The music industry holds an alluring, almost divine promise of transformation to anyone who manages to break into the fold. The potential for colossal sums of money certainly has something to do with it; but perhaps even more enchanting is the idea of simply achieving stability as an artist. All things considered, excessive material wealth might only be a tiny fraction of what it means to truly “make it” in the biz, because the real wealth comes from related commodities like integrity, respect, acknowledgment, status and “cred”. Lots of avenues and industries can provide the big bucks, but the music industry’s stars got to the dizzying heights (for the most part) for the love of their art and for their undeniable artistic talent.
The sublime nature of the industry’s promises – and the near-deification of its most successful divas and maestros – is fitting for an industry that sells something with no tangible “use” to society. What is music after all? Organized sound? A package of sensory experience? On some level, experiences are exactly what the music industry sells. Like most forms of pure entertainment, popular music adds colour, flavour and depth to the often mundane life experiences: We know relationships are tough. We know partying is fun. But a powerful song can somehow reestablish those truths, and make you relive the passion of that old relationship, or party like the craziest version of your 21 year old self. The industry sells these larger-than-life experiences and perhaps naturally, then, its artists turn into larger-than-life personalities.
That’s why it’s easy to forget that the voices booming through our car stereos are actually real people from the real world. It may even be strange to think that some of them grew up in more modest households than we did, or in some cases even on the streets. With this list, we tip our hats to those big time music-makers that came from poverty—especially those whose struggles enriched the very craft which helped them find a way out.
From the streets, trailer parks and even the wilderness, these 10 stars went from seemingly hopeless obscurity to become some of the biggest – and richest – stars in the world today.
10. A$AP Rocky: Harlem streets to $3.5 Million
Newly discovered Rakim Mayers was born to a struggling lower class family in Harlem, New York City and learned to rap from his older brother at the young age of 8. At 12, his father went to prison for selling drugs. At 13, his older brother was murdered, and by 15, his life consisted of homeless shelter-hopping with his mom, and selling crack cocaine for income. Yup, Rakim’s prospects seemed pretty bleak early on. But he would later recount that his brother’s death was a wake-up call to break free from that lifestyle through a rap career. Adopting the same French braid hairdo of the sibling he idolized, he joined the Harlem artist collective A$AP (Always Strive and Prosper) Mob and took the name A$AP Rocky. Thanks to online platforms like YouTube, he garnered international praise for his melodic, drawn-out rhyming style and infectious charisma. In 2011, Mayers signed a $3 million record deal with Sony Music Entertainment and started his own record label, with signs indicating the prosperous life has only just begun for this young rags to riches star.
9. Isaac Brock (Modest Mouse): Trailer Park to $4.5 Million
In 2011, Brock told an interviewer as they stood on the balcony of his finely-furnished Portland home: “It’s lucky [my career] worked out that way, ‘cause I would’ve been f***ed.” Modest Mouse seems like the least likely band to have ever found mainstream success, with an eccentric frontman partial to all kinds of substance abuse, a harsh, shouting vocal delivery, and cacophonic out-of-tune guitar playing. But in more ways than one, Isaac Brock’s art is a reflection of his strange life circumstances. After his parents divorced, he spent most his youth poor, living between relatives and friends, in trailer parks, and squatting in abandoned properties of the state of Washington. But music-lovers flocked to Modest Mouse’s early indie-rock releases that told angry, sad tales of urban sprawl, aimlessness, depression and alcoholism. After only a handful of years on the indie circuit, mainstream discovery landed the band prime spots at major alternative rock festivals, and collaborations with some of the biggest musicians in the industry. With an estimated net worth today of about $4.5 million, Brock has certainly come a long way from the homes he sang about in the 1997 indie classic, “Trailer Trash”.
8. KRS-One: Homeless to $6 Million
In many ways, rapper Kris “KRS-One” Parker’s success was a direct consequence of his struggles with poverty and violence. Born to a poor family in the Bronx of New York City, Parker ran away at 13 to live on the streets and spend his days reading about philosophy, spirituality and religion at the library. By night, he practiced rapping in the homeless shelters that took him in, and during one stay met fellow artist and social worker DJ Scott LaRock who would change his artistic future. In the same year that the pair released their first album together, LaRock was gunned down following a senseless street altercation. KRS-One then went on to develop a rap style he dubs “edutainment”, infusing the ferocity of rap delivery with socially conscious, anti-violent lyrics. Since the late 80s, Parker’s steady stream of well-received albums and vigorous public activism has brought him enormous respect beyond the world of hip-hop, and an estimated net worth of $6 million.
7. Lil’ Kim: Brooklyn streets to $18 million
Like other rappers on this list, Kimberly Jones lived in a turbulent Brooklyn household until her teenage years when her father kicked her out. Taking to life between friends’ houses and the streets, she forged relationships with rising rap stars who became some of the biggest figures in hip hop history—including the late rapper-legend Biggie Smalls. Adopting the name Lil’ Kim (she stands 4 feet 11 inches tall), Jones crafted a rap persona filled with edgy rhymes, extravagant styles, and gratuitous sex appeal, exploding into the male-dominated rap industry of the 90s. Lil’ Kim’s consistently acclaimed output has earned her a net worth of about $18 million, and more notably, a legacy as one of the most instrumental female figures in hip hop.
6. Jewel: Alaskan Wilderness to $30 million
In her early years, Jewel Kilcher’s family was featured on a Discovery Channel show called Alaska: The Last Frontier, about the hardships endured by families living in the Alaskan wilderness. Jewel’s childhood home had no indoor plumbing and an outhouse for a washroom. Before she started her solo career, she sang with her father in local bars and taverns for income. But the turning point came at 15, when she won a vocal scholarship to an arts school. She later moved to California to play steady gigs at coffeehouses, where Atlantic Records representatives eventually offered her a record deal. Not two years later, her debut album Pieces of You brought her folk superstardom, transforming her from coffeehouse hopeful to an opening act for both Bob Dylan and Neil Young. Pieces of You went on to sell 11 million copies and launch a diamond-studded career of steady hit folk albums, various acting roles, and humanitarian causes. Her estimated net worth today is $30 million.
5. B.B. King: Cotton plantation to $30 million
B.B. (“Blues Boy”) King has become the undisputed King of the Blues. His life is the definitive portrait of the social-artistic movement that grew out of black poverty in the early 20th century, and influenced arguably every popular style of music since. Born on a cotton plantation in the segregated south of 1920s America, Riley King struggled to support himself with farming after his parents split and his mother died early. Luckily for the world, he found an early passion for singing at his church and purchased his first guitar at the age of 12 for $15.00. He would eventually take his soulful, improvisational style to Tennessee to drive forth the Memphis blues scene, and would begin one of the longest-running and influential careers in musical history. Today considered one of the greatest guitarists of all time, B.B. King has given more than 15,000 performances over a career lasting more than 64 years, and holds an estimated net worth of $30 million. Impressively, King continues performing today at 88 years old.
4. Eminem: Trailer park to $140 million
The stormy upbringing of Marshall Bruce Mathers III has been extensively chronicled during his expansive rap career, and in the popular semi-biographical movie, 8 Mile. Though some aspects are dramatized (for the sake of art, of course) Eminem did struggle as a teen living in a lower-middle-class Detroit trailer park with his mother. He faced huge rejection by both the rap industry and a large part of his local community as a white rapper in a largely black industry. Frequently bullied and beaten, he dropped out of high school without a single grade under his belt, and found himself struggling between rap ambitions and the need to work several jobs to stay afloat. But when Eminem placed second in the 1997 Rap Olympics, legendary hip hop producer Dr. Dre was listening and he took the Real Slim Shady under his wing. Today Eminem is dubbed the “King of Hip Hop” by some, as the best-selling musician of the 2000s, with over 115 million album sales during the course of his career and a net worth of $140 million.
3. Ringo Starr: Crippling illness to $225 million
Ringo Starr is a Beatle; therefore, Ringo Starr is immortal. While that logic is infallible, Richard Starkey’s early life, more than anyone on this list, provides a strong counterpoint to the idea. The fact that his father abandoned the family when he was 3, leaving them poor and struggling, wasn’t the worst of Ringo’s early experiences, because he spent most of his childhood in hospitals battling life-threatening illnesses like appendicitis, peritonitis (which left him in a coma), and severe tuberculosis. His afflictions kept him committed to hospitals and sanatoriums for at least three years of his childhood, and his education never recovered. A blessing in disguise perhaps, because while battling tuberculosis Starkey received a make-shift mallet from the hospital staff to bang his motor skills into practice, and his obsession with drumming began. Working low-end jobs on the side as a young adult, he rose to prominence as Ringo Starr in a band called the Hurricanes before joining the biggest band of all time at John Lennon’s request. Today, he can count his lucky stars in one of the longest and most influential careers in drumming history, with studio albums as recent as 2010 and a net worth of $225 million.
2. Shania Twain: Ontario backcountry to $350 million
Born and raised in rural Ontario by her mother and adoptive Native American father, Eilleen Twain had to cope with food shortages as a child and resort to hunting and chopping wood for supplies. She sang in local bars at only 8 years old (strictly after last call) to help support the family, who still often relied on aid from Toronto homeless shelters. After high school however, Twain took her talents on the road to develop her singing-songwriting craft. Despite gaining strong traction early on, she was forced to return home to support her younger siblings after her parents died in a car accident. Once her brothers grew old enough to take care of themselves, she resumed her career under the Native American name “Shania”, meaning “I’m on my way”. Shania was on her way to musical superstardom—the only female artist in history with 3 consecutive certified “diamond” status albums, and a net worth of $350 million. She is currently working on her first new record in 11 years.
1. Jay Z: Street dealing to $500 million
Shawn Carter of Brooklyn’s Marcy housing projects never really intended to be the most successful rapper in history. After his father abandoned the family, Shawn “Jazzy” Carter got into the lucrative field of selling crack cocaine, and the rap thing was a side project. But in the mid-90s people told him he was good at it, so he decided to start a record label with some friends – a label which eventually launched the careers of several now multi-millionaire rappers you might have heard of. So at some point along the way – when Shawn Carter decided that (allegedly) being shot at while trying to sell crack wasn’t as appealing as selling 75 million records and having 17 Grammy Awards and $500 million in estimated riches and being married to Beyoncé -Jay Z was born. His career radiates a certain sense of effortlessness and assured victory that would have you forget his early struggles in the street ever happened, despite how often his lyrics might remind you otherwise. His latest album in 2013 went platinum, to the surprise of literally nobody. His $500 million net worth isn’t surprising either; but we admit to struggling a bit when trying to imagine this industry magnate dealing on the streets…