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A gun to his head, Greensboro activist vowed to change so 'this ain't the end'

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GREENSBORO — Anthony Morgan Jr. sat in the front seat of his Silver 1998 Acura RL in an empty parking lot near an abandoned building, waiting for the two strangers in the back seat to give him money for the marijuana.

Then Morgan heard the snap of a bullet being loaded into the chamber of the gun that was now pressed firmly against the back of his head.

Morgan’s heartbeat began thumping like a drum in his ears. At 21, being caught up in a drug deal gone wrong was not what he thought his life would become.

Morgan wondered what happened to himself. He was the kid who wore khakis and bow ties, and carried a briefcase to school to be unique and set a standard. He would sneak his friends into his home as a child to help them escape their bad home environments. He was a good kid.

Now, this moment with a cold pistol pressed to his skull, would be the thing that would change the narrative of his life.

“After that moment, I knew that God was trying to tell me, ‘Yo, get your life together, get it together, man’,” said Morgan, who is now 29, recalled. “And after that moment, I really started being way more intentional with getting my life together.”

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The Greensboro rapper known as “FreeDopeMajor” has now become an activist who has organized several protests and community outreach events.

Today, he says his habit of ”treading through fire without being consumed” is the theme of his life.

“Everything that we see goes through a struggle, and through a dark period,” Morgan said. “Like a seed in the ground is very dark, but when it grows, it sprouts and bears fruit and it helps me to understand that this ain’t the end of my story.”

Morgan was raised in a middle-class, religious home with his mother, grandmother and his three siblings. He and his family never missed a Sunday church service at his home church on Apple Street in Burlington. This is where Morgan found his love of music and his belief in God, he says.

But, not even growing up surrounded by love could protect him from the temptations of the streets.

He was 15 years old when he was first introduced to marijuana. He found security in the clouds of smoke that seemed to cover the reality of his life, he says. It was the best way that he knew how to cope at the time. It was an escape from the resentment and disappointment that he’d carried with him since the age of 7 — the age when he was molested by a family friend.

He was 16 years old when he first started selling marijuana. Being the oldest of four children, he felt it his duty to become the man of the house and help provide for his family after his parents divorced.

He was 19 years old when he went on his first music tour, an opportunity that came about when his mother introduced him to a bus driver who promised to help launch his musical career. Morgan became a roadie, reaping none of the benefits he was promised. The experience exposed him to the dark, gritty parts of the music industry. He witnessed the drug abuse by artists and “groupies” and the shady deals.

Years later, he would be offered a million-dollar deal that he would eventually turn down.

“I turned the deal down because I felt like it was it was poisonous fruit being dangled in front of me when I needed to be focused on what was ahead of me,” he said.

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When Morgan had his near-death experience at 21, he knew it was time for a positive change.

He remembers thinking: “God, please, I don’t know how I got myself into this situation, but I’m in it and I just need you right now.”

He started cleaning up his public image, as well as his musical persona, practicing mindfulness and tapping into his spirituality. Morgan also began educating himself on racism.

“AJ has been one of those people that has always learned from his experiences,” said Jaxon Randolph, a friend. “Whether it be something good or something bad, he’s taken that experience and learned from it and tried to make a better life out of it and better opportunities.”

Morgan started looking to propel his music career in a new way, recording songs with big-name artists from the Triad like Ricco Barrino and DJ Luke Nasty, each song reflecting critical moments and lessons in Morgan’s life.

As he started learning more about racial injustice and oppression. He released a song called “G.D.Y.” in May 2020, where he sang lyrics like: “Terrorized by America’s assessment of my worth, my skin criminalized at birth,” and “Guess we gotta die for the world to hear our voice.”

Eerily enough, Morgan’s opportunity for the world to “hear his community’s voice” came after he witnessed the death of George Floyd. Just 15 days after he released his song “G.D.Y.”

“What’s the point of me making a song when I’m understanding that that’s not going to change this,” Morgan said. “I have to physically go out and be disruptive because that’s what history shows is effective.”

He remembers crying as he watched Floyd’s agonizing last seconds being televised. He was angry, disgusted, hurt and took this moment as a call to action.

“I went outside, and I organized a protest, which I had never done before,” Morgan said. “I went to Instagram and I was like, ‘Yo, what just happened is disgusting. How about y’all meet me at the International Civil Rights Museum on Elm Street, we’re going to start a protest’.”

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What started as a gathering of 20 people soon turned into an assembly of over 600. People that Morgan didn’t know, filed in to follow him as he marched through the streets of Greensboro, blocking roads off, stopping traffic and creating a scene for conversation.

“From there, my life changed because now people are recognizing the power of my voice, and I didn’t even recognize the power of my voice,” he said. “It went from me being a musician to me being a leader of people, a leader of men and women.”

Morgan hosted several protests after, each with a different edge than the first. He describes his protest style as “strategic, but radical.” One of his more radical protests included he and his fellow protestors walking through Walmart, Target and McDonald’s chanting the names of Black people who were slain without justice.

These protests were the first of many for him and through his organizing, he’s been able to build a network of other activists and community leaders.

Among that network was Brandon Davis, an activist and rapper known as “Brandon D.” Davis recalls his first impression of Morgan, “Yo, who is this funny looking dude with these tight clothes on, standing on water bottles in Target?” said Davis, laughing as the memory came back to him.

Davis, a seasoned activist, would soon become a mentor for Morgan as he began his journey as a community leader.

“His mantra at the time when I met him was, ‘Yo I’m ready to die for this’,” Davis said. “My perspective for him was, ‘Nah, man, you’re gonna live for this.”

Part of Morgan’s new agenda for refocusing the energy and direction of his activism is figuring out a way to create more effective change in his community. To him, the events and celebrations are vital, but are symbolic and short-lived.

“I’ve been trying to think of a way I can create a system that actually benefits us in the long run where we create stability, where we create a resource for this broken community for them to have something that’s tangible,” Morgan said. “Because all the protests and all of that is cool, but we need jobs. We need education. We need reprogramming.”

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Morgan’s activism work is continuing to expand throughout the city. He is currently working on a program with Mayor Nancy Vaughan that will be called Oasis.

“I wanted to create a fertile spot in the desert where water is found, that’s exactly what an oasis stands for,” he said. “Our neighborhoods are resource deserts, information deserts, food deserts and love deserts.

Oasis will try to address and remedy the lack of resources and opportunities for underserved populations in the city, he said. The primary goal is to provide mentorship and safe haven.

“From everything I’ve just told you, you understand that I have an intimate relationship with that struggle. So I really want to create a place where people can come to that are struggling.”

His friends and family look forward to Morgan’s continued efforts to uplift his community.

“There was a time in his life where he was seen in a negative light because of some choices that he made,” friend Brittney Mercer. “To see how his perception publicly has changed has been amazing and I’m super proud of the changes that he had to make to become who he is today.”

Now, Morgan’s goal is to continue being a beacon for the community.

“I just want my legacy to be that I put myself in uncomfortable situations to open up the gate so that people can have uncomfortable conversations so that we could grow, heal, learn and build,” Morgan said. “I just want people to look at me and be like, ‘He opened up the door for people that look like him.’”

UNC Media Hub is a collection of students from the various concentrations in the Hussman School of Journalism and Media working together to create integrated and free multimedia packages covering stories from around North Carolina.

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