By Matt Ross
As a former member of Outlawz – the hip-hop group founded by the late Tupac Shakur – Mutah Beale has helped sell, he estimates, more than 40 million records. Today, however, you could pass Beale in the street and never guess that – in his previous guise as Napoleon – he was in the thick of the U.S.’s burgeoning hip-hop scene. Dressed in a simple thobe, Beale’s appearance is a long way from the bling-sporting, gun-toting days of his earlier career.
In 2002, Beale converted to Islam and in the years that followed he walked away from the music industry altogether, forging a career as a motivational speaker. Today he’s in Dubai to promote the release of his documentary, Napoleon: Life Of An Outlaw, which hits cinemas in July and DVD in September.
For the 34-year-old, the movie represented a chance to share a cautionary tale. It’s not, he insists, a means by which to extol the virtues of Islam. “We didn’t do the film in a religious form,” Beale says. “I did this movie because there are plenty of kids that are going through what I went through in the past and I wanted to show that, after my ups and my downs, what helped me at the end was Islam. I hope that people won’t feel like I’m trying to shove my religion down their throat.” Rather, Life Of An Outlaw was an opportunity to debunk many of the myths that surround the lifestyle Beale once embraced, and to share his belief that anybody, no matter how far they’ve fallen, can decide to turn their life around.
It would border on preaching, if it weren’t based on firsthand experience. Orphaned at an early age, Beale embraced rap as a means to vent his emotions. During the early stages of his career he met Shakur and joined the Outlawz, enjoying all the benefits that entailed. After Shakur’s shooting in 1996, Beale remained with the group, but though the Outlawz’s star continued to ascend, Shakur’s death – coupled with those of Beale’s grandmother and one of his childhood friends – saw him lose himself in a haze of drink and drugs. He became deeply angry, he says, and prone to outbursts of violence. During one altercation at the studio, Beale got into a fight with his younger brother that was so intense, bystanders were afraid to intervene. “When I get into one of those moods, I usually go all out,” says Beale. “I had a bad reputation and people were scared of me.” There was one man, however, who wasn’t afraid. Producer Mikal Kamil calmly approached Beale, asking him how he’d feel if he woke up tomorrow and he’d killed his sibling. For Beale, the manner in which Kamil broached the subject struck a chord. “He wasn’t coming to me pointing the finger,” says Beale. “It was almost like a therapy session. He was asking me questions – I had never been approached like that.” Kamil invited the rapper to a local mosque to learn more about Islam. Initially, Beale wasn’t convinced that was a good idea. “I was one of those guys that believed everything affiliated with Islam was bad. So when he called me to go to the mosque, I packed my gun. I called about 30 of my friends and we went up there.”
Though the change wasn’t instantaneous – during his first Ramadan, he mistakenly believed that as long as he fasted during the day, he could drink alcohol at night – Beale gradually embraced Islam. In 2002, he bowed out of an Outlawz tour to undertake the hajj to Saudi Arabia. “They felt like I had let them down,” Beale says. “We always screamed, ‘Outlawz forever,’ and all of a sudden I’m abandoning them.” After leaving the group, Beale recorded a solo album, but never released it. He quit drinking, drugs, and eventually music entirely – in line with his beliefs, Life Of An Outlaw contains only vocal arrangements, with no instruments. He began touring the world as a motivational speaker, putting a face that people would recognize to the pitfalls of his former lifestyle. Four years ago, Canadian filmmaker Jonathan Abdilla convinced Beale to make a movie, allowing the former rapper to share his message with a wider audience. “There’s a certain lifestyle, especially in rap music, that you have to keep up when you put this music up,” Beale says. “You sell records if you disrespect women, for example. It’s all about the money you have, the home you have, how far your pants sag, how much drugs you smoked last night.” That perception is what Beale hopes the movie can rectify. “[In the Middle East] you have a lot of youth that look up to the lifestyle that people like myself are running away from. The kids here pretty much have it good. But some of them would like to throw that away and rush toward a certain lifestyle – they have no idea of the troubles and the headaches that come with it.”
It’s the first of many projects Beale hopes to pursue with his newly founded production company. And key to his success, perverse as it might seem, is the status he once enjoyed. “I think that the main reason, to be honest, that most people come to see the film will be [the connection with Tupac]. If I wasn’t with him, if I wasn’t with the Outlawz, I’d just be a regular Joe Blow. There are people with stories much greater than mine, but the fact that I was connected with one of the greatest people in the music industry, that’s the edge I have.”