Vada joins Columbus artists in bringing attention to police violence

The rapper joined others on a politically charged new song, while filmmaker Cameron Granger created a zine meant to raise community awareness around officers who have shot and killed Black citizens

Andy Downing
Columbus Alive
Vada Azeem, author of "Ribbon in the Sky"

Rapper, author and visual artist Vada Azeem said he felt powerless in the aftermath of Columbus police shooting and killing Black teenager Ma’Khia Bryant.

“And I think that feeling of powerlessness was reactive, because there was nothing we could have done to save Ma’Khia, right? There was nothing we could have done to save Andre [Hill] or Casey [Goodson] or Ty’re [King]. There was nothing we could have done to save our loved ones,” said Azeem, who served as a mentor to King, the 13-year-old shot and killed by Columbus police in 2016. “And what that led me to discovering is that I do have the power, who knows how much, to at least try to be proactive before this happens again.”

As a first step, in the weeks following Bryant’s April death, Azeem invited more than a half-dozen local rappers, including Co City, Hodgie and TrigNO, among others, as well as poet Barbara Fant, to join him at Dreamcatchers Recording Studio, a Black-owned space on the city’s East Side. There the collective gathered to mourn, rage, build fellowship and create, emerging with the fiery new song “No Negotiation,” which released digitally last week.

In his verse, Azeem calls out people he knows who work for the Columbus Division of Police (“I know a couple cops/I’m sorry but we not trusting you”) and gives additional gravity to his role as a father of two boys by setting this detail alongside a reference to the late King. The MC also drops a line that serves as the song's central thesis, rapping, “In this moment my purpose is to trouble you.”

“I think everybody should feel troubled,” Azeem said. “I think you as a journalist should feel troubled. If you’re someone who wants to help, you should constantly be asking yourself, ‘What can I do to make these circumstances better? What do I want to do about this?’”

More:The simple but complex life of Casey Goodson

More:How bots and dead accounts helped drive one Ma’Khia Bryant narrative

For Azeem, the track is only a first step, and he said he has already started to work behind the scenes in an effort to push city officials to defund the police, believing that reinvesting some of those resources into the city’s hardest hit communities would have a greater impact on decreasing overall violence. (Columbus currently spends $337 million a year on the Division of Police, which works out to more than a third of the city’s operating budget.)

“If you really think the Columbus police department needs to be investigated, then why are you putting so much money into it?” said Azeem, calling out the inaction of Mayor Andrew Ginther, who joined City Attorney Zach Klein earlier this year in asking the Department of Justice to conduct a formal review of CPD to identify any racial bias within the department. “Take that funding and apply it toward things that are actually going to help the Black communities. … Move money from the Columbus police department and put it toward community development, community projects and to create resources for communities that are suffering from police brutality, who are suffering from violent crime. It’s not rocket science. When you put resources into communities, crime goes down.”

Azeem is just one of a number of local artists from across the spectrum who have recently created work in an effort to address issues of police violence against the local Black community.

Painter and David Butler curated new group exhibit “Whiteland,” which opens at the Vanderelli Room today (Friday, July 2), as a means of exploring the concept of whiteness, as well as how that idea plays into the larger societal contract and the continued repression of communities of color, including the issue of police violence.

Meanwhile, filmmaker and artist Cameron Granger recently created a zine compiling publicly available information on seven of the law officers who have shot and killed Black citizens in recent years, including Jason Meade, who killed Goodson in 2020, and Zachary Rosen, who killed Henry Green in 2016.

“I think that, as an artist, as a creative person living in the city, I have a duty, a responsibility to contribute to its safety,” said Granger, who is printing and distributing the zine free of charge (Butler said that copies would also be available at the opening of “Whiteland”). “And that requires me to show up in different ways. Sometimes it doesn’t involve me doing anything creative, and it’s just showing up and being a supportive human. But I think this is a uniquely creative way to use my talents and what I’m good at to do something that can support communities in the city. I think it’s just part of my job.”

A page from Cameron Granger's zine

Granger said the inspiration for the zine came from the work being done by Stop LAPD Spying Coalition, a California-based group that opposes police oppression and government-sanctioned information gathering, as well as from the writings of Simone Browne, author of Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness.

“I was thinking about surveillance, and the ways we’re constantly being watched by these dominant forces — the police, the government, what have you,” Granger said. “And [Browne] talks about how … the people, the many, those without power can band together to surveil the powerful. And that idea really sat with me, and I wondered what that could look like here in Columbus, where we have one of the more notoriously violent police departments.”

Eventually, Granger landed on the idea of compiling information on select officers who had shot and killed Black citizens in the line of duty, publishing photos and badge numbers alongside previous use of force complaints as a public service and a means to better keep the community informed on the officers tasked with keeping the peace. “It all goes along with how we can better keep each other safe,” Granger said. “It’s clear we can’t necessarily depend on the people who are employed to do that work, so we have to do it ourselves.”

Like Vada, Granger described these efforts as only a small first step in confronting the issue of police violence, which he said would take a sustained, communal effort to correct. “I don’t think that me as one individual is going to change the world, and it would be egotistical to even think that,” he said. “But what I can do is support the work that is already being done in these little, incremental ways. And this is part of that.”