To tell his story of a life lived perilously on the edge and then regained, rapper-turned-motivational speaker Mutah Beale chooses a rather sombre starting point: the gruesome death of his parents.
“My parents were murdered when I was three,” he says at the beginning of the film Napoleon: Life of an Outlaw.
But while death and loss may be overriding themes, the ultimate message of the documentary is that of positivity, of rebirth and second chances. It’s an inspirational and intimate look at the troubled life of a man, who, in his prime, worked closely with rap’s biggest icon, Tupac Shakur, gained fame and fortune and then gave it all up when he found Islam.
“Sometimes it’s important to go back to inspire and educate people,” says Beale, who was recently in Dubai to promote the film.
“I had to walk a thin line. You don’t want to expose too much of your past and I didn’t want to seem like I was glorifying that lifestyle. But at the same time, I wanted my message to go through.”
Beale’s message, that it is possible to turn your life around no matter how far you’ve veered away, is told through his own account and testimonies from his family and close friends in the 60-minute film that also features never-before-seen footage of the late Shakur.
Starting with the murder of his parents followed by a life of drugs and violence on the streets of New Jersey, the film traces his rise to fame as a member of Shakur’s Outlawz and his eventual disillusionment.
Making the film was not easy, says Beale, now 34 and based in Saudi Arabia. “But it was also like therapy for me, because I was able to bring a lot of family and old friends into it.
“I was able to find out things that I didn’t know about before, things about the death of my parents, for instance. So for me, it was like a burden was lifted off me.
“At the beginning, I was hesitant. I didn’t really feel like I had the time or interest. I thought it might not even be worth it, so I brushed it off. But Jonathan [Abdilla, writer and director] kept in touch with me over time and persuaded me to do it.”
Beale’s parents were shot dead in front of him and his older brother by people hired by a close family friend who’d borrowed money from his diamond dealer father. He was just three; his brother, four. Adopted by his grandmother, he was soon introduced to a life of drugs and violence, flitting many times over between jail and the streets. During those desperate times, he wrote poems as a form expression, and began to rap.
It was a chance encounter with Shakur in the ’80s through a childhood friend which turned Beale’s life around. Shakur, already an established rapper, was deeply affected by his life story and took him into his fold. Soon, the 10-member Outlawz was born and Beale adopted the name Napoleon.
“I was involved with the best to date as far as hip-hop is concerned and there was nobody better than Tupac. I appeared in over $40 million (Dh146.88 million) record sales worldwide,” Beale recalls.
But as he soon discovered, fame and fortune didn’t necessarily bring happiness.
“When I started to make a lot of money, I started to believe that was all I could achieve. But the more I depended on it for my happiness, the more depressed I became. I was putting all my energy into getting the materialistic things.”
The death of his grandmother, followed by Shakur’s murder in 1996, drove him deeper into depression. But it was the death of his childhood friend and Outlawz member Yaki Kadafi three months later that proved a turning point. Kadafi was shot by Beale’s cousin in an alleged drug-fuelled haze.
“I got to a point in my life where I didn’t even want to live anymore. There was no reason,” says Beale. “I started drinking every day and got into fights regularly.”
Following Shakur’s death, the Outlawz began to disintegrate. The remaining members, including Beale, then went back to the studio in the hopes of cashing in on their remaining fame. One recording session would prove a life-changing experience for Beale.
“We were in the studio and I was intoxicated as usual and got into a fight with my little brother. There was this Muslim brother in the studio who broke us up and asked me: ‘Do you realise that blood on the floor is your brother’s? That means it’s your father’s blood and your mother’s blood.’”
Deeply affected by the conversation, Beale and record producer Mikal Kamil soon struck up a friendship.
“He would call me every day and invite me to the masjid [mosque]. At first I didn’t really have any understanding of Islam and I didn’t really care about any religion. But this guy was so nice and the way he came at me,” he says.
“So I accepted his invitation and went to the mosque. What I saw in the mosque at that time affected me: There were simple people. They didn’t seem like they had money. But they were very happy. And at that point in my life, all I wanted was happiness. So I started to get more curious.
“Eventually this brother gave me the English translation of the Quran. I took it home, started to read and couldn’t even close the book after that. Then I knew that this was what I needed in my life in order to get that happiness and peace. I knew that I needed to submit to The One who created me and after that I accepted Islam, alhamdulillah.”
But with newfound peace soon came the challenges.
“It was easy to accept Islam once I knew it was from The One who created me. What was hard was trying to walk away from the life I was used to living. Because it was such an extreme way of life, to all of a sudden find out the way that I was living my life was wrong and know that I had to change it, of course it took some trouble. “I lost a lot of friends. People thought I was crazy.”
But adopting a new way of life is a challenge any [believer] will face, says Beale.
“Even now, there are always things to struggle with. It’s not that you become a Muslim and everything becomes perfect. As an individual you make one step and there might me another test,” he says.
“Eventually, my family and brothers from the Outlawz started to see that this was something I was serious about and that it eventually changed my life, they started understanding and became supportive.”
Still, Beale found out just walking away was not enough. He had to make a 180-degree turn.
“I went to Haj to Saudi Arabia three months after I accepted Islam. The Outlawz were on tour and the plan was that as soon as I came back from the Haj, I would join them in whichever city they were at. But when I came back, I couldn’t see myself going back to that lifestyle. So I called them up and I told them I wasn’t coming back and that I was going to walk away from it all.
“I hadn’t made up my mind that I was going to completely leave the industry. My mind was made up that I didn’t want to be involved in that kind of music any more. So I tried to do your so-called positive music. I did a whole album with no cuss words and tried to make a clean album.
“But the sad part about the music industry is that it doesn’t support that type of music. It was difficult. Still being in the industry meant I had to mix with the same people, the same mentality. I had to get out. I had to leave it all behind.”
And he did. Beale today travels the world as a motivational speaker, sharing his past experiences. He moved to Saudi Arabia last year where he now lives with his wife and children.
He hopes his film will inspire people.
“Nothing is made up, it’s straight up about my life. I want the people, especially in this region, to know that they have it good, they don’t have to follow the Western lifestyle to try to be famous or get happiness. They should stick to their own culture,” he says.