When Joe Nester fell in love at 19, first with crack cocaine and then heroin, he tumbled out of his "normal" childhood with his adoring grandparents and father, into a decade of homelessness in Wilmington and Kensington. He lost all his teeth. He was 130 pounds "soaking wet."
"I had accepted the fact that I was going to die in the streets," said Nester, now 33.
Lately, he has also been recording music with a small label called Recovering Artists Worldwide, or RAW, a trio of sober musicians working to help themselves and others get and stay clean. In addition to touring nightclubs throughout the South and Midwest, they play at halfway houses and treatment centers, Nester said.
"We fight the heroin epidemic through music," said Chris Heinzelmann, a.k.a. Bobble, a rapper/emcee, from Boca Raton, Fla., who started the label last spring after entering recovery two years ago.
Nearly 13,000 Americans died of heroin overdoses in 2015, more than the toll of gun violence. Pennsylvania's overdose rate was the sixth highest in the nation. In Philadelphia, officials estimate that 900 people will die this year of drug abuse. In the first five days of December, at least 35 people died from heroin use in the city, a toll that shocked experts.
As opioid-related deaths continue to rise, RAW is part of a wider movement of musicians striving to bring a message of hope. A national advocacy group hosted a Concert to Face Addiction last year that was headlined by former heroin addict Steven Tyler as well as Joe Walsh and Sheryl Crow, and attended by thousands on the Mall in Washington.
Plans are in the works for RAW tours this spring and summer, with a stop in Toms River, said Heinzelmann, 29. Like Nester, he battled years of homelessness and cocaine and heroin addiction.
Besides Bobble, RAW has signed Nester, who writes a mix of rock, acoustic, and rap. Female singer-songwriter JoZeo also records on the label, her throaty voice reminiscent of Amy Winehouse.
"It's like being in a family," Heinzelmann said.
Heinzelmann met Nester after posting a call on social media inviting artists to submit their music. Both have put out their first EPs with RAW, Bobble's fittingly titled Live Free or OD and Nester's To Hell and Back.
Nester joined the jazz band in high school. But after friends introduced him to drugs, he eventually ran away from home and gave up music.
Nester said he did just about anything to get heroin, including selling stolen baby formula to bodegas on the streets of Philadelphia and even prostituting himself. He was in and out of prison so many times that he stopped keeping count.
Heroin "is the most powerful thing that I've ever experienced in my life," Nester said. "I was going to do whatever I had to do to get my fix."
Now that he has a budding music career, a job selling car warranties, and a fiancée whose 5-year-old son he is helping raise, Nester says he wakes up every morning feeling "grateful." Little did he think, sitting in a jail cell in 2009, writing lyrics to "Never Gonna Take My Soul," that his words would come true.
"I was in a very dark place when I wrote that," Nester said. "I was scared. I was just like, man, you can take everything from me, but you can't take my soul."
One moving version of the song that he posted on YouTube features Nester signing a cappella, rhythmically rapping his knuckles against a door, gesturing with his heavily tattooed arms. The tune is catchy, yet mournful, rough around the edges, and authentic.
"I just think his music touches people," Heinzelmann said. "He comes from the heart. We all do. He just has a way of wording it. Every show, people just cry when they see him."
Shannon Steele-Stevens of Bear, Del., grew up with Nester. Their friends, she said, always thought he was "ridiculously" talented.
"It's like everything just sort of coming full circle," Steele-Stevens said. "We're so proud of him."
"I look back and smile, knowing everything I went through was for a purpose," Nester said. "It was preparing me and making my message that much more powerful. No matter how broken and helpless you are, you can change."