A1 A1
Song featuring Mount Tabor High School grad Sonny Miles winds up on Barack Obama's playlist alongside Beyonce, Lizzo, Springsteen

Several months ago, Winston-Salem-native Sonny Miles recorded “Raleighwood Hills” with his friends LesTheGenius and Jaxson Free, and did what modern musicians do today — got it placed on a curated Spotify playlist, posted it on YouTube and hoped for the best.

A very influential listener came across the song written by the Raleigh-based hip-hop artists and liked it.

His name is Barack Obama.

With one tweet, the former president plucked this dreamy hip-hop song from obscurity, exposing it to his 111 million Twitter followers by putting it on his 2019 music playlist, alongside such superstars as Beyonce, Bruce Springsteen, Lizzo and Lil Nas X.

Miles, whose real name is Jordan Williams, shook his head and smiled about this unexpected surge in exposure from the most unlikeliest of places.

“This is crazy,” Miles said, laughing. “The big lesson is you never know who is listening.”

Since Obama tweeted his favorite music of the year on Dec. 30, Miles, a 2014 graduate of Mount Tabor High School, has seen an uptick in followers on his social media pages, which he hopes will translate into a career boost.

The number of people listening to “Raleighwood Hills” on YouTube has steadily increased by the day, with many people referencing Obama’s playlist in their comments.

“President Obama brought me here,” one person wrote.

National media outlets such as Vanity Fair, the Los Angeles Times and Rolling Stone have written about Obama’s playlist, typically mentioning the inclusion of Lizzo and DaBaby, two of the hottest stars in music today. “Raleighwood Hills” is usually not mentioned in such articles because it has had such little exposure.

After recording the song in the spring of 2019, the three collaborators got Spotify to put the song on one of its curated playlists for a month. Miles estimated that playlist has about 40,000 followers.

He has no idea how the song reached Obama’s ears.

“We’re still trying to figure that out. Maybe from Malia and Sasha?” Miles said, referring to Obama’s daughters.

A friend called Miles on the morning of Dec. 30 to tell him of the playlist.

“You must not know what’s going on because you sound awfully calm,” the friend told Miles.

Miles has been working on his music career for six years, even while earning a degree in communications from N.C. State. It’s hard to tell what sort of bump this exposure could mean.

All 44 songs on Obama’s 2019 summer playlist saw an increase in sales and streams, according to Billboard, a music industry magazine.

“This is confirming of our own hard work. I know the tide is definitely turning,” Miles said.

Miles has a broad set of musical skills. He started as a drummer, playing in churches where his father, a pastor, preached. He was inspired to start singing after seeing a Mount Tabor production of “Godspell” and began performing in school productions, crediting his chorus teacher, Ross Broadway, with mentoring him.

“I thought, ‘Damn, that’s cool,’” Miles said of seeing his first school musical. “I think I can do that.”

He started playing guitar after graduation and shortly after, began singing with a cappella groups and then started rapping. He raps on part of “Raleighwood Hills.”

Steeped in the music of Prince and Sly & the Family Stone, Miles has a smooth, soulful voice that matches his guitar style. His music has been called “acoustic soul” for its relaxed, chilled vibe. He chose the stage name Sonny Miles in honor of jazz players Sonny Stitt and Miles Davis.

Miles laughed about his old-school music preferences, saying he eventually came around to appreciate modern performers such as Travis Scott.

Miles has a new album, “Gamma,” coming out shortly, and a single “Bedroom Hollywood” is available on bandcamp. Though his music career is based in Raleigh, he is currently living in Winston-Salem where he plans to immerse himself in music engineering, another skill he is eager to develop.

“Everything is very conveniently happening. Now is the time to answer all this with more content, more music. Right now, I just want to release my next body of work and bam!” he said punching his fist in the air.

Photos: Sonny Miles

Gang tags appear in West End, Hanes Park. 5 juveniles arrested, police say

A recent spate of graffiti on buildings, bridges, sidewalks and stop signs in Winston-Salem’s West End neighborhood and elsewhere in the city is the work of a local street gang, according to the Winston-Salem Police Department.

The graffiti, which has appeared as “Cuaji,” “Cuaji-13” or “CLS” is the work of the Hispanic gang Cuaji-13, a local affiliate of the notorious Sureños, or Sur-13 gang, Sgt. Tyler Walley said.

“We’ve been experiencing a rash of those graffiti taggings popping up around Reynolds High School and Hanes Park and Academy Street,” said Walley, a member of the police department’s gang unit. “And it’s just incessant. It’s such a quick crime of opportunity. They can get away in around a minute after doing their tag. “

Taggers are difficult to catch and often can’t be caught unless there is video surveillance or an eyewitness who noted the license-plate number of the taggers’ vehicle, Walley said.

Five juveniles have been arrested in connection with the recent flood of graffiti, Walley said, after a city of Winston-Salem park ranger developed probable cause linking them to the Cuaji-13 tags. Because the suspects are younger than 18, their names and other identifying factors will not be released, pursuant to state law.

Cuaji-13 got its start locally in 2001 at Reynolds High School, according to congressional testimony in 2006 from Brandon Holland, who was then the director of the Forsyth County District Attorney’s Zero Armed Perpetrators Program. He said the gang had been responsible for shootings and other gun crimes.

Walley didn’t provide any information about Cuaji-13’s current activity but did acknowledge an uptick in its presence in the city. Traditionally, Winston-Salem has been a Sur-13 city, he said, and its presence continues to grow.

On an international level, Sur-13 is aligned with the Mexican Mafia, a powerful prison gang, as are most Hispanic gangs with a 13 at the end of their names, because the letter “M” is the 13th letter of the alphabet and the M represents the Mexican Mafia.

In the case of Cuaji-13, members traditionally are from Cuajinicuilapa, Mexico, according to Holland’s testimony. However, that isn’t the case for its members in 2019, according to Walley.

“If they befriend someone or think someone is cool, or down to ride, they’re pretty relaxed,” he said of Cuaji-13’s membership requirement. “It doesn’t matter if they’re not from Cuaji.”

Wayne Belcher, the city of Winston-Salem’s park-maintenance supervisor, whose department is responsible for graffiti removal, said he has seen more gang tags this year than he has in any of his nine years with the city.

“It’s at an all-time high,” Belcher said. “It’s been like as soon as we remove it, the graffiti is back.”

Typically, police will document the gang tags in city parks, and then Belcher and his team can remove them, he said.

Hanes Park is repeatedly targeted because of its visibility and convenience to Reynolds High School, Walley said.

While gang tags can be frightening, they do not necessarily mean a gang is claiming the area tagged as part of its turf or that something bad will happen in the neighborhood, Walley said.

“It’s like letting everyone know we’re here and we’re bad ass,” he said.

The gangs, in this case Cuaji-13, are advertising, and the tags are often the work of younger, new members who want to prove their worth.

“They’re starting to become devout, and they’re trying to show their loyalty,” Walley said of the taggers. “Typically it’s going to be your younger members that are just starting to get their feet wet in the gang.”

Tom Dixon, a veterinarian with a practice is south Winston-Salem, is no stranger to the graffiti. He said his building, at the intersection of South Main Street and Anderson Drive, has been regularly tagged by gangs over the past four years. While graffiti — and specifically gang tags — are common on the south side, Dixon said he feels especially targeted.

“It’s got what I feel like is more graffiti on it than any building in south side,” he said.

He said it costs $1,000 to remove the tags, and he estimated that he has had to clean them off seven times. Recently, Dixon said, the graffiti is increasing, his building having been tagged three times since November.

He reports the tagging to police each time, installed motion lights on the building’s exterior and even has a camera in place. Nothing seems to work.

“I even took spray paint and (wrote) ‘Smile for the camera,’ and pointed to the camera,” Dixon said. “I put it in Spanish, and they still put it there.”

Sexton: Notable everyday folks who left us in 2019

Short notes spelled out on big marquee signs, grand gestures and heartfelt tributes marked the deaths of big-hearted local folks last year, the go-to guys and ties-that-bind women who made our communities what they are.

Their names may not instantly recognizable, but their actions certainly were.

Small-business owners, community volunteers and low-key professionals, all shared key traits — hard-working, earnest and a drive to leave a lasting impression on their small corner of the world.

As every passing year does, 2019 took with it an unfair number of our very finest everyday people. A small-town first responder, a businessman who met death with humility and good humor, and an inspirational novice politician are but a few.

The last laugh

Kevin Long knew what was coming his way the minute he learned he had ALS, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. Many of us know it by another name: Lou Gehrig’s disease.

Still, Long confronted the disease the same way he built his business, Piedmont Disposal and Recycling — head on, with an eye for detail and mirth in his heart. A father of three, Long took care of things so his family and friends wouldn’t have to do so.

“Since I knew this was coming, I’m writing this myself. I passed away from ALS. While the last year and a half has been difficult, I had a great life!” he wrote in his obituary.

Long planned his funeral and visitation, and his final days, spent with loved ones saying his goodbyes. His family was with him at the end, an early summer’s day in June.

“He was outside enjoying nature as he liked to do,” said Mack Long, Kevin Long’s firstborn. “It was like he was falling asleep. … It was like watching a sunset. So peaceful.”

When he died, Long had one last surprise — one that left those close to him with smiles on the hardest of days.

He had enlisted close friend Will Spencer in a conspiracy of sorts, making a custom casket that looked exactly like a 30-yard dumpster, complete with the familiar color scheme and logo of Piedmont Disposal.

“You could see people taking pictures,” Spencer said. “Everybody knew that Kevin had the last laugh.”

Kevin Long was 52.

True public servant

Many of the 578 souls living in East Bend knew why the flag in front of the volunteer fire department had been lowered to half-staff without having to read the news on a portable sign out front.

Rest in Peace Chief Gary Martin.

“Whenever an older or disabled person fell, Gary was the one called to help get them up,” wrote Bettie Luper in an email remembering Martin after his death in late March.

“He was the one that held the hand of victims of car accidents for comfort until they could be freed from the wreckage, always with a comforting voice and a great sense of humor.

“A huge loss for a small town. Who will fill those shoes?”

Gary Martin was a lifelong resident of Yadkin County. He only left home to serve in the U.S. Army, and put in a half-century as a volunteer firefighter while working a day job with the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co.

He signed on with the East Bend Volunteer Fire Department in 1968 and never left. He worked every job the department had, rising through the ranks to lieutenant, captain and finally, chief. He retired in 2005.

Martin, in what free time he had, was known to show up unexpectedly in places where someone needed a hand. He fixed wheelchair ramps, repaired walkways and made sure first aid and safety lessons were taught in the elementary school.

“It seems like everybody from his generation was like that,” firefighter Ronnie Boles said. “But really, he served his community. He impacted a lot of lives.”

Gary Martin was 69.

Caring for people with food

Hard hats and business suits alike knew Gay Sholtz for the love she put into her hard work making her famous Miss Gay’s Chicken Pies at Carlton’s Hampton Road grocery in Clemmons.

“Feeding people, she was like a grandma in that was her thing,” said Zach Carlton, one of the store’s owners who practically grew up around Sholtz. “She wanted to take care of people with her food.”

She was known for her home cooking and generous portions. But it was her chicken pies, produced once a month in batches of 100, that drew lines of eager customers to a little store on a busy road in southeastern Clemmons.

“I can’t think of anything I’d rather be doing than cooking,” Sholtz said in 2008.

Yet it was the things she did behind the scenes that endeared her most to those who really knew her.

To her younger siblings, she was part mother, part mentor and full-time inspiration. Sholtz took a job after her father became ill to help pay bills, and she made sure her younger siblings got to school on time and ate well.

“She was a second mama to us three,” said Katie Kearns, one of Sholtz’s sisters. “She always put herself last to make your needs first.”

There’s no finer way to be remembered.

Linda Gay Sholtz was 64 when she died in October.

Investing with time

When Danielle Bailey-Lash learned in 2010 that her headaches were caused by glioblastoma, a rare and aggressive brain cancer, she could have been forgiven if she had simply retreated into herself. But that wasn’t her way.

Her time, her doctor said, was as short as it was precious.

“She was given six months, and (God) gave her nine years,” said Mary Martin, Bailey-Lash’s godmother. “She was not going to give up. It was so miraculous. It never stopped her from getting up and going.”

Indeed. Between treatments and the roller-coaster ride that cancer takes people on, Bailey-Lash remained plugged in to her community in Walnut Cove.

She volunteered (and served on the boards of) local PTAs, the youth football program, the annual Walnut Cove Little People’s Festival, and Exchange/SCAN, a local organization now known as the Parenting Path. It was established to help abused and neglected children.

Bailey-Lash also took a front-line role in fighting for the environment and drawing attention to the harmful effects of fracking and the presence of coal ash in close proximity to drinking-water supplies.

“She knew the value of family, and (Walnut Cove) became her family, too,” said Jennifer Martin, a prosecutor in Forsyth County and a lifelong friend of Bailey-Lash.

She was so invested in her hometown that she decided to run for a seat on the town’s board of commissioners last year despite her illness. Already well-known, Bailey-Lash campaigned hard and was a leading vote-getter in the Nov. 5 election.

“She exemplified everything you want in a young lady,” said her mother, Sandy Thomas. “I know you’ve heard all of this before — everybody says things like that — but it’s true. Our faith, her faith, kept us going.”

Danielle Bailey-Lash didn’t make it to her swearing-in ceremony. She died in late November just two weeks before she could take her oath. She was 45.

FDA restrictions on vaping products could lead to shop closings in May

Gregory Conley has warned members of the American Vaping Association for years that it would be possible to win a battle, but lose the war, when it comes to heightened federal tobacco regulations.

The biggest concern of Conley, the advocacy group’s president, came to fruition Thursday when the Food and Drug Administration announced plans for restricting flavored electronic cigarette and vaping products.

The nicotine liquids for use with open-pod e-cigarettes will remain available for now in tobacco and vape shops — in large part because FDA and other Trump administration officials believe those products lack appeal to individuals under age 21, and that those shops are more responsible at age-verification policies than other retail outlets.

However, the FDA also determined that makers of the nicotine liquids are manufacturers, and thus required to submit a premarket application by a federal court-mandated May 12 deadline in order to be included in a 12-month FDA review process.

A key element of that process is allowing those products to remain available for sale.

The premarket standard requires the FDA to consider products’ existing risks and benefits to the population as a whole, including users and non-users, particularly as it compares with traditional cigarettes.

“There is virtually no chatter about people actually filing (premarket applications) from the e-liquid side,” Conley said.

In that scenario, small vape shops dependent on large nicotine-liquid makers could begin closing in mid-May from lack of product from legal sources.

Avail Vapor, based in Richmond, Va., claims in its marketing it is “the leading premium e-liquid manufacturer and retail business.” It has one store in Winston-Salem and two stores in Greensboro.

The company could not be reached for comment Friday on how the FDA’s premarket application requirement for e-liquid manufacturing would affect its business.

For manufacturers of cartridge-based e-cigarettes, such as Juul Labs Inc., R.J. Reynolds Vapor Co., NJoy and Fontem Ventures, they have a 30-day window to stop making, distributing and selling “unauthorized flavorings” or risk enforcement actions. The 30-day countdown is expected to begin early next week.

Analysts, industry officials and advocates have said for years it could cost millions of dollars for each product to go through the premarket regulatory pipeline.

The FDA, meanwhile, has estimated it would cost about $500,000 per product. FDA officials said Thursday they would offer application assistance to small manufacturers of vaping liquids.

“A vape shop that is in the business of manufacturing, by mixing nicotine and flavors, has a decision that it has to make about what business it wants to be in going forward,” said Mitch Zeller, director of the FDA’s Center for Tobacco Products.

“If they are involved in the manufacturing process, they are subject to the law.”

Premarket application

Even at the lower FDA estimate, anti-smoking advocates, such as Conley, say that cost will prove prohibitive for many vaping liquid manufacturers.

“The FDA has no answer for how a manufacturer, who may be lucky to end the year with $100,000 in profits, is supposed to file a (premarket application) for one product, let alone 30 or more,” Conley said.

“A lot of crooks are out there quietly peddling ‘$100,000 for a full (premarket application)” and garbage like that. Some have bought into it. Their applications probably won’t be accepted (by the FDA) for scientific review.”

Conley said the FDA “wanted an excuse to commence enforcement” earlier than May 12.

“Its major bone of contention is with products like Juul, but they’ve assiduously avoided acknowledging the fact that the deadline will kill small- and- medium-sized competitors.”

Most local vape shops declined to comment Friday when asked about their concerns about securing e-liquid supplies after May 12. Two expressed confidence that their supplier — which they would not identify — had the financial means to go through the premarket application process.

“It’s not just about meeting a manufacturing criteria,” Conley said. “If the industry needed to have its products made in five-star labs where you could eat off the floor, that would be manageable.

“The studies and data required as part of the (premarket application) on the product itself, as well as the uncertainty of modeling out the population-level impacts of flavored products the FDA seems to believe are a gateway to smoking, make the process unattainable for all but the most well-funded companies,” Conley said.


The May 12 deadline represents the culmination of nearly 3½ years of regulatory enforcement delay by the FDA. The agency gained in August 2016 the authority to regulate e-cigarettes, vaporizers, cigars, hookahs (water pipes), pipe tobacco, nicotine gels and certain dissolvables.

The FDA said in August 2016 that “manufacturers of newly regulated tobacco products will no longer be allowed to introduce new tobacco products to the market without first receiving authorization from FDA.”

On Thursday, the FDA stressed that any e-cigarette product currently available at retail “is illegally marketed” and only permitted “as an exercise of its enforcement discretion.”

The original Vuse version by R.J. Reynolds Vapor Co. is the No. 2 selling e-cigarette. Its current flavors are tobacco, menthol, mint, rich tobacco, chai, crema, fusion, tropical, mixed berry, melon and nectar.

Unlike Juul Labs Inc., which limited itself to menthol and tobacco flavors in November, Reynolds has not voluntarily removed any of its flavors.

Reynolds Vapor entered the FDA’s regulatory gauntlet Oct. 11 with its submission for premarket approval of multiple Vuse e-cigarette products. The FDA said Nov. 30 it would review whether Vuse can claim it is a lower-risk tobacco product.

Reynolds spokeswoman Kaelan Hollon said Thursday the company “is well positioned to submit applications for the remaining Vuse portfolio ahead of the deadline of May 12.”

The manufacturer said it will adhere to the FDA’s restrictions and remove all non-menthol and non-tobacco Vuse styles in early February.

“We have submitted a (premarket application) for multiple Vuse products, which includes several flavors,” Hollon said.

“The FDA guidance provided today is clear that flavors can return to the entire marketplace once they have been cleared through the (premarket) process.”

Financial impact

British financial research firm Jefferies said Friday that while vaping sales would take a near-term hit from the new rules, the overall financial impact for British American Tobacco Plc and Imperial Brands Plc would be minimal.

BAT is the owner of Reynolds American Inc. of Winston-Salem, while Imperial owns ITG Brands LLC of Greensboro.

BAT said in November it has chosen two Reynolds products — e-cigarette Vuse and “modern oral” Velo — among the three next-generation tobacco offerings it will emphasize globally in 2020, along with BAT’s glo, a heat-not-burn traditional cigarette.

It is not clear whether BAT plans to market all current Vuse flavors globally, or restrict itself to just menthol and tobacco.

Jefferies analysts project, as do many U.S. tobacco analysts, that most adult consumers of e-cigarettes and vaping would switch to menthol or tobacco, or potentially turn to higher-margin traditional tobacco products, such as Natural American Spirit cigarettes made by R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co.

“We are actually bullish on implications of this final guidance,” Jefferies said.

Jack Bowles, BAT’s chief executive, said in a statement Friday that the FDA announcement “takes us a step closer to a predictable regulatory environment in a key marketplace, but focus must now shift to enforcement to ensure vapor market regulations are effective.

“We have long said it is not the marketing of these products per se that is the concern; it is the irresponsible marketing of them that should be robustly addressed.

“For us, smart regulatory frameworks partnered with responsible marketing and appropriate enforcement will ensure the sustainability of adult consumer choice across all categories,” Bowles said.