The Sound of Deception: Country Rap’s Mikel Knight & His Notorious Street Teams

mikel-knight

UPDATES TO THIS STORY:

 

(6-29-15): Country Rapper Mikel Knight Threatens Lawsuits Against Victims’ Families / Saving Country Music

(10-12-15): Mikel Knight Street Team Member Found Dead in Nashville

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If you pay any attention to the country rap realm, you may have heard of a performer by the name of Mikel Knight who originally hails from San Antonio, TX, and is now based out of Nashville. Mikel goes under a couple of handles, such as “The Maverick,” “The Maverick of Music Row,” the “Urban Cowboy” and “The Country Rap King.” And from a number of measurables, Mikel Knight has a fairly successful career. His Facebook page boasts over 106,000 likes, he’s sold hundreds of thousands of records, he has numerous videos on YouTube with over half a million views, and regularly receives press coverage from major country music outlets, including The Boot which debuted a new video from the country rapper just in February as part of WGN America’s docuseries Outlaw Country. Knight’s music was also featured on MTV’s Buckwild show previously.

But Mikel Knight is not your average entertainer, even for the unusual world of country rap. He doesn’t have a label (which is where his “Maverick of Music Row” moniker comes from), he doesn’t seem to play any shows (or only plays shows on very rare occasions). Instead Mikel Knight makes his money by deploying fleets of tour vans and buses all mocked up with Mikel Knight insignia and full of street team members to solicit people on the street, in parking lots, and at gas stations all across the United States to purchase Mikel Knight country rap albums.

Known as the “Maverick Dirt Road Street Teams,” dozens of pseudo-employed Mikel Knight devotees fan out across smaller communities to aggressively peddle his country rap albums to local populations, usually working a dozen or more hours a day, driving through the night to their next locations, not even being given chances to shower or sleep, and leaving town before local authorities catch up with the street teams and make sure they’re obeying local sales ordinances. Right now Mikel Knight is thought to own two buses and 18 insignia-wrapped vans as part of his street team armada.

But the allegations and stories about the practices of Mikel Knight and the Maverick Dirt Road Street Team go beyond being overworked and circumventing local ordinances. Stories of physical abuse, mental anguish, individuals being abandoned in small towns, and even the death of street team members in auto accidents after being overworked have been circulating for the last year. Yet Mikel Knight seems to still enjoy superstar status in certain circles (partly because he presents such a high-profile persona through his vehicles), and few questions have been raised about what is really behind Mikel Knight and his street teams.

Recent Arrests of Mikel Knight Street Team Members

On Wednesday, May 20th, five members of Mikel Knight’s Maverick Dirt Road Street Team were arrested in Mitchell, South Dakota at the local Wal-Mart for selling CD’s without a proper peddler’s license. According to Patrol Sgt. Joel Reinesch, the Mikel Knight street teams have frequented Mitchell and surrounding communities often, usually being “shooed out of town” without incident. However, because of the recurring nature of the problem with the street teams, including the South Dakota Department of Revenue sending a letter to the Mikel Knight organization warning them about the violations as far back as 2014, the five men were arrested and cited with Class 1 misdemeanors.

mikel-knight-dirt-road-street-team-3The South Dakota Department of Revenue stationed two employees in the parking lot to witness the sales before the arrests were made. According to Sgt. Reinesch, since the Mikel Knight organization had been warned previously, the men could have been charged with felonies. All of the men were from different locations around the country. The individuals arrested were Dakota Savage (24) of Missouri, Terry Smith (24) of Tennessee, Jesse Weaver (22) of Oklahoma, Zachary Ayers (22) of West Virginia, and Austin Henderson (18) of Missouri. They all admitted to selling the merchandise, but none of them admitted to knowing Mikel Knight personally. Sgt. Reinesch said that they were not trying to keep the individuals from promoting Mikel Knight’s music, but after numerous warnings and incidents, authorities were left no choice but to make the arrests.

And this wasn’t the first run in with the law for the Mikel Knight street teams last week. On Monday, May 18th, authorities in Storm Lake, Iowa, approximately 3 ½ hours south and east of Mitchell, SD cited seven Mikel Knight Street Team members with Failure to Have a Solicitors License in connection with the sale of Mikel Knight CD’s.

The seven men cited were:

Zachary Ayers, age 23 of Shinnston, WV
Kyle Banks, age 25 of Moscow, OH
Austin Henderson, age 18 of Dexter, MO
Brian Mullen, age 28 of Hermitage, TN
John Thomas, age 26 of Ashland, TX
Tyler Hediger, age 27 of Gore, OK
Terry Smith, age 25 of Cookville, TN

In O’Neill, Nebraska, about two hours south of Mitchell, SD, police were also warning residents on Wednesday, May 21st about the aggressive street teams in the area, and to not purchase items from them. “We have received several complaints about Mikel Knight vans and RVs in O’Neill and the surrounding areas,” local police said in a statement. “These parties do not have the proper permits to be selling items in the city of O’Neill. We have also take complaints of them stopping vehicles. Please do not purchase items from these vehicles and if seen attempting to sell items please make contact with your local police department.”

Police in nearby North Platte, Nebraska also received complaints about Mikel Knight street teams on Thursday, May 21st. Police were not able to make contact with the street teams before they left the area.

All of these incidents come as Mikel Knight’s “Maverick Dirt Road Street Team” continues to frequent the same towns they have been to before, building up a reputation with local residents and authorities who are then on the lookout for the vans and buses when they arrive in town.

The stated strategy behind Mikel Knight’s street teams is to circumvent the traditional album sales avenues so to not have to deal with the business side of music. You can still purchase Mikel Knight’s music online through the traditional channels like iTunes, and portions his music operation appear to operate quite normal. But his lack of playing shows and the aggressiveness of his stream team, and the way certain street team members have been treated is what has led to mounting controversy.

The Revealing Account of a Former Mikel Knight Street Team Member Ky Rodgers

In July of 2014, a former Maverick Dirt Road Street Team member named Ky Rodgers posted an extensive account of his year with Mikel Knight, the deceptions street team members were led to believe, the conditions they were forced to work under, how some members were beaten and abandoned for not making sales quotas, and how working conditions eventually resulted in Rogers being involved in a major motor vehicle accident that had him hospitalized with multiple broken vertebrae and other injuries.

mikel-knight-dirt-road-street-team-4“I was introduced by a couple of guys on his street team,” Ky Rodgers explained. “They told me about how he needed a new lead guitarist and that they had been showing him some of my YouTube videos and his current singer/rhythm player had fell in love with my playing. I remember riding up to Nashville, clothes packed and not even knowing what to expect. I get there, and he has like 5-6 fancy tour vans that had his face and name plastered all over them, all of them were sitting on some kind of rims nicer than most cars. The back of each van read “The Country Rap King, Music from MTV’s BuckWild”, and my heart began racing. I knew this was the real deal. I went around back to meet most of our street team, B-Mull our drummer, and Conrad the singer/guitarist at the time. We had maybe a total of 15 guys back there. We loaded up the next morning and headed out on tour, but little did I know what I was in for.”

Rodgers went on to explain that he never played any shows, and his duty as lead guitar player were to sell CD’s with everyone else in the band and the street team.

“We would pull up to random gas stations, businesses, it didn’t matter. The driver of each van would tell us to get out, ‘grab CD’s! Go hit that person..’ We weren’t touring doing shows or playing for anybody, it wasn’t what I thought it was gonna be at all … EVERY SINGLE DAY for a month to 2 months straight, we would get up at 6:30 AM and would not stop selling until midnight. We would meet up at Wal-Mart in a different town every night. Drivers would take their money that their team made that day and take it to Mikel Knight, where he would take all the money and put it in a safe. And after sweating all day, and being completely dead by the time we’d all meet up, I remember asking a couple guys on the street team ‘when we going to get a room, I’m tired man.’ and they just laughed and walked off. We slept in the vans, without getting a shower and would be woken up by Mikel Knight at 6:30 the next morning by him beating on your window and yelling at you to get out. We’d get out and he would have sort of an ‘inspiration’ speech. More like a ‘God gave me this plan a year ago and we’ve grown from 4 guys to 5 vans and 15 guys and making $10,000 a day as a company,’ while smoking on a blunt of weed. Then he would cuss / yell at the guys that didn’t do good the night before, telling them to get their numbers up or he’d slap the hell out of them, or something along those lines.”

Eventually Ky Rodgers became acclimated to the environment, became one of the street team’s best sellers, and would get compensated in intervals for his work for Mikel Knight.

mikel-knight-dirt-road-street-team“I started doing really well. Selling up to 70 cd’s a day … I remember walking into Mikel Knight’s basement and him handing me a couple thousand dollars and telling me he couldn’t wait to get me in the studio, that if I stayed around, he’d make me a rockstar. This was just the grind out part that had to be done first. After being handed a few thousand dollars my thoughts about the long nights and no showers went away. I thought, i’m 18 bringing home this kinda money in a month?? BY SELLING CD’S? I thought I had it made. But I didn’t even realize the brainwashing. His work ethics were so evil, the way he treated us was like we were slaves. But being this young, and getting handed that cash blinded me.”

Rodgers was eventually promoted to captain of one of the street teams, but began seeing things that disturbed him about Mikel Knight’s organization.

People that had been with us from the beginning were getting promoted to driving the vans, but still had to sell CD’s. Sometimes, people’s money would come up short. Mikel Knight would beat them or have someone else jump them when we’d meet up at night. It could have been a miscalculation, or they could have stolen money, but Mikel Knight wasn’t taking chances. If someone’s team wasn’t making enough numbers, Mikel Knight would sometimes leave them in a town, sometimes without even their clothes, never paying them out. I never thought anything like this would happen to me.”

Photo from Ky Rodgers

Photo from Ky Rodgers

Ky Rodgers says that one night when riding in a street team van, the vehicle was in an accident in Utah, and the van fell off a three-story cliff. Ky was severely injured, and had to be care flighted to a hospital. He broke his L2, L3, and L4 vertebrae, his pelvis and sacrum, and was in the hospital for a week before he was discharged. He claims that Mikel Knight completely abandoned him and the rest of his street team crew, did not pay them, and would not return their personal possessions. Ky was stuck with $38,000 in medical bills, and couldn’t get Mikel Knight to even work with the auto insurance company to take out a claim, if the van was ever insured in the first place. “There was nothing we could do because we never signed anything saying ‘hey, you’re hired!’ He leaves no paper trail, no proof that anyone works for him, and he never withheld taxes from anyone’s pay.”

Two Street Team Members Die in Auto Accident

Ky Rodgers lived to tell his ordeal on the Mikel Knight Street Team, but two other individuals did not. A few weeks after Rodgers’ auto accident, another street team van was involved in an accident that killed two young men in Donley County in the Texas Panhandle. Taylor Robert Nixon and Robert Joseph Underfinger III were both killed in the June 16th, 2014 accident. The manager of the street team and one other individual were also injured in the incident.

mikel-knight-accidentAccording to Texas Department of Public Safety Senior Officer Daniel Hawthorne, at about 8:40 a.m. on June 16th, a 2005 Chevy van belonging to Mikel Knight veered off the road after overcorrecting and losing control, rolling several times before coming to a stop. Taylor Nixon and Robert Underfinger III were not wearing seat belts and were ejected from the van. They were pronounced dead on the scene.

Speaking in the context of Ky Rodgers’ account of his experience on the Mikel Knight street team, the aunt of Taylor Nixon named Rabecca Hughes said, “Its purpose is to prevent inhumane treatment of people; to prevent death and destruction of our youth; to hold Mikel Knight accountable for his lack of protection of his employees and directly placing them in harm’s way; for prosecution of Mikel Knight and members of his staff for physically and emotionally abusing people and profiting from their sweat and blood … If we can save one life, prevent one accident, rescue one soul, then our purpose is served. In Taylor’s name, I will not rest until Mikel Knight hears my voice, recognizes my sister’s cries for her son, and feels the wrath of those united for justice.”

Mikel Knight’s Real Name and Criminal Past

Mikel Knight’s real name is said to be Jason Cross or Jason Michael Cross, and he’s said to have hid this name because of his criminal past. Jason Michael Cross is 37-years-old with a birth date of 09/06/1976. A search of the Davidson County (Nashville) Criminal Court Clerk Database turned up 20 separate court cases against Jason Cross since 2006, and one as recent as September of 2014. The counts include multiple counts of aggravated assault, harassment, vandalism, theft, and multiple drivers license violations.

  • 12/5/2006 – Aggravated Assault
  • 5/20/2009 – Protection Order Violation (3 Separate counts)
  • 5/21/2009 – No Driver’s License
  • 11/3/2009 – No Driver’s License
  • 4/8/2010 – Theft of $500
  • 4/8/2010 – Harassment – Distress
  • 4/8/2010 – Vandalism of $1000
  • 6/28/2010 – Harassment
  • 6/28/2010 – Aggravated Assault (Bond of $75,000)
  • 8/4/2010 – Vandalism of $1000
  • 8/4/2010 – Harassment
  • 8/4/2010 -Harassment – Distress
  • 8/4/2010 – Aggravated Assault (felony)
  • 8/4/2010 – Theft of $500 (felony)
  • 6/7/2011 – No Driver’s License
  • 12/28/2011 – Driving with a Suspended License
  • 9/23/2014 – Driver’s License Revoked

Since Mikel Knight claims to be originally from San Antonio, Saving Country Music also checked with the Bexar County Criminal Court and found multiple arrests and court actions for the same Jason M. Cross with a birth date of 09/06/1976, including an aggravated assault from 2006 that a warrant for his arrest is currently issued for.

  • 02/18/1995 – Attempted Robbery (felony – received 10 years probation)
  • 02/19/1996 – Assault with a Deadly Weapon (felony)
  • 03/16/1996 – Assault with Bodily Injury
  • 05/16/1998 – Assault with Bodily Injury
  • 09/2/1998 – Driving with Suspended License
  • 09/7/1998 – Assault with Bodily Injury
  • 09/07/1999 – Assault with Bodily Injury
  • 05/27/2006 – Assault with Bodily Injury (Pending, warrant issued for his arrest)

Because of his attempts to cover up his real identity, Saving Country Music cannot 100% confirm that Mikel Knight is the same Jason Cross the above arrest records belong to, but it can be confirmed that the two separate arrest records are for the same individual, match up with what is believed to be Mikel Knights real name a birth date, and match up with Mikel Knight’s known whereabouts at the time of the incidents. There is also the possibility there are other arrests or criminal actions against him in other locations.

Mikel Knight, or Jason Cross has also used another pseudonym to perform under as a rapper named “A-Gee The Albino Gorilla.”

jason-cross

Charitable Donations

safehaven-familyThere has also been questions about claims of charitable contributions made by Mikel Knight street teams. In November of 2013, street teams set up shop in the towns of Joplin, Galena, Oswego and Parsons in the area around the Missouri and Kansas border. The teams were telling businesses where they sold CD’s near, as well as customers, that proceeds from sales would go to a charity called Safe Haven. “They called the police, and the police called me and asked me if I knew anything about it and I told them I had never even heard of him,” said Safe Haven Outreach Mission Inc. director Melissa Brown based in Parsons, KS. “I guess by the time the police got there, the guy was gone.” Later Mikel Knight’s manager explained the Safe Haven charity was actually a homeless charity based in Nashville, but the local Safe Haven charity in Parsons still felt people were being deceived that their money would be helping local communities.

Mikel Knight has worked with the Safe Haven charity in Nashville for multiple years, and claims he’s given over $150,000 to Safe Haven as proceeds from street team CD sales. Saving Country Music has confirmed Mikel Knight has given donations to the charity, but questions linger if the percentage of CD sales street team members claim to collect per album is the same amount delivered to Safe Haven in Nashville. Lining up Mikel’s accumulated CD sales with the amount donated to Safe Haven, the percentages do not appear what Mikel Knight street team members say they are. Nonetheless, sizable donations have been made to the Nashville homeless shelter in Mikel Knight’s name.

Mounting Pressure on Mikel Knight

In the midst of last week’s arrests of street team members, the injuries and deaths of previous street team members, and concerns for the legality of his organization and the welfare of his workers, pressure has mounted against Mikel Knight. But the country rap performer appears to be a master of evasion, and has avoided any serious examination from authorities.

There is a Facebook page set up called Families Against Mikel Night Maverick Dirt Road Street Team that is actively trying to keep tabs on Mikel Night and many of his closest supporters. Sensing pressure, Mikel Knight regularly lashes out at his detractors with bellicose social network posts.

mikel-knight-1 mikel-knight-3

Conclusion

Similar to how country rap and hick hop preys on the culturally disenfranchised in America’s small towns, so does Mikel Knight and his street teams. Seeming to avoid major metropolitan areas, they set up in small towns just large enough to have a Wal-Mart, and fan out in flashy vehicles that impress locals and make them look like a major organization. It’s a superstar facade that lures in both fans, and prospective street team members who are sold on the idea of being a part of something big. Unfortunately it all hides a culture of harassment, assault, and manipulation. By operating on the road and using the shield of charity, Mikel Knight has been able to stay one step ahead of local authorities, and much of the entertainment media who just see him as another country rap star with a grassroots following and approach. Serious inquiries should be made into the legalities and working environment of the Mikel Knight organization before more injuries, assaults, and deaths are allowed to occur.