Dimitri Reeves went viral last year during the riots, dancing on North Avenue as police faced off with protesters and looters emptied nearby stores. Most notably, he danced and lipsynched to 'Beat It,' and immediately became known as "the Michael Jackson protester."
"I hated that. With a passion. Because no one knew who I really was," he says almost a year later, sitting in his recording studio wearing a crisp white button-down and a silver pendant in the shape of a puzzle piece. The studio is in the basement of a house near Mondawmin Mall. Outside several street cats munch on a pile of cat food left in the driveway, next to a gleaming red Cadillac with a license plate that reads "FAILURE." The car belongs to Reeves' manager Vaughan Mason; the plate, Reeves says, is a reminder that failure is the best teacher.
Reeves had been performing 'Beat It' and other Jackson hits on street corners long before the uprising last spring (City Paper first wrote about him in 2013). And a year later, he and his manager Vaughan Mason (best known for the 1980 disco hit 'Bounce, Rock, Skate, Roll') are still rolling out in the large yellow truck Reeves used as his stage in Penn North on April 27, 2015, parking on corners to perform Jackson tributes and other pop covers, as well as Reeves' own music.
Although he has danced since he was six, the St. Mary's County native only learned how to sing three years ago, with Mason as his teacher. Since then he's recorded over 20 songs, he says, and put out multiple music videos—the most recent, released in March for his feel-good soul tune 'You'll Be OK,' was made using Reeves' phone, piecing together snippets from video footage of his live shows. In most of the videos posted to his YouTube and Vine (@Dimitri Reeves) pages, he's doing what he does best: dancing in the street.
"I just use Michael Jackson as a stepping stone," he says—not just to get his own music out there, but to promote nonviolence in troubled communities. Recently, Reeves embarked on a tour with stops in California, New York, and Michigan.
"If we see a little pocket of a community that is, like, down in the ghetto, we pull over and take a detour," he says. "We go to people and ask, where can you get shot at? And they point us in that direction and we just say thanks and go on our way."
People fight because they're bored, he adds, and it doesn't help that recreational centers and other community spots are getting torn down in poor urban neighborhoods. Live entertainment, at the very least, puts a pause in the violence. Many residents of communities like Freddie Gray's Sandtown-Winchester have little to no access to live theater or big-name concerts, so Reeves and Mason bring the show to them—and sometimes even a fog machine—rain or shine, often performing for hours.
"Everything we do is spur of the moment," he says, "like Batman."
The immense skill and precision in Reeves' moves, as well as the uncanny mirroring of the King of Pop, are ultimately secondary to the way Reeves interacts with the crowd. And not just the crowd, but the street corner itself. If a car drives by, it becomes a moving set piece to his stage.
"I legit get in people's cars, I beep their horns, I interact with them," he says. "They think that there's this barrier and next thing they know I'm in their face. I run into the street as the cars are coming—because anyone can sit in one spot and dance—to add some texture to it."
The audiences' responses energize Reeves' performances. He recalls two occasions when homeless spectators tipped him or brought him water using whatever little change they had (he emphasizes that he returned their money). Since the riots, he's also developed a relationship with the police. New officers to the force, he says, have on occasion tried to shut his act down, but veteran cops will let him work, and have even offered to close off the block for him and have stopped fellow officers from interfering.
Many interpreted Reeves' April 27 'Beat It' performance as an outcry against the police who were closing in on the neighborhood. That wasn't really his intention, he says, though he still considers the act a form of protest.
"I wasn't trying to taunt them at all 'cause I would've gotten maced. It was me saying, you know, 'give it a rest….this street is safe. You don't got to come down here.' Because once I started dancing there was nothing popping off, and everybody was just enjoying themselves."
If riots erupt again during the trials of the six officers charged with the death of Freddie Gray, Reeves will still be out on the corners performing, he says, just like any other day—so long as he's not interrupting a protest. He says he received a few negative comments on the videos from April 27. One, he recalled, was along the lines of "sit your butt down; it's not about you."
"I was like, I'm not trying to get my spotlight or anything. He was ripping me a new one and I was just trying to spread positivity and peace, because what better way to protest than through dance?"
More often, though, the response was overwhelmingly positive. Watching the news the day after the riots, he saw kids dancing in the streets, mimicking his own act.