In order to listen to “Vegas Don” speak about life on the streets, the cocaine he’s sold and the 17 people he says he’s shot, you first have to empty your pockets and subject yourself to the metal detectors wielded by sheriff’s deputies guarding the entrance to Union Baptist Church in Winston-Salem.
Vegas Don’s real name is Otis Lyons and in the 1980s he ran a notorious street gang in Durham before being sentenced to 30 years in prison in 1987 after being convicted of shooting at someone. His conviction was overturned five years later. Lyons prefers to be known as Vegas Don.
On Thursday morning, Lyons spoke to about 30 area high school students gathered at the church on North Trade Street in an effort to deter them from a life of crime and drug use — a life he used to live.
Lyons’ presentation started with him rapping, he came out to a modified version of the Rick Ross gangsta rap song “B.M.F. (Blowin’ Money Fast),” swapping its lyrics about infamous drug dealers with famed civil rights leaders.
“I think I’m Malcom X, Martin Luther,” Lyons rapped. “Saving peeps, hallelujah. Real G’s don’t murder who they love.”
Appearing as part of the 16th annual Corner 2 Corner Drug Dealers and Street Life Conference, Lyons regaled the teens with tales of his life as the “OG,” or leader of North Durham Vice.
“I shot about 17 of my own people,” he said, while a slideshow of faces, people from his gang who died, played behind him. An audience member asked him if he had murdered any of those people.
“A sane person would never tell you that,” Lyons said.
Lyons sold cocaine, or “caine” as he called it, and made a lot of money doing so. He flashed pictures of himself holding stacks of bills and guns.
He recalled the time, before he went to prison, when he was almost killed. He said he was at a woman’s house one night, “high on caine,” when seven men with guns called for him to come out of the house.
Holding a sawed-off shotgun, Lyons said he had seen “Scarface” enough times and was so high, he wasn’t scared. “I was ready to die,” he said.
He didn’t die, but he was shot in the head, he said. He attributes his luck to God, saying it must have been his plan for him to live.
After prison, Lyons continued to sell cocaine and run the gang. He said his life didn’t actually turn around until he saw God one night after partying.
“I came home to the club and I went to lay down,” he said. “A force made me sit up in bed and replay that night (he was shot in the head). I started seeing the world for what it really was.”
So he decided to change — literally he calls his business venture Campaign 4 Change — and he works to deter kids from the life he lived, and the life he saw others live.
“I was in that situation because of the things I did,” Lyons said.
He said that people can only blame their circumstances so much, and that to be successful in life they must find it in themselves to do better. Lyons said he hopes he can show at-risk kids that they have value, even if they don’t always listen to him.
“It upsets me more than anything,” Lyons said about young people who have heard him speak and still end up killed or in prison. “I put my heart, blood, sweat and tears into this.”
Jaheim Davis, a 17-year-old sophomore at Carver High School, said Lyons’ presentation was impactful.
“Taught me to stay in school, keep my head held high,” Davis said.
He said he sees gang activity among his peers but focuses on pursuing a college football career at Winston-Salem State University.
“I see gang-banging every day, but it’s not my cup of tea,” Davis said. “That tea cold, and I like my tea hot.”
At one point in his presentation, Lyons showed graphic pictures of four men who were killed in a drive-by shooting, evoking the strongest reaction of the morning from the students.
Some students had to leave the room, and others shielded their eyes.
The Rev. Sir Walter Mack, the senior pastor at Union Baptist Church, organizes the annual conference, and he told the students in attendance that he hopes they will change their paths.
“We’re here today because you have to live,” an emotional Mack told the students. “You cannot die before it’s your time. It’s not God’s will.”
Mack said that he is upset about the amount of violence he has seen in Winston-Salem recently and that the church needs to do more to heal the city.
“I believe the church’s role is to do everything it can to remedy the violence in the streets,” Mack said.