Miami team

Oct. 27, 2022

Finding a sense of home where I didn’t expect, just when I needed it

Vu Nguyen (left) and Jesse Phouangphet outside their shop in Kansas City, Mo.
Vu Nguyen (left) and Jesse Phouangphet outside their shop in Kansas City, Mo. (Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff)

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — I almost never have a clear plan mapped out before I get on a plane. I know where I’m supposed to be going and some idea of when the flight’s supposed to board. Beyond that, I just hope I land safely and get to see something cool and spend time with people I care about.

But sometimes — when I’m lucky — I find myself in a place I didn’t plan to visit, receiving a gift I didn’t expect.

I know because that’s what happened to me at a streetwear shop, of all things, in downtown Kansas City, of all places.

The mural outside Made Mobb is what caught my eye from the car. What did Nipsey Hussle, the late rapper from Los Angeles, have to do with this place?

Then I thought about it. Hussle was an LA rapper, sure. One who had finally reached the heights he’d been chasing for years, from hits like “Slauson” all the way to his 2018 Grammy nomination. But in his music and his Proud 2 Pay campaign — focused on economic and creative empowerment — he had an even bigger message: Want more for yourself, for your family, for your community. Make other people want more, too.

Hussle was murdered in 2019, in front of his own clothing store, but his message endures. It’s what led this store’s founders, Jesse Phouangphet and Vu Nguyen, to put up their mural outside. And similar feelings are what inspired the two men — first-generation American sons of immigrants from Laos and Vietnam — to launch their business in 2013, at a time when few others might have expected it to thrive here.

I didn’t know any of that as I stood outside. But the mural was practically a “Welcome” sign for me, at a moment I needed to feel welcomed.

The day before the four teams on this Globe project flew to Kansas City, I was a wreck — and I was afraid. Afraid of driving through the South, even though I grew up in Virginia. Afraid I might get pulled over in my rental car, because I’m a Black man in America and it wouldn’t be the first time. Afraid I might not make it back home at all.

Made Mobb might’ve been a clothing store, but it felt like a safe haven. When I stepped inside, the people there felt like people I knew.

Jesse Phouangphet displayed a shirt from the Made Mobb store.
Jesse Phouangphet displayed a shirt from the Made Mobb store. (Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff)

Phouangphet told me how they were known for their simple but stylish Kansas City shirts — and their custom Chiefs gear — but this year they were intentional about exploring more, about using fashion to send messages people needed to hear. “Protect Your Mental Health. Peace Is Priceless,” read one. Another, “Give Your People Flowers While They’re Here,” was pretty much a mission statement.

The material of the shirts, like the messages, had weight.

I knew why their brand connected with me, but I still wondered how it connected with the city.

Phouangphet told me they had to build more than a clothing company. They had to build a community. The only way to do that was to believe in it, then get down to building it.

They also told me their stories. After the Vietnam War, Nguyen’s family immigrated from Vietnam and Phouangphet’s from Laos, refugees in search of something better. Both men carry with them gratitude for the sacrifices of their families, which let them chase their own American dreams.

“How I see it is basically all the struggle they went through to get here is for opportunity,” Nguyen said. “As I grow older and think about what the [American] dream really is. For me, it’s just finding happiness and being able to find the opportunity to aim for that happiness.”

I appreciated their journey, their gratitude, their spirit. More than anything I appreciated their kindness. And I told them that. “Thanks for being a friendly face,” I said to Nguyen. I gave him a pound. They set out to build a community, and it feels to me like they’ve already accomplished that.

I felt safe. I felt welcomed. I felt better.

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