Born and raised on the mean streets of New Jersey, Mutah Wassin Shabazz Beale was only 3 years old when his Muslim parents were murdered in front of him. Brought up by his grandmother he followed in the footsteps of his cousin and older brother and took to selling drugs out on the streets to earn a living. After getting arrested on his first day out on the block he decided to try and find another hustle, another way to make money, so he turned to writing raps.
After travelling to L.A. he was introduced to Tupac Shakur who asked him to join his rap group Outlawz as ‘Napoleon’. Alongside the other Outlawz - which included Kadafi, Kastro, EDI and Hussein - Napoleon appeared on over 40 million records sold worldwide.
The success bought with it all the ‘luxuries’ associated with makin it big in the rap industry. He lived the extravagant lifestyle, but the fast life wasn’t all it had been made out to be. Despite having everything money could buy; several houses, flash cars, jewellery and fame, he felt empty inside and longed for happiness. He looked for it in women, drugs and alcohol but couldn’t find that inner peace. Experimenting with drugs left him depressed and paranoid. Mad at the world and always liquored up he was a very angry man in a dangerous state of mind.
It was the gangster life associated with the rap industry that saw his close friend Tupac shot 13 times. The death of his mentor and role model hit Napoleon hard. The ‘Thug Life’ that Tupac lived, and glorified in his music, and even had tattooed on his stomach, is what killed him.
Napoleon says it was after reading an English translation of the Quran that he realised that was what was going to save him. Having spent a lot of time with Tupac, who he describes as a genius when it came to writing poetry, he says he was touched by the words of the Quran, which he knew no man could ever have been capable of writing. He says the more he read about Islam the more he realised this religion made sense.
After a successful rap career spanning over a decade, he embraced Islam in 2002 and gave up his life of music, drugs and gangsterism. Napoleon now travels the world talking about the realities of the rap lifestyle. He has led the life many young people think they want to live... and he tells it like it really is.
The Revival caught up with Napoleon to talk about his life so far...
What did you know about Islam when you were a young kid growing up?
I didn't know too much about Islam, I knew my parents was Muslim and I heard about the Qu'ran and that was it.
How important were your friends in the choices that you made when you were young?
My friends had a role in my decisions due to the fact of peer pressure and as kids we often follow each other.
Growing up, who were your role models, who did you look up to?
My role models was street people, gangsters, because this lifestyle was easy for me to relate to.
Has this changed since you’ve started practising Islam? Do you have different role models now?
Of course, as a Muslim my role model is the Prophet (peace be upon him), also his companions (may Allah be pleased with them) and the early righteous Muslims, and may Allah make me like them.
How did you meet Tupac Shakur?
I got involved into music and rap and knew a childhood friend Kadafi who was also into rapping and music; his half-brother was Tupac. His mum introduced me to Tupac and soon I started working with Tupac.
How old were you when you hit the big times with Tupac?
I was about 17 when we were in L.A. and Tupac signed a record deal with Death Row Records. After that I got involved in a lot of crazy stuff. It's this rapping lifestyle that took the life of Tupac Shakur.
What effect did Tupac's death have on your life?
He was like a brother and a father to me. He was only 25 when he was killed. My grandmother died shortly before Tupac's death. Soon after my brother committed suicide, then my cousin died and then Tupac's brother Kadafi was also murdered. I said to myself that everyone close to me is dying and it made me look at my life more seriously.
So how did you change and get away from the gangster lifestyle?
One day I was in the recording studio and I got involved in a stupid fight with my brother, I ended up putting him in hospital and they had to close his head with staples. I had so much anger that I then went out in the car park and started smashing a car. A stranger came to me and asked me to calm down and just started talking to me. He said that he was a Muslim and I told him that I was as well... even though I didn't know anything about Islam. As I got to know the brother he kept inviting me to the Jummah prayer. I went to one Jummah prayer and what struck me at the mosque was that the brothers there had such good character.
So did going to the mosque begin the start of the change for you?
When I put my head on the floor in salaah I felt some kind of peace that I can’t explain. I ran home and watched the Malcolm X movie. I then decided to go to Hajj and there I bumped into an old friend who I used to hang around with on the streets. He talked a lot of sense and also taught me about the rites of Hajj and so on. When I came from Hajj I can remember this feeling I had. I had never felt like this before. No drugs or alcohol ever gave me this feeling. But slowly the feeling went away because I was hanging around with the wrong people. Soon I found good brothers and I left the music industry – it's the tool of the shaytan. In America all gangsters are running to Islam, but today we have born Muslims going towards gangsterism! It doesn't make sense man.
What effect did reading the Qu’ran have on you?
The brother I met in the car park that day gave me the English translation of the Qu’ran. Even though it was an English translation, I knew for a fact that this book cannot be written by a man, no doubt about it. The words that I was reading a man could never ever come up, a man can never put sentences together and talk and speak like this. I was around poets, people like Tupac, so I know what people are capable of writing, but when I read the Qu’ran I said this had to be from the Creator of the Heavens and the Earth. Every question that I had about life it was in the book of the Qu’ran.
If you could pinpoint one moment in your life that made you stop what you were doing and turn back to Islam, what would it be?
It was the way I was living - I was almost like an animal. The more money I made the less happy I would feel. I started searching for peace and happiness and alhamdulillah only Islam can give you tranquility and success in this life and the next.
The rap lifestyle is portrayed as really glamorous. Rap stars seem to have it all with all their ice, cribs, fast cars and fast women. Is it really like this?
To be honest yes and this is all they have, while we as Muslims have Islam, alhamdulillah. The rap lifestyle doesn't make you happy, a human being can never be truly happy unless they know who their Creator is.
How do you think famous rappers who glorify violence and drugs feel about the way young people are influenced by them and try to imitate them?
I can talk from experience that I never even once thought about how my music influenced the people, most rappers make music to make money and don't care what happens after that.
What do you feel Islam has added to your life since embracing it? How have you changed as a person?
Islam alhamdulillah brings order, peace, happiness and much more to my life. As a person I changed with the permission of Allah for the better. Before Islam I had no respect for myself or no one else, I had no respect for women, it wasn't until I became Muslim it taught me that others have rights over me and it opened my eyes to how a woman is supposed to be treated.
Did you face any difficulties, for example in giving up some of the ‘haram’ parts of your life?
It's an everyday struggle with myself since I became Muslim, because nobody is perfect, once you get over one thing you will notice some more evil within yourself that we have to overcome by the permission of Allah. Giving up the haram was a struggle and by the mercy of Allah I was guided away from that lifestyle.
What would be your answer to someone who says: “It’s ok for you; you’ve had your fun. I’ll start practising and stuff when I get a bit older”?
My answer will be we don't know if we will live to be older, we don't know when we will die and be sitting in our graves. Allah says in the Quran ‘Every soul shall taste death’. Every single one of us is gonna die, we just don’t know when we gonna die, nobody lives forever. Death does not have an age on it. Most people think only old people die, most people think I’m gonna change my life when I’m 50 years old, man we don’t even know if we will live for 5 more minutes.
Islam, and Muslims, seem to be constantly under attack from governments, the media and other parts of society. Many young Muslims are struggling with their identity. What do you think is the best way to deal with this is?
I think as Muslims we have to return back to our religion, the scholars continue to tell us this, Allah says ‘Whatever evil befalls you is due to what your own hands put forth’, so as Muslims we have nobody to blame but ourselves. We need to check ourselves and ask ourselves how far away are we from practicing Islam.
What keeps you steadfast and motivated when you are feeling low?
Alhamdulillah all guidance is from Allah, what helps me is staying around Muslims who fear Allah, also whenever I feel low then I blame myself and ask myself what am I doing wrong.