The rapper and artist discusses the poverty, police killings and overlooked potential that lend urgency to “The Boy WhoTried to Touch the Sun”
As a teenager, Vada Azeem started having visions of a small boy climbing a towering mountain peak in an attempt to touch the sun.
“It kept recurring and I didn't know why,” said the rapper and visual artist, now 34.
It wasn't until three years ago that Azeem hit on the idea of adapting this image into his debut children's book, “The Boy Who Tried to Touch the Sun,” which will receive its public unveiling at the Columbus Museum of Art on Sunday, Oct. 15. (The illustrated book is currently being shopped to publishers with hopes of a full release.)
At the time, Azeem was immersed in writing and illustrating a different children's book that he ended up scrapping, much to the consternation of several around him, including girlfriend Aba Kifle. Azeem had also previously been asked to collaborate with various writer acquaintances on other projects. “I agreed to do some books and then flaked,” he said, adding that his motivation for a project can easily wane if his passion for it isn't all-consuming.
“They were waiting on me to finish illustrations [for my book], and I was dragging that process out, and I realize now I was dragging it out because just like I didn't want to illustrate books for those other people, that's how I felt about this book,” Azeem said. “It wasn't good enough. I didn't feel like it was timeless. I always told myself that when I did my first book I wanted it to be as timeless as it can be.”
“His sketchbook only has like three [drawings] in it,” Kifle said, and laughed. “He doesn't even sketch if it's not perfect. He throws them away.”
As a child growing up on the Northeast Side, Azeem immersed himself in stories by Maurice Sendak (“Where the Wild Things Are”) and Tomi Ungerer (“Crictor,” “The Three Robbers”), drawn in as much by the message as the artwork.
“[The books] all had an element of fear, and it made me feel like no matter what I was afraid of I was going to survive it,” he said. “If you're scared of a monster under your bed, even at a young age I was able to process, ‘OK, that was yesterday and today is today, and the monster didn't get me.' After a while, these stories were helping alleviate a feeling I had in me as a child.”
At least a part of this feeling was informed by the sense of abandonment Azeem experienced growing up in a home with a drug-addicted mother and a father who maintained a distant presence in the life of his children due to his social anxieties, never attending a single athletic event or school function. “And I ain't changed,” said Azeem's father, Vada Lemons. “I don't like to be around a lot of people 'cause then I get [uncomfortable].”
Seated next to his son on the porch of the elder's East Side home, Lemons alternated between bashful and boastful, ribbing Azeem (“He ain't like me; I worked hard my whole life”) while acknowledging both his son's strengths and the commonalities the two men share.
“You were a neat kid. You were smart, and a smart person thinks and stays away from the bullshit,” Lemons said before returning to his more playful side. “You were good at drawing because I could draw. I thought you were athletic because I was athletic. Most of the time it came from me, but you wrote a book before me. I'm going to write a book before it's over.”
“I probably played 1,000 basketball games and he never came to one — not because he didn't want to see his son play, but because he don't want to be around all those people,” said Azeem, who now has a good relationship with both of his parents. “As a kid, sometimes we'd translate that as you didn't care or you didn't want to be there. Once I got older and started to realize who you were, I realized it had nothing to do with that. It's just who you was. I think that relates to [‘The Boy Who Tried to Touch the Sun'] because coming up as a kid, you might need inspiration that comes from different places in order to fight through.”
As much as his own experiences informed the work, however, it's the children Azeem has grown up working with — from caring for his younger siblings as an adolescent through his previous role mentoring youth at the Central Community House in Olde Towne East — who shaped and gave urgency to “The Boy Who Tried.” The book is dedicated to Ty're King, the 13-year-old shot and killed by Columbus police in Sept. 2016, as well as a number of the kids in Azeem's life, who range from blood-relatives to close friends, and many of whom appear on this cover of Alive, seated alongside the artist on the front porch of a neighbor's South Side home.
During the early October photo shoot, following a dinner of pizza and some minor stress about potential spills (the rug escaped blissfully unscathed), Azeem offered the children encouragement and instruction, cautioning about a trio of loud, agitated dogs inside the house whose growls recalled a famed horror-movie canine.
“Y'all ever watch the movie ‘Cujo'? The dog has a ferocious bark. Don't be scared,” Azeem said as the youngsters, who ranged in age from 6 to 11, horsed around and played tag.
“You mean that dog? It ain't that loud,” replied one blissfully unfazed child.
For black children, particularly in impoverished areas, this type of youthful naivety rarely lingers, Azeem said, with parents being forced to discuss difficult issues of race, police profiling and prejudice with kids beginning as early as age 6 or 7, if not younger.
“Kids gotta grow up earlier, and it's tough to have that talk with my nephew or my son, like, ‘The police are not safe all the time,'” said Azeem, who is father to an 8-year-old. “[Kifle's nephew] Elijah, who was at the [Alive] shoot, he asked me, ‘I thought the police were supposed to help us?' Well, yeah, they're supposed to help us, but sometimes that's not the case. If you're confronted by the police make sure you don't make any sudden moves. Make sure you're completely still and your hands are where they can see them. And, him being young, he's so innocent he doesn't comprehend. ‘But why? I'm not a bad person.'
“To explain to him, ‘I know, but it's because of how you look you have to do that,' that's a hard discussion to have with a 10-year-old. My nephew, too, being way bigger than someone in his age group … lord knows how he's going to look when he's 13. He's probably going to look like a full-grown man, but he's a baby. He's going to look 18, but he'll be reacting to the police like a 13-year-old would, with the mind of, ‘Oh, you're the police. This is all good.' But the police are going to be like, ‘No, wait. You stay right there. You look like a grown man, and because you look like a grown man I'm going to shoot you like a grown man.'”
The image of Ty're King being shot and killed by police in Olde Towne East still haunts Azeem, who mentored King roughly four years ago after being introduced to the youngster while working with some of his friends from Champion Middle School. Following King's death, Azeem immersed himself in his book with renewed vigor, determined to get it into the hands of the next Ty're while there was still time.
“It gave me a sense of urgency,” Azeem said. “It didn't change the meaning of the book. Ty're, the book was already about [children like] him, even before he passed, but it pushed me to get it done.”
“I think that's the main thing that hurts with him. I know he was a good kid, and I know he was a kid that could have turned into a teacher, a mentor, for other kids. … He was a kid who could have kept reaching,” Azeem continued. “I was a way badder kid than Ty're ever was, and people can look at my life now and say, ‘He's working with kids. He's in the community. He does all this good stuff.' OK, but I was much more of a misfit than Ty're ever was. … He didn't have a chance to grow up and become what I am. It was taken from him.”
“The one thing I can say about [Azeem] is that, better than most people, he gives people the benefit of the doubt in terms of understanding where someone came from,” Kifle said. “Your average person might be like … ‘Why did someone act like this?' where he's like, ‘You don't know where they came from or what they experienced to get to this point.'”
According to Azeem, most of the good decisions he's made in his life have stemmed from a desire to protect children. He gave up dealing drugs in his early 20s, for instance, after a woman approached him with her daughter in tow, telling Alive in 2016, “I had product left, and I sold it back to my connect. I even had a gun at that time. I sold my gun.”
“Younger people have always made me want to do the right thing,” he said. “I think a lot of what I do, it comes from wanting people to have it easier [coming up] than I did.”
Employing a minimal color palette for “The Boy Who Tried” — Azeem limited himself to five colors — the artist worked in a loose style, attempting to make “the art look the way a Dilla beat sounds,” as he explained, referencing the late DJ and producer's ability to craft jazz-inflected hip-hop beats that were slightly askew and sounded both modern and timeless. Though the book explores trending topics, it looks like it could have just as easily been produced decades back. The text is also purposely stripped-down and plainspoken, far removed from the double-entendres, metaphors and intricate wordplay Azeem flashes on record as an MC.
“I wanted it to be simple because I wanted the young people who read it to be able to get it the way I got ‘Where the Wild Things Are,'” he said.
On its surface, “The Boy Who Tried to Touch the Sun” is a simple tale about the power of perseverance and the necessity of striving for unreachable goals. But, as with “Where the Wild Things Are,” which explored grown-up concepts such as alienation, learning to control one's emotions and the parent-child bond, there are larger themes that play out as the story unfolds.
Each day, Anu (the name means “mercy” in several languages, including the Yoruba ethnic group in Nigeria), the boy in the story, ventures into the jungle and climbs the mountain in an effort to touch the sun. On one trek, Anu, who is black, comes upon a town populated with white citizens, who initially react to his presence with fear. The town's mayor tasks Anu with three impossible challenges, including going seven moons without food, learning all the words in “The Book” and spending seven moons locked away in a cage, all of which he completes with ease.
Though purposely left open to interpretation — “Everyone who's read it has had a slightly different take,” Azeem said — going without food or spending days in confinement can easily be related to real-life issues such as poverty and mass incarceration, both of which affect the black community at statistically higher rates.
“The children in the types of communities I grew up in, they're already accomplishing things that kids who are better off can't,” Azeem said. “Some kids don't eat at home, and not only did they not eat, they probably didn't get a good night's sleep. Then they get into a classroom setting and some of them are getting Cs, even with all that going on. Imagine if they ate and got a good night's sleep. That's one thing I kept thinking: You're already doing the impossible. Just go further.”
“Once [my son] gets a little older, like 11 or 12, he might understand on a different level what this book means,” said Keith Massey, whose 6-year-old son, Kylion, both appears in the book's dedication and took part in the photo shoot. “Where we come from, the hood, kids … are trying to survive the day, getting food, clean water, clothes to put on your back. … That comes back to another interpretation of the book: As a black kid, you have to work three times as hard as anybody else just to be taken seriously. You have to jump through hoops and rings of fire. It's just so much harder.”
Azeem, for one, said these are lessons he wishes he could have absorbed into his DNA when he was young and impressionable, which speaks to the impact he hopes the book can have both within the black community and among young people of all races and nationalities.
“Books and music and media can help raise and nurture children, and they can affect their decisions in negative and positive ways,” he said. “I hate that whole ‘I'm not a role model'-type stuff. What you put out into the world, people are paying attention to it, and that molds a human being. Now that I'm older and have a different perspective, I can put those different pieces together. ‘Oh, this is why I'm this way, and this nurtured this in me.'
“I think Tomi Ungerer molded me, and Maurice Sendak molded me, and Snoop Dogg and Popeye and ‘The Twilight Zone.' All of those things molded who I am today. Those little things … become a big part of you.”