Local musicians add music to protests against police violence, hope to uplift activists

Danae King
The Columbus Dispatch
Say It Loud Columbus co-founders Paisha Thomas, 46, of Worthington, and Joey Gardina, 37, of Westerville, organized the group to add music to social justice protests.

Along with shouts for justice, marching and chants, Paisha Thomas and Joey Gardina are adding music to local protests against police violence.

Thomas and Gardina, both local musicians and booking agents, in June founded Say It Loud Columbus, an organization of musicians that stands with protestors in seeking justice for Black lives.

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The idea came about after Thomas attended a protest in Downtown Columbus at the end of May over the death of George Floyd, a Black man killed at the hands of police in Minneapolis. After Thomas livestreamed the protest to her followers on Facebook, Gardina reached out and suggested finding a way to put music to the protests.

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They initially thought of doing a fundraising project to donate to a specific cause, but instead decided to raise money so they could pay local musicians to make artistic contributions to area protests, social justice efforts and dialogue around social change.

"We're specifically looking to uplift ending state-sanctioned violence against Black people in Columbus," said Thomas, 46, of Worthington.

Paisha Thomas performs with a group that includes Will Strickler, center, and Theo Perry, right, as part of Say It Loud Columbus at a protest rally last fall in South Linden.

Since they founded the organization, they have hosted several events, concerts and even produced an album with several other area artists. Instead of only showing up to protests, the group has created its own concert series and also livestreams content on its Facebook page.

Creating change in Columbus, reaching activists through music

Thomas and Gardina, who are both vocalists and play guitar, reach out to other musicians to ask them to be involved in events, Thomas said. 

Natalie's Music Hall & Kitchen near Grandview Heights and Natalie's Coal-Fired Pizza in Worthington have hosted a few events. Thomas also sang during a press conference in February before faith leaders delivered a petition to Columbus Mayor Andrew J. Ginther calling for the removal of former Columbus Police Chief Thomas Quinlan, who recently had been demoted.

The goal, Thomas said, is to cause change but also to reach activists. 

During their kickoff concert at the Maroon Arts Group's Box Park on June 14, activists came to watch and Thomas saw how positively the music impacted them.

"(They) got what seemed to be like restored, uplifted, a place where we can go to refill on joy," Thomas said. "That's lost from these traumatizing events that keep happening. I want people to just, I guess, have a restored sense of strength and joy and capacity to keep going."

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To Gardina, 37, of Westerville, music has always been an important element during times of transformation.

"Throughout history, music's been the backdrop that has been the canvas for times of change," he said. "It just adds those layers of richness."

'We stay and fight to make it right'

Talisha Holmes, 41, a local singer and songwriter, agrees. On the album, "Say It Loud Columbus: Music for the Movement," released in December and available on the online music store Bandcamp, Holmes sings her original song "America."

A young girl listens to Paisha Thomas and others with Say It Loud Columbus performing during a September protest rally in South Linden.

The song is a call to action. Holmes, who lives in the village of Urbancrest, wants people to take action in any way they can to fight for social change. 

The last few verses of the song are: "'We stay and fight to make it right / Fill up the streets with Black and brown / Military police kill and silence me/ We've had enough burn this whole place down / We've tried your way to make our voices pleasing / They laughed and hung our likenesses in effigy.'"

"That's my experience in America, and I wanted to say that because I know it's a lot of other people's experiences, too," Holmes said. "I'm going to stay and fight because I want to try and make things right."

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Another artist featured on the album, Debra James Tucker, 67, has always been a big believer in the power of art to effect change. On the album, the Near East Side resident sings Billie Holiday's "Strange Fruit," a song about the lynching of Black people in the South.

"I think music reaches places that just talking can't," Tucker said. 

Debra James Tucker, 67, is a jazz and gospel vocalist who lives on the Near East Side. She sings "Strange Fruit" on the album "Say It Loud Columbus: Music for the Movement."

To Tucker, "Strange Fruit" is an example of art having an impact and being a channel for social justice. Holiday was targeted by the federal government for performing the song, which she first did in 1939.

Tucker hopes people are uplifted when they hear her sing.

"When I think about when I grew up … what was on the news was the civil rights movement, people on the street having hoses turned on them and dogs sicced on them," she said. "One of my earliest thoughts was people were singing through all this…What kind of people can keep singing through this?"

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To Tucker, it represented their strength. She said Say It Loud can provide inspiration, as well as has the potential to speak the truth of people whose words haven't been heard as much.

Although the organization was born out of a protest around George Floyd's death, Thomas also is focused on local police violence against Black people.

"Columbus police have a long, dark history of killing Black people right here in Columbus with no consequences," Thomas said.

In 2016, plainclothes Columbus police officers fatally shot Henry Green, a Black 23-year-old, and then months later, another officer shot and killed 13-year-old Tyre King, also Black. Franklin County grand juries declined to indict the officers in either case.

In December, two Black men were shot and killed by law enforcement officials in separate incidents in the city. On Dec. 4, Casey Goodson Jr. was shot by Franklin County Sheriff's SWAT deputy Jason Meade. Andre Hill was fatally shot Dec. 22 outside a friend's house on the Northwest Side by Columbus police officer Adam Coy, who was later fired.

Authorities are still investigating Goodson's death, but Coy was indicted six weeks after Hill's death on charges that include murder. He's just the 130th officer in the country to be charged with murder, manslaughter or negligent homicide in an on-duty shooting since 2005, according to data tracked by Bowling Green State University's Police Integrity Research Group.

Say It Loud Columbus co-founders Paisha Thomas, 46, of Worthington and Joey Gardina, 37, of Westerville organized the group to add music to social justice protests.

Thomas said she cares about the deaths of George Floyd and others across the country but thinks it is important to remember that there are local families grieving the loss of their loved ones to police violence here in Columbus as well.

"It is important for us to lift up the grief of our neighbors," she said.