SOUTH LOS ANGELES — Eugene “Big U” Henley is a man on a mission.
A former gang member, he realized after 13 years in prison that gangs and drugs were luring many of the youth in South Los Angeles down the wrong path and that an organization needed to be established to offer youth an alternative to the streets.
“I wanted to be part of the solution and not the problem,” Henley recalls.
In 2004, Henley founded the nonprofit Developing Options, which offers the youth of the 77th Police Station’s Gang Reduction and Youth Development zone mentorship, education, tutoring and sports programs as well as a nurturing and wholesome environment that Henley never experienced while he was growing up.
One of the young people whose lives Henley touched was Nipsey Hussle, the former Crips gang member who became a rap star, who also was giving back to his community before he was gunned down outside his Marathon clothing store on Crenshaw Boulevard and Slauson Avenue last March 31.
Henley, 53, founded Unique Music, and once managed Hussle, a fellow Crips member. Right from the start, Henley said that Hussle’s rapping and songwriting skills were exceptional.
“After I got out of prison, I wanted to find my own artist to start Unique Music,” Henley same. “And my nephew, LaMark Saunders, told me to go find Nipsey. He told me Nipsey was the hottest rap homie in the ’hood. I went and started looking for Nipsey and I eventually met him. He came and found me at my cousin Mark Martin’s studio and we started talking around 2005.
“Nipsey was a happy guy, a hustler, and an all-around good guy,” Henley said. “He was very focused and driven towards what he wanted to do. He really wanted to learn the music industry. When I met him, he was only 18 or 19 years old.”
Hussle got his start in the music business selling his own mix tapes from the trunk of his car.
He eventually recorded his first studio album in 2018. “Victory Lap” sold 53,000 copies in its first week and he was nominated for Best Rap Album at the 2019 Grammy Awards.
Hussle went on to emerge as a community hero, giving the formerly incarcerated jobs at his Marathon clothing store, funding school improvements for local schools and founding a communal work space called Vector 90, where local business owners and entrepreneurs gathered to exchange ideas. Hussle also wanted Vector to be a meeting place for local youths to take classes in mathematics, science and technology.
Henley’s organization presented Hussle with an award during the first Developing Options Youth Banquet in 2018 for his work in the community.
“I remembered that Nipsey was very touched because it was the first award he had ever received,” said Henley, who said he also gave out awards to rappers to T.I. and Wiz Khalifa, a staunch supporter of Developing Options.
A few days before he was to meet with the Los Angeles Police Commission last year to discuss alternative solutions to gangs, Hussle began receiving death threats. Undercover police were assigned to patrol Hussle’s video shoot after the threat was revealed.
“Having strong enemies is a blessing,” Hustle stated after hearing the news.
Henley said he was shocked and devastated after hearing that the rapper, whose real name was Ermias Joseph Ashedom, was gunned down in front of his clothing store by a gang member March 31, 2019, at the age of 33.
“I still can’t believe he’s gone,” said Henley, who sadly reflected on the anniversary of his death.
In remembrance of Hussle and in an effort to bring the gangs together, Henley helped to organize a peace walk on April 6, 2019.
“We had a meeting with neighbors on every block, neighborhood and corner to stand together against violence. Everyone was unified. It went on for a couple of days,” Henley said.
Like Hussle, Henley’s Developing Options has emerged as a welcome oasis for youths seeking a refuge from the streets.
“Right now, we’re putting up a laboratory equipped with six computers for the kids since schools are currently shut down,” Henley.
During his years in prison, Henley was confined to solitary confinement for nearly four years. He had no one to talk to and battled daily to keep his sanity.
“I wouldn’t wish solitary confinement on even my worst enemy,” he said, adding that several of his fellow inmates went crazy in “the hole” within six months.
He reflected on the violence connected with running around in the streets, adding that he was shot seven times as a young man but miraculously survived.
Now he runs an organization that offers job training and placement, food and clothing programs, as well as an annual community health and safety awareness event that provides everything from dental care to massages.
His organization also coaches and offers training for the Crenshaw Rams Youth Football and Cheerleading squad geared towards youth ages 5 to 13.
“We help the students to excel while creating options to obtain college scholarships,” he said.
As for gang violence, Henley said that the numbers continue to drop.
“We work closely with the city to help curtail gang violence,” he said. “It is gratifying to give options to the kids to do better. I really want to be known as a person who helps the community.”