Raised in wealth and status in western Africa until his father’s untimely death relocated the family to a small apartment in the Bronx in New York City, Remi Adeleke’s life illustrates remarkable transformation. Remi is a former Navy SEAL, sought-after public speaker, military consultant for film and television, successful actor, and the author of the best-selling memoir Transformed: A Navy SEAL’s Unlikely Journey from the Throne of Africa, to the Streets of the Bronx, to Defying All Odds.
Remi joined me on my Now to Next podcast to share some amazing stories from his life. After spending his youth making regrettable decisions on the streets of New York, Remi joined the Navy in 2002. He became a Navy SEAL, earning the SEAL of the Year award from the Naval Special Warfare Foundation. He is now the CEO of Remi Consulting and 8th Wonder Entertainment.
Remi earned a bachelor’s degree in organizational leadership and a master’s in strategic leadership, both from the University of Charleston. He lives in Southern California with his wife, Jessica, and their three sons, Cayden, Caleb, and Carter.
From Wealth in Nigeria to an Apartment in the Bronx
Growing up in western Africa, Remi’s father was prominent in the community, both for his wealth and status. He ran multiple businesses and was the first black man on the board of the World Trade Center. During that time, Remi and his brother wanted for nothing. They had nannies and traveled the world as a family.
Remi’s mom was an American from New York and a tougher disciplinarian than his father, whom he saw as a superman. Remi remembers sneaking downstairs during gatherings that his family hosted just to be close to him.
His dad’s prized project was known as the Lagoon Development Project. He purchased swampland off the coast of Lagos, Nigeria. He invested millions of his personal funds into buying the swamp, dredging it, hiring engineers, and securing contracts to build buildings on it. The full story is in Remi’s book, but his dad successfully turned the swamplands into an island. Once the land had formed, the Lagos state government came in and said that the federal government was never supposed to “sell” him that parcel and took it over.
Within three weeks of the state government stepping in, with all of the family assets wrapped up in the project, Remi’s father died.
As an American, Remi’s mother decided to relocate to the U.S. permanently. She was a powerhouse herself and did an outstanding job of maintaining continuity during a drastic change. She decorated their tiny apartment with Nigerian art and items. She struggled financially, but kept food on the table, a roof over their heads, and a sense of order in their lives.
Remi and his brother were only five and six years old when their father died. It wasn’t until he was older, starting around eight years old, that he understood death and sensed the void that his father’s passing left. He started looking for a father figure and found it in the streets of NYC.
The Power of Media
A man who gave Remi haircuts introduced him to rap and hip-hop music. Hip-hop became Remi’s surrogate father. He could see himself and his story in the lyrics.
Like many hip-hop artists, as a kid in NYC, Remi lived in poverty in a single-parent home. He felt like the artists were speaking directly to him. He allowed those voices to raise him and tell him what it meant to be a man. Hip-hop taught him the definition of respect and how to get away with making money illegally, and he loyally followed those rappers turned “father-figures.”
He started out stealing from his mom, then from stores. After a while, he was selling drugs. By the time he was 19 years old, he’d built up an illegal empire. At the time, he never imagined he would get out of the Bronx.
Two movies changed his life and opened up what he believed was possible. First, he saw the movie Bad Boys with Will Smith and Martin Lawrence. For the first time in his life in America, he saw that black men could be more than hustlers and gangsters. Remi connected with the characters because they were cool and down to earth, but they were also heroes! Wow, he thought, I could be a hero too. I could help people too. I could be more than a drug dealer.
Reading that in Remi’s book helped me grasp the power of media in a way I hadn’t before. Growing up as a white man, I saw myself on TV a lot. I never doubted I could be anything I wanted. I’d heard about the need for role models of color in media, but Remi’s story brought it home.
The following year after Bad Boys, Remi saw the movie Navy SEALs. There was one black SEAL in that movie — a real SEAL — and Remi decided that if he could turn his life around, he would be a SEAL.
It wasn’t a simple transition for him. He got into all sorts of messes, but he transformed. It’s all in the book, and I recommend you read it. He’s a formidable storyteller, and it’s a fantastic story.
Walking Through the Door That’s Open
Remi made it to SEAL training. The first day was rough. Remi didn’t know how to swim before he decided to sign up for training, so he had recently learned and hadn’t practiced with fins. It was January, and the water was cold. They called it a “wetsuit appreciation swim,” which was swimming in cold water with fins and no wetsuit. Remi was struggling, and they started putting money on him that he wouldn’t last the day, but he stuck around.
In Remi’s book, there are amazing stories about how he almost died, went to the ICU, got back into training, and eventually transformed. He has an incredible story and tells it like a master.
I asked him how he approached writing, and his answer surprised me.
Remi didn’t pursue writing a book. He ran from it for many years. Whenever he would share his stories, people would tell him, “You should write a book,” and he always brushed it off. For one thing, he’d earned respect in the military community and didn’t want to be put in a bad category for glorifying the experience or exposing anyone.
While he was finishing some papers at the end of grad school, he got a call. Director Michael Bay was working on Transformers and needed someone with Remi’s military background to consult. One day of work turned into three weeks and then into six months, and then Remi was cast in the movie.
He ended up promoting the movie on the TODAY show with Kathie Lee Gifford. Remi was planning to talk about the film, but Kathie Lee encouraged him to share some of his personal stories. You can see the clip on YouTube. After that interview, Kathie Lee encouraged him several times to write a book. Remi shared with her his worry about betraying his community. She acknowledged that but said he had a unique story. She believed he could focus on telling his story from his heart and that it could help people who came from a background like his. She went on to offer to introduce him to the VP of Harper Collins.
Remi meditated on the offer and told Kathie Lee she could connect him with her publisher. Within two weeks, he had a book deal.
For most people who want to write a book, I recommend you get help. Find a great writer and have them help you develop and deliver the story. I don’t enjoy writing, and I hire great writers to help me. However, Remi wrote the book himself, and there was another interesting synchronicity that made that possible.
In July of 2017, Remi enrolled at the Lee Strasberg Theater and Film Institute, where many Oscar winners like Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, and Angelina Jolie trained. He intended to improve his acting, but a month after enrolling, he signed his book deal. Remi was taking classes at the Institute during the day and working on his book at night. He learned so much about storytelling and dialogue during his training, as he had an opportunity to study great scripts and think about why they worked. That time helped him as a writer. It’s a great example of walking through the doors that open for you and how life can line up when you say “yes” to opportunity.
Make sure you buy Remi’s book, Transformed: A Navy SEAL’s Unlikely Journey from the Throne of Africa, to the Streets of the Bronx, to Defying All Odds. It’s a remarkable story and expertly told. You can also follow Remi on Instagram and Twitter.