The artist known as C4 on her recovery: ‘I like this road, so I’m staying on it’


As a girl, Cecilia Ebrahimi, the artist known as C4, traveled the world.

The Ties That Bind UsRaised on a horse farm in Maryland, she spent part of her childhood in Iran, the country of her father’s birth. Thanks to his work and the family’s wealth, summers were spent in tropical locales — on a boat off the coast of Greece, where she and her siblings would sleep on deck beneath the stars, or to the blue waters of the Virgin Islands.

Winters, she told The Ties That Bind Us recently, always included ski trips — to Vail, Colorado, or to Switzerland, where she remembers how horse-drawn carriages would ferry skiiers to the tops of the slopes.

It’s serendipitous, then, that she found sobriety in a small recovery meeting a mile from the Maryland home in which she grew up.

“I had traveled around the world and did all these drugs in various places, and that meeting in Montgomery County, Maryland, saved my life,” she said. “I just thought it was ironic and amazing. It was very small, and the majority of the people had 10 plus years clean. It was just a very loving, supportive, healthy group, and regardless of whatever drama was happening, when the doors shut, they focused on recovery.

“I remember very clearly that they told me I needed a home group and that I needed a service position, and when I asked them why, they said, ‘Because if you don’t show up, we’ll miss you!’ And I thought, ‘Me? Nobody misses me because I’m not around!’ I couldn’t imagine that anyone would love me enough to miss me, and that really affected me. I’m really grateful I was able to experience such a healthy beginning, and within three months, I had a key to that church.”

An exotic upbringing

It’s ironic, in a sense, that C4’s creation can be traced back to alcohol. Her father was waiting tables at a Maryland pizza joint when her mother ordered a beer; he asked if she was old enough to drink it, and she asked if he was old enough to serve it. Love blossomed, and her mother supported the family and gave birth to C4’s older brother while her father finished engineering school at the University of Maryland. Afterward, the family moved to Iran, where her father slowly gained enough experience and business connections to open his own company.

“He ended up working for the Shah of Iran, and after we came back to America, he helped build Naples — revitalizing the entire city,” she said. “He even won the Ellis Island Award. I come from a very intelligent, giving, wonderful, not religious family, and I was raised colorblind. Because I’m from a mixed culture, we traveled the world, and I always embraced the beautiful differences and likenesses of everyone. I’ve always been grateful that we’re not a snobby family.”

After her mother became pregnant with C4, the family scheduled a business trip to the United States so that their daughter could be born here. She grew up learning to speak Farsi and didn’t learn English until after her mother and father separated, and she returned to the Maryland horse farm that would be her home until adulthood. It was in the third grade, she said, that she was given the name she goes by today.

Born Cecilia Radene Ebrahimi, she was the fourth girl in the family lineage to be named Cecilia, and as an infant, her father nicknamed her “C4.” It was what everyone knew her as and what she answered to, but it was apparently not formal enough for her third-grade teacher, she said.

“She wouldn’t have it, and so she made me spell it out — ‘Ceefor,’” she said. “Years ago, when Facebook started, it wouldn’t allow any characters in your name, so I went by that spelling, even though I don’t like it at all. I tried with Cecilia for quite a while, but that just didn’t feel right. For a while, I went by C-4, but then I dropped the dash, and it’s just C4.”

Throughout her upbringing, music and the arts were touchstones to a future she hadn’t yet conceived of. She remembers watching her mother in an Iranian performance of “Free to Be You and Me,” sitting in the darkened auditorium of the theater and watching rehearsals. She smiles when she recalls listening to Leo Sayer’s “When I Need You” on headphones in her parents’ room, belting the lyrics at the top of her lungs. She laughs when she tells the story of how, at 10 years old, she brought “Gold: 50 Original Hits” by Elvis to school every day for show and tell so she could sing and dance to “Hound Dog.”

“I would go to camp and be in the productions, and I was extremely involved in musical theater as a child,” she said. “I remember in chorus at school, being the loudest person in the entire group, because I was always the one singing at the top of my lungs and loving the attention when people would tell me, ‘You stole the show!’ I just loved performing.

“I remember at 14, I used to spend hours and hours in my room, putting on cassettes of Pat Benatar and Aerosmith and just trying to imitate them. I even had a teacher one time, when I was 13 or 14, suggest I should apply to be on ‘Star Search,’ but even though my mother and father didn’t exactly try to identify my strengths and push me in that area, they kept me in those singing lessons.”

The disease is activated

Living on the farm, she was raised in a very bohemian lifestyle. Her mother used to throw lavish parties and invite live bands to play, and her brother would invite friends over to drink as well.

“There was a lot of alcohol use, and even though we were always upstairs, I was around it all the time,” she said. “My mother, thank God, didn’t like cocaine — she was more of a weed and wine lady. She actually got sober in 1984 and is still sober today.”

At the age of 11, C4 helped herself to some of the weed around the house and traded it to one of the farm’s workers for riding lessons. He was a younger boy a few years older, she said, and he eventually encouraged her to try it.

“So the first time I smoked weed, I was 11, in my barn, and I got very high,” she said. “Right from that moment, that was it. I think if I didn’t have that addict gene, I may have been like, ‘Eh, this does nothing for me.’ But it really lit me, and by 12, I was seeking out anybody I could party with.

“I didn’t like wine, because my mother drank it, and I hated the smell of it. But I would go to a friend’s house where there was liquor, and I just remember a voice in my head whispering, ‘If you get that first shot down, then you can chug the bottle and everything will be OK.’ And that’s how I drank from 12 to 17.”

At 14, she moved to Massachusetts to attend boarding school with an equestrian focus, but she was asked to leave not long after. At 16, she was sent to an Outward Bound school in California’s San Bernardino Mountains, where one of her classmates was Jesse Diamond, son of pop music icon Neil Diamond.

“They would always put me and Jesse together, and we used to perform there as well,” she said. “He would play guitar, and I would sing, and they just loved that.”

California was so enticing that after high school, she hitchhiked back to the West Coast, stayed there for a few weeks before returning to Maryland and eventually landing in Washington, D.C., for her higher education. There, she fell in with the hardcore/post-punk crowd, which featured members of Bad Brains and Fugazi.

“We were all immersed in that culture, and I was in it from ’87 to about 1990, when I had my second child and had to leave,” she said.

The downward spiral

In those wild years, she gave up two children for adoption, but recovery has given her an opportunity to reconnect. Addiction, however, still takes, and last month, her 31-year-old birth son, who came back into C4’s life four years ago, overdosed and died. He had been clean for nine months or so, she said, but a relapse claimed his life, and he died alone, in a park.

So what did she do?

“I know when something bad happens, you go to a meeting and talk about it, so I went to a meeting, and I shared,” she said. “I do music and meetings, and whenever something happens, I go to a meeting. I know what to do, and I have the tools, and I have the experience. I’ve watched the children of other people in the program die, and I’ve watched people walk through and take care of their parents. I’ve grown up with all of this.”

In 1991, however, she was still nine years away from sobriety. A move to Houston sent her further down the spiral, and by 1994, she was selling drugs and consuming almost as much. By that point, crystal meth had entered the picture. She was living in an apartment paid for by her parents, but the girl who lived there was unrecognizable as the bubbly young singer who loved Elvis and Leo Sayer.

“I had just gotten so thin and so pitiful, and I was shooting speed and selling tons of dope,” she said. “I had this friend, Pam — she was a heroin dealer, and I was a speed dealer, and we were the two rich white girls in the scene who came from very affluent families. She got sober, but I was spiraling out — I wasn’t eating, and I couldn’t even take 10 steps without blacking out, because I was not nourishing my body.

“I felt very alone and isolated, and I began this decline. The disease had ravaged my body and my thinking, obviously, but it also began to wear on my spirit. I had always been a very positive, upbeat person, but I became very pessimistic, and I hated so many things. I was very close to death.”

Pam, incidentally, had taken to dropping by and checking on C4 after a noon recovery meeting. She would sit, the two would talk, and Pam would leave until the next day. A few weeks later, Pam showed up with her parents in tow, and they convinced her to go to drug rehab for the first time. That was in 1994, and she went to five that year, trying out for bands here and there but always relapsing within a short period.

Eventually, she landed in Topeka, in a sober living program where she subsisted on beer and weed. She’d been exposed to 12 Step recovery by that point, and she alternated between prayers for her health and cursing the Almighty for taking away the security blanket that drugs and alcohol had become.

“But because I wasn’t shooting speed and doing crack, my life got better,” she said. “I was in an apartment, I had money, and (recovery) had begun to save my life.”

It worked because she worked it

c4In 1999, she moved back to Maryland, and within three months of her arrival, she was back on the harder stuff. A head full of recovery and a belly full of chemicals are a rank combination, however, and the lightbulb moment came before she lost everything, she said.

“I remember having crack, coke, beer and weed lined up on the table. I had no friends, but I remember this voice — the handwriting on the wall, as you would say, that told me, ‘If you continue, you’re going to lose all this,’” she said. “I looked around at what I had, and for me, it was a big deal. I had an armoire, a TV, cable, a Jeep, a job that I loved … big things for a junked-out girl. I believed that voice, and so I finished all the dope and called my mother the next day and said, ‘I need help.’”

And so she began to post up in that church basement, a mile from the horse farm where she first smoked weed at 11 years old. She didn’t necessarily want to be there — for the first six months, she said, she sat in the back with her arms crossed — but she most definitely didn’t want the consequences of getting high anymore, and slowly, things began to get better.

“I got really fired up and got into service work, and I knew I started getting better, because at about three months clean, I was looking at new people in the meeting and thinking, ‘Damn, they looked messed up!’ And then I realized, ‘Holy crap! That was me three months ago!’” she said. “Then I realized, ‘Holy crap, I’m getting better! Holy crap, this shit works!’ That’s the sunlight of the spirit shining through. I remember one time I left the meeting, and I was at home, petting my dog and smiling, and all the sudden I realized that I had joy and peace.”

Those little victories led to a renewal of her relationship with a Higher Power. Like many addicts, C4 uses the term God not as a religious deity, but as a father figure who began to open her eyes to the wider world around her. As someone who grew up in a household that wasn’t religious, the spiritual nature of recovery was a little confusing at first, but the more clean time she amassed, the more she began to see a bigger picture.

“God was speaking through people and situations and divine coincidences,” she said. “I didn’t understand God, but He began to say to me, ‘I love you, I care for you, and I really want you to trust me.’ The spiritual experiences I was having in dreams, and the principle of surrender, really helped me hit another spiritual level.

“And then in the area of relationships, God really stepped in and was working with me. I had to understand that God is running the show, even the mating show, and I had to surrender all of that. When I had five years clean, I had a son, but his father was really abusive, and I really believe that God was telling me, ‘He doesn’t love you, and he’s going to kill you.’ And once the baby was born, I ran. I spent a couple of years getting protective orders, this and that, and by the end of it, I was so messed up, I couldn’t even talk to a guy who wasn’t married, because I didn’t want to get hit on any more.”

But, she pointed out, not once did getting high seem like a good idea. In fact, there were times she stayed clean because it was the only thing she truly, completely and wholly owned.

“Nobody can take my clean time but me,” she said. “Realizing that at six months was huge — that this is mine. You might (mess) with my mind, you might put me down, you might even rape me … but you can never own my clean time, end of story.”

Staying on the road of Happy Destiny

Fast forward to 2008: Her son was 3, and she had a daughter who was 1, and every week, she took them to the local music store, where she took lessons and began to work on her songwriting. Back in Houston, she added, she had started listening to classic country, and in that music store, she struck up a friendship with a teacher who loved her unorthodox approach.

“I literally took one guitar lesson and started going to an open mic!” she said with a laugh. “I got a lot of shit — people who said no one would ever dance to my music, that they would never play my music if I didn’t play in straight time, and it was very difficult to get into at first. But I’m a master at many things, and I knew it takes blood, sweat and tears to become a master. I just wanted to play music and write songs.”

Eventually, she pulled in some fellow performers to form THEC4BAND and got a contract as a recording artist for Winter Records. She tours nationally (even making pilgrimages into Canada), doing coffeehouse shows and radio station performances, spreading the good word of her “ZERO2ROCKSTAR” journey in a way that’s both a celebration of the healing power of music and an advocacy for addiction recovery.

“I’m way content,” she said. “I get to do what has always given me so much freedom, which is to sing my little heart out in front of people. That’s my dream: I just want to sing songs I write in front of people, and I get to do that all the time. I am now employed with Recovery Unplugged, Grace Notes and Face the Music Foundation, where I’m carrying a message of hope to the under-served populations of Nashville by providing opportunities for musicians in recovery to share their gifts unconditionally and freely. I also host sober sessions monthly where I facilitate people in recovery playing music in a safe, supportive environment here in Nashville.

“My kids are 12 and 14 and are happy and well-adjusted, and I’ve worked really hard to be with them. I have almost 20 years clean, I’ve repaired some relationships, and the ones I couldn’t, I’ve attempted to repair. I’ve done my part, and I really am a happily-ever-after story. I feel like my life is complete, and every day is just a gift at this point. Every dream I really wanted to fulfill has come true.”

And the best part? It’s not over yet. She actively involved in the Rockers in Recovery community in Nashville and beyond, and she still attends meetings every day. And when her children are out of the house, she’s looking forward to packing up and hitting the road with her dog and a guitar.

“I want to go to areas where there’s a lot of prevalent drug abuse and start getting women clean, and that’ll propagate itself,” she said. “I have a knack for community, so why can’t I go use that knack and go to West Virginia or Indiana or wherever? I don’t have to win the war; I just have to win one person at a time.

“The fact that my Higher Power put me back into music blows my mind. Basically, I feel like God told me that if I use, it’s game over — so I’m free to roam the earth, but I understand the repercussions of a relapse very clearly. But at this point, I’ve been clean longer than I used, and I’ve just decided that I like this road, so I’m staying on it.”