BENNINGTON >> Country rap artist Mikel Knight's group "The Maverick Dirt Road Street Team" was in Bennington on Thursday, selling CDs out of several commercial lots, which led to multiple complaints from residents.
The dispatcher at the Bennington Police Department said that several complaints had been made related to the group, which had several vans decorated with Knight's image traveling throughout the area on Thursday. She said an officer had spoken with the group and informed them that they were free to promote their music, but could not sell anything. Assistant Town Manager Dan Monks said that soliciting in commercial lots was permissible under town bylaws, so long as they had the property owner's permission and that crowds stayed below certain levels. He noted that, as they were moving around so frequently, it was difficult to enforce that they had the property owner's permission to solicit.
Monti Samuels, who has worked for Knight for about a year, and was the leader of the group that visited Bennington, said the MDRST has faced many false accusations, many from disgruntled former employees and their families. He said he was focused on keeping their message positive and improving the group's reputation in communities they visit. He said he had spoken with an officer from the police department, and had explained to her that they were not doing anything illegal.
Knight's street team has sold over 2.5 million albums in the three and a half years they have been operating. Team members are contractors that work 20-day tours. The work during those 20 days, Samuels admitted, is difficult, often equating to 16-plus hour days and a lot of driving. Contractors make 50 percent commission off all CDs sold. A Viceland documentary on the group has been filmed, and is expected to air in October.
Samuels said those hired by the organization are often those who are seeking a second chance from society, such as ex-convicts. One of the members of his team said that three months ago, he had been homeless, but that Knight's organization had given him the chance to visit 26 states in the last three months, while earning money.
"They're out there moving their boots and keeping their noses clean," said Samuels, who noted that the organization has a zero tolerance policy toward any team members who break the law while working for them, or who violate the terms of their contracts.
The group has been accused of being extremely aggressive in promoting the CDs, but those the Banner spoke to on Thursday were friendly and happy to talk about their organization.
Knight, whose real name is Jason Cross, is involved with numerous charitable organizations, including A Cut Above the Rest, an Alabama-based nonprofit that helps ex-convicts acquire life skills and employability training. The program honored Knight at a graduation ceremony this past April. Knight was not among those who visited Bennington.
Samuels said the MDRST has been asked to leave several towns in the area recently due to an article that was posted in April by New York country radio station Big Frog 104, which is entitled "If You See Mikel Knight Vans and Tour Buses in Utica Rome Area Stay Away." It details allegations made by former street team members on a Facebook page, "Public Awareness of Mikel Knight and The Maverick Dirt Road Street Team," including overworking employees and leaving them stranded in cities as punishment for not selling enough CDs. That page was started by family members of two street team members who were killed in an accident in 2014 when one fell asleep at the wheel, allegedly due to exhaustion from being overworked. They say that Knight refused to pay any medical bills or funeral costs associated with the accident, and did not even call the families.
Knight sued Facebook in February in San Mateo County, California Superior Court, for damages caused by that Facebook group. He claimed that members of the MDRST had been harassed and threatened due to the postings on this page, and that his brand had been financially damaged. He also said that he had been in negotiations with the Dallas Cowboys football team to play his song "Cowboy Way" at games. However, he alleges, after viewing the Facebook page, the Cowboys pulled out of the negotiation, with one executive saying, "We don't want to do business with people like you."
Last year, commenters on Facebook falsely accused the MDRST of kidnapping two Oklahoma men, Benjamin Baber and Cody Parrick, who disappeared after attending the Rocklahoma musical festival. Members of the anti-Knight Facebook group shared images of their vans, suggesting that they had been in the area and were responsible for kidnapping the two men, and encouraged people to call the police if they saw them. According to Knight, in the aforementioned lawsuit, "numerous MDRST vans, because of their distinctive branding, were stopped by law enforcement in numerous states, including Georgia, Michigan, and Alabama. Although none of the MDRST independent contractors were involved in any wrongdoing, law enforcement expressed their anger with MDRST independent contractors with the number of calls. In one incident in Alabama, one police officer angrily told a (team member) that 'if we get another call, we will take you straight to jail.'"
The two men were eventually found, after a two week search, within their van, which had been driven into a lake. The van was only found after water levels in the lake receded enough that the top of the vehicle became visible.
Knight defended his group in a April 2015 Facebook post, writing, "Let me make this clear for those of you that are unaware of how a lie can be told to so many people through (Facebook) and nothing can be done about it. Mikel Knight & The MDRST have done what was NEVER done before in the music business. We were the first and only guys in HISTORY to sell 1.2 MILLION records in 42 states in America hand-to-hand in less than 30 months. We had NO major record label backing, NO radio play and NO major TV exposure. Mostly we sold in rural America. Then a wreck happens and the mothers and aunts of the deceased in the unfortunate accident and some disgruntled employees make a FB page and start one at a time messaging people in the towns we go to sell and tell them that we kidnap people. They then get all the locals, who are frantic and don't know the truth, to then call the local PD, and they start pulling us over and harassing our guys. Then those local TV and newspapers with no major stories in their small town to cover start covering this FB rumor in local papers and then the Families against Mikel Knight FB page shares the local news report on their page and says, 'See guys, they were questioned by local authorities.' Thus making that story have a tiny bit of validity because it was covered by the local press. Then they share that story to 1,000 more locals by posting pics and saying 'see this story, call the local police in your area.' All along knowing we are there to make a living and donate to a local nonprofit charity to help our community."
— Derek Carson can be reached for comment at 802-447-7567, ext. 122.