“Streets, Rhymes & ‘Sugar’” Details Michael Elliot’s Journey from Homelessness to HollywoodIn his new Audible Original, film writer and producer Michael Elliot spares no details in his incredible uphill battle to success.
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Abby West: I'm Audible Editor Abby West, and I'm joined today by the writer of so many beloved movies, like Brown Sugar, Just Wright, and Like Mike, also throwing in there Carmen: A Hip Hopera. He's also a serial entrepreneur who currently has a men's grooming company called Hammer & Nails with franchises all over. But today we're here to talk about his new Audible Original, Streets, Rhymes, & 'Sugar': A Hip Hop Memoir.
Michael Elliot: I'm glad to be here, Abby.
AW: Your memoir chronicles how you went from being homeless on the streets of Philadelphia to a successful Hollywood screenwriter and business entrepreneur. I will say that from the outset, what I expected was a good business memoir, and what you gave me is something that had me tearing up and crying because there was a level of transparency that is not very common in Hollywood. You talked about being homeless and your journey, but what led you to this level at this moment?
ME: Well, you know what, Abby? I've always felt like transparency was powerful. If only I knew the details behind some of these success stories that we hear about, some of those details would help me figure my own thing out, whatever that would be.
I've always been a big sort of proponent of just being transparent in general, as it relates to telling my story. That's because I want to help other people. I didn't want to do anything that's all about my wins in very general terms. I never had a silver spoon. I didn't go to college. I didn't get my high school diploma. I've had personal setbacks, I've been married, I've been divorced, I've made mistakes. And I just felt like if I'm going to tell my story, I want to do it in a very transparent way and include everything, the warts and all, because I felt like that was going to be the best way to inspire and help other people.
AW: We're of the same generation and I feel like a lot of us in this space are doing that big deep dive, soul search, look at ourselves, look at our journeys. But your level of really deep diving is so interesting to me. I have to ask, have you done therapy? Was that part of your journey to help you get here as well?
ME: Yes, I did. Over my life, there's been periods of time where I felt like I needed to sit with someone who could help me understand what I was feeling and what I was thinking. That sort of mental health component is something that I advocate, is something that I have done. There was a time when I was much younger and I had these goals of sort of changing my life. Changing my life looked like accomplishments—if I can read my name in the trades, if I could get a movie on the screen. I had all of these sort of superficial, very real, but in a way superficial goals.
I've always felt like transparency was powerful.
I just thought that if I can just achieve these things, I'll be happy. And then you get to live life and experience life. And to experience life means the ups and the downs, because that's what life is, it's the roller coaster.
In thinking about what's life for me, in what sort of inner peace and fulfillment would be for me, I had to think about my relationship with my mom, because that was the thing that colored my success in every way. The recurring elephant in the room was not forgiving my mother. And that was also part of figuring out what success in life for me was going to look like.
AW: It's no small part of it. That is a massively fundamental issue.
ME: Yeah. I think a lot of us, we go through life chasing success to prove something to someone. For me, my life felt like a movie in a lot of ways. I know what it's like to have only met my biological father three times in my entire life. The first time I saw my biological father, I was like 16 years old on a bus. I saw a man waiting on the corner that just looked like me in the future. That turned out to be my biological father. I know what it's like to walk down a street like South Street in Philly and one Friday night I was with a friend and I'm looking at this store. It's kind of like a 7-Eleven, but in Philly it was called Wawa. And there was a homeless man with a cup begging for change. I look at this man and he looks familiar and I walk over and I have a conversation with him. I come back to my friend and my friend is like, "Who's that?" I was like, "That was my father."
I never had a silver spoon. I didn't go to college. I didn't get my high school diploma. I've had personal setbacks, I've been married, I've been divorced, I've made mistakes.
My point is that, imagine you grow up—and we've all done it, we've all had these types of stories—but I have these moments where I had a biological father who chose not to know me and I got to see that man homeless and I was homeless. That has nothing to do with my mom. That's just another person that subconsciously I wanted to prove something to, that I was worthy, that I was extraordinary, that I was special, that I was valued.
I just encourage other people. I'm hoping that this memoir will spark people to look at their own lives, beyond what I want to achieve in life. I've had all of those incredible moments that I've experienced, but I did it without my mom. How about that? My mother has never been to a movie premiere of mine.
AW: That's huge. Yeah.
ME: Man, I missed out on so much because part of my journey, too, was realizing that maybe I was wrong.
You can paint a narrative to protect yourself. I had to realize that, man, even how I villainized my family and my mother in particular over all these years, I got to a point where I was like, "Man, you know what? There is another side to all of this and I could be wrong and maybe I need to hear my mother out as an adult."
AW: That conversation with your mother is so powerful. You talk about her reasoning in the Audible Original, but what were some follow-up conversations with her about? Has she heard any of this? Have you shared?
ME: My mother, Abby, is absolutely terrified about hearing this interview, right? Because first of all, my mother is very religious. My mother is a card-carrying Jehovah's Witness. This type of thing is not something my mother would ever do. She shared things with me that I never knew and things that she felt would be embarrassing, mistakes she made.
I had a conversation with my mom and I said, "Tell me why." And she said, "The fact that we're even at a place where we could talk about working together and doing this Audible together says a lot about where we are in our relationship, because we didn't really have one, but now we do." My mom said, "Having come so far with our relationship, I don't want to do anything or say anything that could mess that up."
I said, "You know what, Mom? You don't have to worry about me. This is exactly why I want us to do this because the truth is you have your own truth. You have your own memory apart from mine and that's okay." And I said, "Mom, I really believe that hearing this conversation is going to help someone." And my mom said, "I think you're right."
AW: That's very brave.
ME: What's crazy is, for the first time in my life, thanks to this Audible Original, the other thing that's so beautiful about the Audible opportunity was that I don't even know if we would've had this conversation if it weren't for this memoir with her involvement. What was interesting is that I think that she was incredibly brave to do it. She hasn't heard it. This would be the first time her hearing it, listening to it on Audible. Knowing her story has made me respect my mother in a way that I failed to because I didn't know her story. I didn't know her struggle. I didn't know her choices. I didn't know how young she was when she got pregnant, when she had me, I didn't know what her sacrifices were. She's a superhero.
AW: As someone who has a fraught relationship with her own mother and who has adult children herself, what struck me the most was that answer for trepidation was born out of love for you and not screwing something up for you.
You talk a lot about the importance of this personal and professional lane. You can't just be one thing. Why do you think it's so hard for people to fully grasp that they go hand in hand, this personal story and this professional story?
ME: It took me a long time to figure out that they go hand in hand. I'm hoping, that is the big hope, that by the end of listening to my story, all that stuff, that you go, "Wow, you know what? There's so much more to life." I think that we all experience lows in our life where we reflect. But it's in those moments that we start to look back and we look inward and we see things differently.
AW: You have to believe that you can have something more.
You've been in the creative development space in so many different lanes. What was it like for you to be the subject in an entirely new medium as well?
ME: I'm so glad I did it. I recognized early on that if I was going to do my memoir, I had to do it with the right support system and the right team of people that knew what they were doing.
There's one executive that's on the team that sort of spearheaded this, that I just happened to be on LinkedIn one day shortly after we talked about this. I read her bio of how she wrote about herself. And I was like, "Oh my God. If this is any indication, this is going to be dope."
AW: I also liked that you got into the support system you had along the way, the extended support system, and showing the different ways people can help you. Is that something that you find that you really have to drive home for younger people who want to be an entrepreneur or something else?
ME: I'm a tremendous man of faith. And with that faith comes believing that angels come in all shapes and sizes and I truly believe in real-life angels. Throughout my life there were people who cared, loved, sacrificed, and they were just there at a pivotal moment in my life. But I think that it has a lot to do with my faith. I truly believe that these people, when I look back, this was all a part of my story and they were there and I don't think it was an accident. I mentioned how I went on a TV show, Shark Tank in 2014, and pitched my business and hoping to get investors and none of the Sharks believed in it, and so they didn't invest.
So fast-forward, I ended up finding a group of investors who watched me on the show whom I'd never met, that invested in my business. What's interesting about all of them was they were all believers. They all had relationships with God.
Fast-forward, I have this company that I founded and it's thriving and all that stuff. I didn't do it all by myself. Talk about angel investors. They were angels. They didn't know me at all.
AW: How has it been for you to maintain your faith in Hollywood, in the business, where that may not be top of mind or widely spoken about?
ME: I truly believe that what I'm capable of is a gift. I think I have great ideas, but I also pray for creativity every day. When I go into a room, before I go into a room, I'm praying to God that he makes me dynamic.
For me, God is the source of all that I am and what I can be because that's just how I operate. I wrote the movie Brown Sugar, as you mentioned, and I think about, you know, how that happened. No manager, no agent, didn't know anyone in the Hollywood. The original name of the Brown Sugar movie was Seven Days. And I dropped my script off seven days at an office and seven days later, 20th Century Fox buys my script and it becomes the movie Brown Sugar.
With that faith comes believing that angels come in all shapes and sizes.
I think about that day when my life changed, May 15, 1988. When I got that call it was one of those moments where all I thought about was God. That's how I started in Hollywood, with recognizing that I was being blessed.
AW: I love that. How much of that have you shared with your children and how do you talk about it?
ME: You know what? I don't talk about my life all that much. My daughters, they know my story, but the really internal stuff, that's the kind of stuff that I pretty much kept to myself. I think what will come out of the Audible coming out is my daughters who are both grown now going, "Oh my God, I didn't know all of that."
AW: To be seen clearly by them the same way you're seeing your mom more clearly as well.
AW: That's not too shabby of a family legacy there, Michael.
ME: Not bad, not bad.
AW: I want to thank you for joining us today to talk about Streets, Rhymes & 'Sugar': A Hip Hop Memoir, your new Audible Original, which is out now.
ME: Thank you, Abby.