The Reluctant Activist: Former drug dealer, music-industry insider, and community organizer Stokey Cannady
By By Lawrence Burney
Sep 30, 2015 | 3:00 AM
As helicopters hovered overhead, police gathered in riot gear, kids ran out of stores with armfuls of products, and fires burned, 45-year-old Carmichael "Stokey" Cannady received a call from an out-of-state friend telling him, "You gotta do something."
A few months before Monday, April 27, Cannady organized a summit for local rappers and law enforcement. He was hoping to ease tensions not only between rival groups of rappers, but between all of them and the cops. "I wanted to make sure that everybody made it," he says. "You had a lot of people in conflict and beefing for reasons they didn't even understand. I felt like it was unnecessary and I wanted to save lives. By doing that, I felt like it had to be by people they respected and trusted. I was one of them." That summit, which included Young Moose and Lor Scoota, two of the city's biggest rappers, was a major step in establishing Cannady's activism.
So this phone call asking him to "do something" wasn't out of the blue, but Cannady felt as confused by what to do as anyone else. "I didn't know what to do," he says. "I just went to social media and said meet me at Cloverdale and we'll talk about it together."
For most people, such a call would be, at best, a shot in the dark. But Cannady's reputation as a longtime drug dealer who had been reformed gave him special status on the streets—he was a person both sides might listen to. But the next day, as the National Guard flooded the city, the basketball courts over at Cloverdale were full of people—and Cannady's status had suddenly changed.
Before Cloverdale, Cannady's Instagram account showed a loosely affiliated, behind-the-scenes music-industry guy: photos promoting the Jay Z-endorsed D'usse; pictures of Cannady with rappers; and a host of photos with Roc Nation Apparel executive Emory Jones, a Maryland native who, like Cannady, served a lengthy drug-related prison sentence but now works closely with Jay Z.
"Both of us went to prison and did major time. He had people like Jay Z to back him up but he backed me up and allowed those people to embrace me as well," says Cannady, who started his 12-year prison sentence on charges related to distributing drugs in 1998. "So he gave me an opportunity to take part in decision-making and inherit his wealth of friends. He trusted me with that. That's special because nowadays people don't trust you with their friends because people have hidden agendas." The two now also work alongside local staple Shoe City, reworking the company's brand and bringing local standouts on board such as NBA player Will Barton, rising boxer Gervonta Davis, dirt-bike star Chino Braxton, and others.
Cannady's role might now be closer to that of an online activist like Baltimore native DeRay Mckesson than an Instagramming industry guy, and he's not entirely comfortable with the shift. "I'm not even an organizer," he says. "But through my relationships, social media, and rapport with a lot of people in certain factions, I've been able to reach the people faster than I would by using the telephone. I've been thrust into this role because I've had success getting the people together. I've always loved helping people and I've been giving back to my hood since I've been home. But dealing with the entire city is new to me."
Back at Cloverdale as the court's perimeter was outlined by people locked at the elbows, Cannady stood in the center, grabbed the mic, and started talking. But what he really wanted to do was to amplify the voices of the city's young people, giving them a chance to express their anger. One after another, small kids mustered up the courage to take the mic, repeating most of what they'd heard that day: "Don't tear down the city, it's bad," one kid said. "I just want everything to be good again," another added.
"I want to be a voice for kids who don't have the resources to express themselves," Cannady says, thinking back on that day. "We seen how kids expressed themselves on that Monday night when they were dismayed about things that happened related to Freddie Gray. I wanted to give them a better understanding on how not to behave."
"How not to behave" obviously addresses the multiple fires, looting, and property damage that turned that Monday into a riot, but Cannady, unlike so many others, took the source of that rage very seriously—he just wants to redirect their energy.
"It might sound crazy but you become immune to those type of situations because they happen all the time," he says in response to Freddie Gray's death. "It just so happened that these kids wanted to be the revolutionaries. I commend them for that. I just don't commend how they did certain things. But I can say that, [if it were not] for what they did, we wouldn't be where we are today. A lot of kids felt ignored and they felt like that platform was the perfect opportunity to express themselves and be heard. They're still angry and frustrated."
Some of that anger has since been funneled into the unprecedented streak of homicides in the city. So, Cannady has taken to Instagram to challenge the youth to stop the killings. "I don't want these kids to perpetuate the same things that I did" as a dealer, he says. "Nor do I want them to lose their freedom or their lives while they try to follow what I did. Nothing good comes from what I did to my community. A little money here and there but it's genocide—we killing our own people."
Most of Cannady's efforts go toward establishing family resource centers throughout the city and he is constantly looking at the messages streaming in on his phone, noting that he has spoken to Johns Hopkins University, city officials, and members of Congress about the centers: "My ambition lies within making these centers come to life. If we get that, that can be a part of my legacy and get us a lot of what we've been missing over the years. I can live with that."
But it also sounds as if he may have political ambitions himself. "I honestly believe that if the people trust you, respect you, and can relate to you, you can get them anything you want. I stand by that," he says. "Most police don't have relationships, most politicians don't get the respect, and nobody trusts either. I feel like if I was to ever run for political office, I could galvanize the people to bring the change. Although I wouldn't want to change my life, I think they need somebody they can identify with and feel like 'He's gonna get the people he needs to get it done.' That's a simple way to say it, but it's difficult to do. I feel like I could make a difference."