Ronnie Polkingham's half sister was a woman named Debbie. As a young woman she was slim, attractive and carefree, playing in a band with her lover Bruce in Missouri, USA. But her free-spirited life took a twist when she fell pregnant at 18, gave birth to her first son and predictably, Bruce left. Her beauty and innocence began to fade behind the mask of smoke, struggles with mental health and financial hardship.
As a single mother on the poverty line, she brought her son up in a predominantly black neighbourhood as one of only three white families on their block. The threat of violence was inevitable and became more than a threat on multiple occasions, including an assault that lead to her son suffering a serious head injury.
As well as being a victim of bullying, her boy was a regular truant and often fought with Debbie in their volatile household, attracting the attention of social services. It was no surprise that he became a loner and with little interest in High School, he found comfort and ambition in the world of comic books. He escaped real life, diving into the magic of storytelling and decided to become a comic book artist.
That was until Uncle Ronnie turned up at his home holding in his hands a gift. The gift of hip hop.
Hip hop continues to be huge part of global pop culture, originating from the black ghettos of 1970s and 1980s America. Then, hip hop was a small scene, giving a voice to frustrated, angry young African Americans and Latinos living in marginalised communities and low income areas. Actually it took years of block parties in the Bronx, New York before a recording was actually made and many music critics of the early 80s predicted hip hop would fizzle out.
Hip hop did not fizzle out. Quite the opposite.
Uncle Ronnie's gift was a vinyl record; the track was called 'Reckless' by The Glove and Dave Storrs, whom most of us have never heard of. But the track also featured a rapper who was little-known at the time, called Tracy Lauren Marrow. Another forgettable name, but presumably why he chose the stage name Ice-T.
The gesture was a small one, costing a little over $2. But Ronnie could not possibly have predicted that his modest kindness would trigger the start of a musical revolution.
His nephew had never heard anything like it. He played it over and again. Maybe it was the lyrics, the rapper's attitude and what he stood for; only the boy really knows. But it opened the door to a new world of creativity and possibility.
Despite the violence, dropping out of school and being kicked out of home on multiple occasions the troubled teen found solace in the underground music scene in his new home city of Detroit, pursuing his new dream of becoming a rapper, just like Ice-T.
The boy's name was Marshall Bruce Mathers III and under the stage name Eminem, he became the biggest selling rapper of all time. Despite criticism for backing a white rapper, Dr Dre who signed him to Aftermath Records reportedly said "I don't give a fuck if you're purple; if you can kick it, I'm working with you."
Eminem certainly kicked it. Some 220 million records later, neither Kanye or Jay Z have come close to matching these sales and despite Spotify not existing at the height of his success, Eminem still boasts 36 million listeners on the platform.
Marshall Bruce Mathers III had two gifts. The first was the gift of struggle. The violence, poverty and hardships gave him the narrative, the neighbourhood a platform and his skin colour made it harder. The struggle was the fuel and it showed up as pain, distress, sadness, frustration, anger, despair, hardship, fear and no doubt much more.
The second gift was from Uncle Ronnie. The gift of inspiration from someone he trusted. Let's call this the spark.
(Struggle + Inspiration) + Environment = Superpower
Or written differently: (Fuel + Spark) + Oxygen = Fire
Heathrow Airport, London circa 1991
The British Airways 747 direct from Bombay (now Mumbai) landed a few minutes ahead of time, which was the worst of circumstances for Charlie. An extra twenty minutes to gather himself and recover from the effects would have been helpful.
Smoking had not yet been banned on all flights, but as it wasn't tobacco he was smoking, he felt it was both polite and sensible to leave the cabin and head to the toilet for a smoke in private. Chasing dragons in public is still taboo in 2020, never mind 1991.
But this was not your average, garden variety heroin of the kind sold in £20 bags under railway arches, council flats and nightclubs - I am reliably told that the price has halved. This particular heroin was 100% pure and uncut. Charlie had been sleeping with about £100K worth of this powder underneath his pillow, at his digs somewhere east of Bombay for some two weeks. Up until this trip, which was his first abroad, he had never tried the stuff and had never particularly wanted to either. He'd been smoking and selling weed since he was 12, but now five years later, his curiosity to try harder drugs had been triggered by his new employer, Mr K.
Like many curious teenagers, Charlie wanted to find out what all the fuss was about for himself.
Five grand in cash is a lot of money to anybody. But if you are sixteen year old Sikh boy living in a council estate in White City, London in 1991 having been kicked out shortly before your 15th birthday with no qualifications, you have no job, no plans and a violent alcoholic father, the idea of smuggling a small package of innocent looking powder into the UK was not only an adventure, it was a no-brainer.
In fact it was for these reasons that Mr K recruited him. He would have done it for half the price of course, but didn't mention that to Mr K. Anyway back to Heathrow, specifically the green channel at terminal 2.
What you are about to read will sound like stupidity but trust me Charlie is no fool. He is very smart. Street smart. He was just a kid, on his trafficking apprenticeship and on a very steep learning curve at the school of survival. But he made two key mistakes. The first was not anticipating the significant weight loss caused by two weeks of daily heroin use. It meant that his clothing didn't fit him particularly well and even with his belt on the tightest notch, they kept falling down to his knees as he walked. Anyone behind him would have enjoyed a clear view of his pants (they were brown, he told me) as he shuffled his way to the entrance to the green channel. He drew attention to himself, albeit comically, but of course not ideal while smuggling class A drugs into a country.
His second mistake was a little worse. Charlie had smoked so much pure heroin on the flight he was still high by the time he reached Customs. Yes, smoking pure heroin had relieved the boredom of a long flight and the anxiety of approaching the finish line but unfortunately he now, not just a little stoned, but REALLY high; the falling asleep kind of really high.
Halfway along the green channel corridor, some 8 or 9 metres from the door to the arrivals hall, Charlie stopped innocently for a rest. He leaned against the wall and with a wave of tiredness, melted into the plasterboard and slid slowly to the floor. At the same time, so did his jeans. You would not need to be customs officer of the year to spot that a young man with the physique of an addict, his waistband at his knees and fading in and out of consciousness may be worth of further investigation. Charlie told me the only thing he really remembers was the Customs Officer summoning him in slow motion with blurred movements of his index finger.
I first met Charlie in 2008. After spending most of his adult life involved in crime, and having lost at least ten years of it to heroin addiction it was fascinating to learn from him how he got himself clean of all drugs and alcohol, attended the gym regularly and managed to get a BA in fine art (2:1 with honours). Pretty impressive for a dyslexic addict ex-con with no qualifications. His life was fully back on track.
Also, his art was outstanding. Challenging, but outstanding. He had a unique view of the world and a real talent for expression. He offered an insight into the darkest parts of humanity. This man really has been to hell and back several times, but had begun to see that his extraordinary life and adversity could be his superpower.
Through his art he was able to he was able to tell people the truth about what he'd seen. His passion was for taboo subjects of abuse, addiction and the reality of growing up surrounded by drugs and violence out in the open to start conversations, rather than be hidden behind closed doors and whispers.
He's not answering my messages but we will make a cracking movie when he does.
CEO & Co-founder of the PopUp Business School.