When Bed Stuy resident Antoine Cassidy was released from Rikers Island in 2003, he was looking for ways to reconnect with himself and his family. He wanted to give back to a community he once had harmed by selling drugs and which, as he saw it, was still suffering. He decided to do what he knows best: music.
Cassidy, also known as Twanie Ranks of the legendary hip-hop collective Boot Camp Clik, is a well-known artist-turned-community advocate, anti-violence instructor and co-founder of the "No Gun No Smoke School Tour," a Bed Stuy-based anti-violence organization.
[perfectpullquote align="right" cite="" link="" color="" class="" size=""]"The switch was me going to prison, thinking about: 'What can I do differently when I go back to society, to make a heavy impact? My music was one way," said Cassidy.[/perfectpullquote]
The Brooklyn native grew up in, as he shared, "a drug-infested, gun-slinging environment." He adopted some of those experiences as a young adult. But while enjoying the perks of a successful rap career, he turned "greedy" and decided to his income by selling drugs.
"Before I went to prison, I had a I don't care attitude. I was with Boot Camp Clik and was still selling drugs. I was being selfish at that time," shared Cassidy. "But I was also helping people, helping them to pay their rent because these people were spending their money with me. When I saw that kids had no school clothes because their mothers spend the money on drugs, I realized I gotta give back to my community, to the youth."
Eventually, Cassidy got caught and ended up spending five years at Rikers Island. There, he decided to turn over a new leaf.
"The switch was me going to prison, thinking about: 'What can I do differently when I go back to society, to make a heavy impact? My music was one way," said Cassidy.
After his release, he began to dedicate his experience and skills to producing music that offered positive messages. In 2003, Cassidy released a first album with his brother Jay Cuervo titled, "Me and my Brother," followed by "Guns Down." Then, with the support of other NYC rappers, including Sadat X and Mr. Bristal of Junior M.A.F.I.A., he took the show on the road and brought his conscious music into Brooklyn classrooms.
In 2004, he launched the "No Gun No Smoke School Tour," pairing motivational speaking and uplifting messages with live music performances.
"I was tired of the killing, tired of losing the young brothers and sisters over nonsense. I had to engage back with the youth," remembered Cassidy. "I had to come with something for them to look forward to, and music is what they look forward to. That's how the 'No Gun No Smoke School Tour' came about. We wanted to tour schools because nobody was promoting Stay in school! Don't use drugs! Put down the guns!"
Fast forward: What started as a hip-hop school tour more than ten years ago has morphed into a nonprofit organization with 20 staff and volunteer members who offer workshops, mentorship and afterschool programs with a variety of activities such as art projects and jewelry making, music and boxing. All programs are geared toward keeping the kids engaged in a judgment-free environment, to affect positive change within the youth and to leave a long-lasting impact on the community.
[perfectpullquote align="left" cite="" link="" color="" class="" size=""]"No Gun No Smoke Tour has become a resource. For the youth, for the community, for the jails," said Cassidy. "We gotta have something for the youth to do."[/perfectpullquote]
Cassidy and the No Gun No Smoke Tour have received wide support from the community for which he is deeply thankful. Supporters include elected officials such as State Senator Jesse Hamilton, Judge Robin Shears, Borough President Eric Adams, Councilmembers Alicka Samuel and Robert E. Cornegy, Assemblywoman Tremaine Wright as well as other community partners, local businesses and schools, with Bed Stuy's P.S. 5 Dr.Ronald McNair being at the forefront.
"Antoine brought a boxing class to us, initially for free," shared P.S. 5's Assistant Principal Kesha Townsel. "Being that many kids are missing a father figure, we geared it towards the boys, first. But then, the girls liked it, too. Now they're coming religiously every Saturday morning."
Not only do the kids love it, it also gives their parents a break who may not be able to afford these activities - all programs are free, paid for by the school and the organization. Aside from P.S.5, the programs have now also expanded to the nearby Alternate Learning Center M.S. 258, and the Research and Service High School. And this, according to Cassidy, is just the beginning. He plans to bring the initiative to schools all across the borough, and to other cities like Chicago, Cleveland and Detroit.
"No Gun No Smoke Tour has become a resource. For the youth, for the community, for the jails," said Cassidy.
It's been 14 years since Cassidy was released from Rikers, but he still returns to the facility twice each week. His organization extends its services to incarcerated youth aged 16-21, to prepare them through workshops and mentorship for a life after prison.
For early next year, Cassidy is planning a new "No Gun No Smoke School Tour;" he will be touring 20 schools in 30 days all around Brooklyn.
"It's about planting seeds. And you gotta keep watering them. With continuous positiveness, that's how you water the seeds," Cassidy concluded." I won't stop."