A lyrical conversion to Islam for former rappers
Standing outside the Bahiya villa of his in-laws in Abu Dhabi, Mutah Wassin Shabazz Beale says it has been a long journey from the streets of New Jersey and the glamorous music life in Los Angeles.
But peering out to the sea, he realises the UAE is giving him something other countries can't, hence his many visits to the country.
"Coming here, man, I get a sense of reflection," he says. "To spend time with family gives me some balance that I wouldn't find in many places. It's always great to be here."
But his latest visit to the UAE is not all rest. Last week he spoke to a capacity crowd at Dubai's Jumeirah Islamic Center about his former life in the music industry and his journey towards Islam. Tomorrow night, a fellow former rapper who has also converted to Islam, Amir Junaid Muhadith, who also goes by the name Amir Hawkins, will tell his story in Dubai.
Both artists prove that faith can sometimes seep into the hardest of hearts and turn someone's life around.
Formerly a member of Sean "Puffy" Combs's Bad Boy Records, Muhadith - who went by the rap name Loon - recorded tracks with Combs, Usher and Lenny Kravitz. He had fame, fortune, fast cars, diamonds and women, but something was missing and he couldn't quite put his finger on it.
It was a trip to Senegal that began Muhadith's spiritual enlightenment and paved the way for him to leave the world of hip-hop.
"I went on a generic tour of the slave houses there," he says. "The guide explained that 60 million had passed through those houses to slavery, but six million never made it off that soil. They were Muslims. They wouldn't submit to anything but Allah. They refused to submit to man. They fought and died for their belief. That connected me with something missing in my life. It got me thinking."
And then on a 2008 trip to the UAE, Muhadith was impressed by a broader image of Muslims and was drawn to the variety of ethnicities.
But it was hearing the call to prayer in Dubai that stopped him in his tracks.
"In the rap music world we made music that made people move, release themselves, but the call to prayer made people stop," he says.
"I asked what was the purpose of this sound. I was fascinated. Then in Abu Dhabi while I was at the Emirates Palace I saw the sun rise and heard the call to prayer again and realised that I had never paid any attention to creation. Something changed in my heart. Words couldn't describe it."
Muhadith describes how he had a sudden urge to run out of his suite down to the hotel's plush lobby where he stopped the first Muslim he could find.
"I grabbed him and asked him how I could be a Muslim," he recalls. "The man looked at me like I was crazy. But then he realised I was serious. He said to raise my right hand and say 'La Illaha Ila Allah'. [There is no God but Allah]. That's when I looked at him like he was crazy. That's all I had to do to become a Muslim? He said that it was that simple. So I said, 'La Illaha Ila Allah'."
Soon after, Muhadith had his conversion confirmed in the US and he acquired a copy of Kitab-ut-Tauhid to learn more about Islam.
Beale's journey was different, though. Best known to gangsta hip-hop fans as a member of the rapper Tupac Shakur's crew the Outlawz, he tread a path to faith that was marred with hostility.
Beale recalls the first time he entered a mosque in 2001, arriving with his own congregation of pistol-packing thugs with vengeance on their minds. At the time, his own fury ran deep. His parents had been gunned down by members of the American religious sect Nation of Islam when Beale was only three.
Scarred from the loss and struggling with alcoholism, it was a hip-hop producer friend of Beale's who invited him to the mosque to witness a prayer.
Upon seeing Islamic worship in its true form and the multiracial worshippers there, he was struck with a sense of brotherhood he couldn't find among petty criminals and the flaky music world.
That said, it was through the music world that Beale had amassed a sizeable fortune. Throughout his career he produced solo recordings, group efforts with the Outlawz as well as featuring in some of Tupac's most seminal tracks.
"I already had three houses, brand-new cars, I had jewellery. The first cheque I ever received, I was maybe 18 years old, was for more than $150,000 American dollars [Dh551,000], and this wasn't even the money I was getting from tour," he says.
"But at this time of my life I wasn't happy, so I went searching for happiness."
Beale's journey included a trip to Puerto Rico to visit his heritage, but it was in the mosque prayer halls that he felt the stirrings of family.
"That was the first time I saw something I never seen before," he says. "It was sincere brotherhood that you couldn't get from the streets or the music industry."
Growing up in the crime-riddled streets of Irvington, New Jersey, Beale's ability to express himself was key to his survival. He recalls first penning prose in his early teenage years as a way of tempering his anger.
"The first song I ever wrote was called Money and Murder," he says. "Once I heard my voice on the record I said this what I wanted to do, and I wanted to dedicate my life to this and no matter what, I had to make it. "
However, without the backing of labels, or an agent, it was on street corners where Beale first made his mark as a performer.
"Back in the day it wasn't like now, where everybody wanted to be a rap artist," he says.
"In my neighbourhood I was a star because nobody was doing what I was doing, so I would walk outside the block and drug dealers would see me and they would pay me to rap for them."
Eventually, Tupac heard of his struggles and took Beale under his wing. To enhance the Outlawz's lawless image, Tupac christened each member with a name of a famous tyrant, hence Beale's stage name, Napoleon.
Despite the rising record sales and the growth from club shows to stadiums, it wasn't until Napoleon joined Tupac on a small shopping trip in Los Angeles that he realised just how big a star the rapper was.
"I knew it was real when I first walked into the mall with him and I saw the whole mall shut down with screaming. People had to close the stores because so many people wanted to say hi to this individual," he laughs.
Beale describes Tupac's violent death in 1996 as akin to losing "a father figure or a big brother". The loss triggered a slide into alcoholism for Beale that he says was curbed only after he embraced Islam.
Both Muhadith and Beale say that quitting the music industry has been necessary for their faith to fully flourish.
"The glorification of the music business is exaggerated to glorify the lifestyle," says Muhadith. "But the reality is there are a lot of things you can't purchase, like love and true happiness. It was a stepping stone to where I am today. That lifestyle has no value to me now. It was all material."
Beale initially resisted the urge to put down the mic until months after returning from his first Haj.
Beale says his new public-speaking career, which has seen him appear at universities, mosques and community centres across Europe, Middle East and Australia, has been more rewarding than rap.
Both men, who are joining forces for a public-speaking tour in Jordan next month, say they would never rap about their faith. (Unlike a new generation of performers who do).
"There are greater ways to teach people about Islam than by rapping. Music is not halal," Muhadith says. "Abu Bakr, Omar, Uthman, and Ali, the four rightly guided Khalifas, weren't in a band. Abu Bakr wasn't a drummer and Omar wasn't a rapper. Whatever they did we have to do and whatever they left alone, we must leave alone."
Muhadith, who will speak at the Dubai Department of Tourism and Commerce Marketing (DTCM) headquarters in Al Awer at 10pm tomorrow, is currently working on his memoir, From Harlem to the Haram. A documentary on Beale, Napoleon: Life of an Outlaw, will be released later this year. To see a video of Beale visit www.thenational.ae/multimedia.
Published: August 11, 2011 04:00 AM