“To Live and Die in L.A.?”: On the Great Migration and Gang Violence.



Around certain people, it’s more than just a phrase. It’s a lifestyle taken on by folks that know it’s way deeper than a rap line. More than anything, it’s a jarring reality that hits far too close to home when digested.

Los Angeles is one of the most breathtaking places in the world, full of beautiful beaches, a bustling downtown, and Hollywood. It’s glamour is unmatched and cannot be denied.

Attractions like the Santa Monica pier and Venice have made it a primary destination for years, and for good reason! But not everyone lives by the beach. Somewhere between those pretty palm trees and sky-blue skies lies a war zone.

One of your favorite L.A. rappers once told us that the allure to the city’s recipe was “women, weed, and weather”. But his favorite rapper knew just how peculiar it was to “live and die in L.A.”

“‘92. I was 2.”

Meet Gaven. He’s been my boy for over a decade, and lived in L.A. since ’92, when he was 2. We met while he was a freshman at Morehouse. He cliqued up with my homeboys from high school that went there and we’d all kick it whenever I’d come home from FAMU.

He’s sneaky-tall, yet has a knack for blending in well in different social settings. He can effortlessly put people at ease with an impromptu joke or funny story; he’s a true man of the people. Yet, he carries a very intimate and direct energy, even when he’s entertaining a crowd, which probably comes in handy in his part-time profession as a yoga instructor.

Growing up, he lived in Dom Kennedy’s neighborhood, played ball against James Harden and Demar Derozan, and starred on Baldwin Hills’ first season. (I know; only in L.A. right?)

Oh yeah, he’s got a super deep musical catalog that we bonded over pretty early on too. Not long ago, we took a 2AM ride around his city in his ’99 Suzuki Grand Vitara listening to mixtape-Wayne. He knew every single word.

“My mom was already an established professional dancer in NYC. She and her colleagues were looking for more opportunities in film and television… since my Dad was an accountant and could work anywhere, L.A. was an easy call.”

Their story is a little different from others in this series It didn’t start with the Migration itself, but is definitely a result of it. Many Los Angeles Black migrants were either late leaving the South, or had already been to another migration landing destination before heading out west. Whatever the case, the city as a whole experienced the effects of the movement a little later than the rest of the country.

“My grandmothers are from the South but both of my grandfathers are from Brooklyn.”

His story, like mine, starts with another destination city.

My dad’s parents originally left Louisiana for Ohio during the earlier migration years. It wasn’t until the early-60's that they moved to California where they settled for good, taking part in the early westward trend — a movement that Gaven’s folks would be a part of.

“There are plenty of folks out here my age that are first generation, so to speak. A lot of my peers’ families came from Texas and Louisiana. You still see that sort of Creole flow from the Bayou and Gulf country out here.”

The fact that most Blacks didn’t start migrating out west in huge numbers until the 40's makes L.A. the poster child of what has become known as the Second Great Migration that went on well into the 70s.

However, this group of migrants differed in that they were further removed from slavery, not as agriculturally focused and, in some cases, already entrenched in the working class. Cities in the the Midwest and Northeast were still hot destinations, but the movement out West was gaining steam. The main draw, of course, was job opportunities and once WWII started, that was their cue.

Because of their proximity to Pearl Harbor, L.A. was very active in the war. As their white residents left to fight, Black families moved in for their jobs. Once the war was over, white soldiers returned home to duke it out for their jobs and neighborhoods. The new Black families and the already marginalized Hispanic community fought for rights and respect.

These were some of the first major gang-related spouts. One side was fighting for their old lives and the other was desperate for a new world. Virtually no one was exempt.


“Drugs and violence are just symptoms of poverty and circumstance. The media tells you its a Black thing, but its just what anyone would do with a lack of opportunities, really.”

By the time the 40's were coming to close, L.A.’s population was already bigger than that of 37 states at the time. Their migration was just heating up and there seemed to be more white “fight” than white flight.

Before long, it was clear that to live in L.A, meant to be willing to die for that privilege; and the majority of us came out swinging, forming our own gangs to combat the ills of our new environment.

Toward the end of the Great Migration, Black Americans all over watched the Civil Rights Movement usher in an era of change and progress in many places. There were progressive laws passed, new opportunities given, and tensions that had once flared were cooling down a bit in the South, Northeast, and Midwest.

L.A.’s struggles seemed to be just getting started, though, as they were ripe for conflict in the 60's, culminating in the famed Watts riots in the summer of 1965. By the end of the decade, people didn’t have the luxury of sitting this fight out. Life for Blacks had become all about defending your territory.


“Despite crime and incarceration, gangs have also had a positive impact in the community. Gang-rooted isn’t always a bad thing.”

The Black Panther Party hit L.A. when the leader of The Slausons, a local street gang, headed up the city’s chapter in 1968. Like the organization as a whole, their top priority (perhaps more than education, employment, and freedom) was the protection of the Black community. Unfortunately, with that pursuit came turmoil.

The end of the Civil Rights movement saw a decline in the activity and effectiveness of the Black Panthers, who’d lost many of their leaders to the cause by then. It was during this period, the 70's, that Black gangs like the Bloods and Crips, stole the scene. This time, though, they had no one to fight but themselves.

As it always was, gang activity remained a cultural movement in the city, claiming thousands of lives and minds along the way.

“I remember seeing my teammate on the news talking about his brother being killed when I was ten years old. By the time I was 12 we were getting pressed at the mall ‘what set you claim, where you from?’ type shit. I learned early to always wear neutral colors.”

The thing about gangs and violence is that they go hand-in-hand. You live by it and you die by it. So even after Blacks took residence in all-Black neighborhoods, their guards were still up. As long as there was something to protect, there would be something to fight for. The blurred line between offense and defense in the protection of the places we call home would plague Blacks in the city for years after the Migration would end.

The 80’s saw crack cocaine start in South Central L.A., before spreading all over the country. Just as addictive as the drug itself, the fast money it provided to hustlers only amped up the already fierce violence within the city as the local gangs controlled the market.

And, with no white residents to fight and deadly poison in our hands, our community disintegrated. The children of the migration were letting the freedoms that their previous generations so desperately sought after slip right through their fingers.


When you mix gangs, violence, and drugs, police usually follow — and that’s what the 90’s came to be defined by. Police brutality was always a prevalent theme of the Migration, but in L.A. during the 90’s, it was broadcasted in way that made it everyone’s pain.

Black creators took to entertainment avenues like music and movies to expose the ills of living and dying in L.A., telling the stories that needed to be told. So, by the time the Rodney King tapes burst on the scene, it was the final straw. The city would riot again in 1992 resulting in almost 2,500 killings and injuries, most of them Black. It went down as “one of the most-devastating civil disruptions in American history.”

It seemed like as the conditions of L.A.’s neighborhoods worsened, so did our relationship with police everywhere. Depending on who you asked, young Black Americans were either the causeless aggressors or the helpless victims to the twisted system. However, one thing was made certain: they were not safe.


It’s hard to win when you’re in between a rock and a hard place like that.


To this day, it’s almost impossible to grow up there and not be exposed to the effects decades of gang culture has had on your family and friends. However, even with all of that said, the history of positive impact of local gangs is very much a reality.

“Sports camps, after school programs, prevention centers…. OGs a lot of times fund these things to keep the youth positively engaged. Look at Snoop’s Pop Warner program, or cats like Big U or Nipsey Hussle. They’re giving back to the community and providing opportunities to the youth.”

In many ways, LA was the combination of all of the worst elements of the Great Migration wrapped into one. When segregation combines with urban decay, an extreme pride in protecting where you’re from naturally arises. When we look at places like Watts, Compton, and South Central, we see Black spaces that people learned to die to protect, even if it was from people that looked just like them.

Just like any group of people that have ever lived in Los Angeles, we were living in search of something worth dying for.


“The distrust for the police was heightened here. A lot of Black people have actually left. It’s not that many of us here it feels like. Honestly.”

In the years since the migration ended, they’ve seen almost as many Black people leave the city as have come to it.

As soon as they arrived from the Midwest, the Northeast, Texas or Louisiana, they had to fight. They took a city that was never ready for them to show up in the first place, and fought for their right to live there.

And they lived it alright, even if it killed them — and that, in many ways, is the overarching story of the Great Migration.

L.A. will always be a special place to Black America. It’s thick with the heavenly spirits of it’s fallen soldiers; forever living up to its name: the city of angels.

The sun was rising, and Gaven and Weezy were both still rapping. I think it was Tha Drought 3. I guess he wasn’t lying when he said he’d grown up around a bunch of Louisianans. I was beat and he could see the EST in my eyes as I dapped him up and got out the car.

“Get some sleep bro, I’ll be here when you get back.”

Hold it down, Gav. Hold it down!

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My thoughts from the worlds of Music, History, Poetry, and Culture. For lack of a wetter bird, I can show you better than I can tell you.

Atlanta, GA

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