylston Street in early April more than any other time of year. You’d lose count trying to keep track of all of them. But one specific black and royal blue jacket with “MARATHON” emblazoned across the front stood out to me on the side of the Boston Marathon elite athlete press conference at the Fairmont Copley Hotel.
Merhawi Keflezighi donned the coat as he watched his older brother and 2014 Boston Marathon champion Meb field questions from reporters. Meb, who retired from competitive distance marathoning in 2017, will not be running Monday but will serve as the grand marshall and ambassador for the race. Merhawi’s job is to just keep Meb on an organized schedule with media and sponsorship obligations throughout the weekend.
As Merhawi stood by, listened and fielded interview requests, I took a second to ask him where he got the jacket. It was nice and I wanted one. It was from The Marathon Clothing store in South Los Angeles. Just two weeks ago, 33-year-old rapper Nipsey Hussle was fatally shot in broad daylight outside his merchandise store on Slauson Avenue.
“You’d be surprised to hear that there’s a little connection between the Keflezighi family and Nipsey Hussle,” Merhawi says.
Merhawi shows me his phone and that his Facebook inbox includes countless friends requests. Many times, it’s runners confusing him for his brother. Merhawi tends to accept most requests if they have more than five mutual friends that he recognizes. Most of the requests are sent by people from his homeland of Eritrea, including Dawit Asghedom—the father of Ermias Joseph Asghedom, who grew up in the Crenshaw neighborhood in Los Angeles and went on become Nipsey Hussle.
Tributes continue to be shared on social media for the slain rapper. Hussle was recognized as more than just a musical artist, functioning as a major community activist, especially among the Eritrean community. According to the LA Times, Hussle went on a three-month trip to Eritrea as a 19-year-old in 2004 that changed his perspective on the world. The trip gave him a first-hand look at how people try to start their lives and fulfill their dreams in a country that was in a 30-year war for independence with the Ethiopian government. The trip motivated Hussle to start his own long term plan called “The Marathon” to build himself and the South Los Angeles community up from struggle. Hussle was proud and vocal of his Eritrean heritage in his work and social media.
Ironically, it was a marathon that established the connection. After Meb won the Boston Marathon in 2014, Merhawi received a Facebook message from Asghedom. He introduced himself and passed along his congratulations and pride in seeing a fellow Eritrean-American succeed. Asghedom soon revealed that his son was an acclaimed rap artist and hoped that they’d all be able to meet. Merhawi had been a fan of Hussle since “The Marathon” mixtape was released in 2010 and admired Hussle’s work as a musician and a businessman. Merhawi and Asghedom struck up a friendship.
“We didn’t get into too many details about the possible collaboration,” Merhawi says. “He and Meb just shared a lot in common. Hussle’s mentality was a marathon mentality. He was known for his work ethic and slow grind. I was inspired by his business moves.”
Due to multiple delays to the “Victory Lap” album (which was eventually released in Feb. 2018) and Meb’s focus on his professional career ahead of the 2016 Olympics, a meet-up between the Grammy-nominated artist and Boston Marathon winner never happened. There were close calls. Keflezighi, Hussle and actress Tiffany Haddish were slated to appear at the Eritrean Festival in Washington, D.C. but the four-time Olympian was unable to attend due to family obligations. Meb has never been in a music video so a cameo appearance would’ve been a first. He revealed to me that he turned down a chance to be on Dancing with the Stars after his win in Boston.
“I like Eritrean dance and I think I’m good but when it comes to music in English, I’m not so great,” Meb says. “If I came back in a second life, I think music would be my thing. You have the stage. You always have the mic and you can have a message to pass along to people. It can be impactful and Nipsey’s message was. He lived a tough life, changed it around and then did that for thousands of others.”
That impact was evident Thursday when more than 21,000 people attended a three-hour memorial service for Hussle at the Staples Center. Jay-Z, Stevie Wonder, P. Diddy, Kendrick Lamar, Usher and other celebrities attended the service, which was the first at the venue for an entertainer since Michael Jackson’s death in 2009. President Barack Obama shared a letter that was read by Hussle’s publicist Karen Civil. Tens of thousands of fans lined the streets of Los Angeles while playing his music for one last glimpse and celebration of the rapper. Merhawi streamed it all on Tidal on his phone while traveling to Boston.
Just 10 days before the shooting, Merhawi was in Los Angeles, visited Asghedom at the store and bought the jacket that he wore to the Boston Marathon press conference on Friday.
“He gave me a nice discount,” Merhawi says with a smile. “But I was mainly there to connect with him and let him know how proud I was of the whole family because they do business together. And that’s something that Meb and I try to do.”