Born in 1977 in Harvey, IL; daughter of Syl Johnson (a blues singer) and a law enforcement officer; married Marcus Vetts (a basketball player), 2000. Education: Studied music at Drake University and Illinois State University. Addresses: Record company--Jive Records, 700 N. Green St., Chicago, IL 60622, website: http://www.jiverecords.com. Website--Syleena Johnson Official Website: http://www.syleenajohnson.com.
R&B singer Syleena Johnson's songs feature her rich, sultry voice and lyrics born of her own emotional experiences. Citing influences such as Aretha Franklin, Chaka Khan, and Tina Turner, Johnson is becoming known as one of contemporary music's most soulful singers.
Johnson grew up in Harvey, Illinois, just outside Chicago, and her musical talent was evident from a very early age. When she was three years old her father, blues singer "Soul Man" Syl Johnson, and her mother, a law enforcement officer, put her up on a stool in a nightclub where her father was performing and asked her to sing. Johnson was not the least bit shy. She recalled in an interview on the Extratv website, "I come from one of those loud families. If you want to hear a bunch of black women with loud, aggressive voices just come to one of my family reunions." Instead of singing a typical children's song, she belted out Aretha Franklin's anthem "I Have Never Loved a Man." She grew up watching her father record songs in his small home studio.
When Johnson was in high school she wanted to be a recording artist; this dream was fueled by her proximity to Chicago, where she went to hear some of the great performers of the time. In school she was a member of the band as well as several choirs. However, her father, who wanted her to become a doctor, was reluctant to encourage her to enter the music business because he knew how difficult it was to succeed. He also did not think she was mature enough for a recording career, and told her so. As Johnson told David Harris on the Springolo website, her father didn't want her to enter an industry that was "full of devils."
Her father's discouraging attitude deterred Johnson for a while, but eventually he helped her to produce a recording of several of her songs, titled Love Hangover. She did not begin to seriously pursue a recording career until she was in college, where she received a standing ovation after a performance at a school talent show. The audience's positive reaction and the feeling of receiving praise for her musical abilities made her decide that this was what she wanted to do with her life.
In 1997, when she was 21, Johnson went to a party hosted by singer R. Kelly after a charity basketball game, where she saw a man whose badge indicated he was with Kelly's entourage. She told him she was a singer and songwriter and managed to convince him to give her the phone number of Jive Records' executive Wayne Williams.
Williams listened to the tracks Johnson sent him, which were taken from her earlier self-produced album. Three days later he offered Johnson a contract, and in 1998 Johnson joined the Jive label. Johnson was pleased to sign with them, because they signed her as a singer and songwriter and gave her a great deal of artistic freedom. Johnson told a reviewer for the Girlposse website, "I had that freedom, to make this album be a total expression of myself."
Chapter 1: Love, Pain, and Forgiveness was Johnson's real debut album. Some of its songs were inspired by the painful breakup of a romantic relationship, and some of them were reworked from Love Hangover. The album follows the trajectory of a relationship, as a woman embarks on a relationship with an older man, feeling the need to be with someone, even if he's not the right someone. Predictably, she experiences emotional pain when the man is not all she thought he would be; she leaves the relationship, and then ultimately forgives him. Johnson wrote all of the lyrics on the album except for the lead single, "I Am Your Woman." She arranged the songs in order to tell a story, which led to the album title of Chapter 1. Johnson told a Girlposse reviewer that she wanted listeners to hear the album and say, "Man! that's a great story." She also commented, "I want people to be emotional and to be touched and to get positive input from what I write. All I can say is I am very proud of this album."
In 2000 Johnson married former college basketball player Marcus Vetts; this life change was reflected on her second album, Chapter 2: The Voice, which celebrates love. According to Felicia Pride in an interview on the PopMatters website, Johnson said, "I just wanted to create something that was inspirational and something I could be proud of." She told Pride, "This album is not necessarily a different Syleena. I am still crying out but just in a different kind of way---with a little more awareness of who I am." She also noted that the album marked a turning point in her life: "I was coming into my spirituality and [was] much more in touch with myself."
In PopMatters, Mark Anthony Neal wrote of the album, "With a variety of neo-soul wannabes cluttering the market place . . . Syleena Johnson's debut is a refreshing tribute to a time when soul music was molasses thick. . . . and suffocatingly personal." In an interview on the Synthesis website, Johnson said that in Chapter 2: The Voice, she wanted to "bring back how singing used to be---a big deal." She commented, "It's really good old school singing with that old type delivery; it's done in a new day, but sounding like how it was originated."
When Johnson writes songs she relies on her own emotional experience, not on current trends or what everyone else is talking about. Johnson told Pride that she has been working hard to build up her career. Referring to her album titles, she commented, "I am trying to write a book. At least 10, 15 chapters." She added, "My sound is not a manufactured sound, it is a God-given sound like the old school. Aretha Franklin, Chaka, you can't teach them to sing like that. . . . These people sound unique and unduplicated. Tina Turner, there's no one yet that sounds like that. I want that type of rapport."
by Kelly Winters
Syleena Johnson's Career
Self-produced album Love Hangover, 1998; signed with Jive Records, 1998; released Chapter 1: Love, Pain, and Forgiveness, 2001; released Chapter 2: The Voice, 2002.
- Selected discography
- Love Hangover TwiNight Records, 1998.
- Chapter 1: Love, Pain, and Forgiveness Jive, 2001.
- Chapter 2: The Voice Jive, 2002.
- Jet, August 13, 2001, p. 16.
- Observer (London, England), April 22, 2001, p. 14.
- FYE Artist Biography, http://www.fye.com/catalog/biography.jhtml?itemId=10149755&artisttype=music (March 19, 2004).
- "Syleena Johnson Bio," Girlposse, http://www.girlposse.com/reviews/past_reviews/ (April 21, 2004).
- "Syleena Johnson: Chapter 1," PopMatters, http://www.popmatters.com/music/reviews/johnsonsyleena-chapter.html (April 21, 2004).
- "Syleena Johnson," Extratv, http://www.extratv.warnerbros.com/dailynews/extramix/s/syleenajohnson.html (April 21, 2004).
- "Syleena Johnson," Springolo, http://www.springolo.com/features/syleenajohnson/ (April 21, 2004).
- "A Voice From the Heavens," Synthesis, http://www.synthesis.net/music/feature.php?bid=1893 (April 21, 2004).
- "The Voice Explains It All," PopMatters, http://www.popmatters.com/music/interviews/Johnson-syleena-030129.shtml (April 21, 2004).