Looking around the stage and into the audience at the Neptune Theatre in 2018, Stephanie Anne Johnson was nervous. This performance was in honor of the prolific musician Aretha Franklin who had recently passed away. Johnson was about to perform “The Weight” in Franklin’s signature style. They had spent months training to bring the style and capacity of Franklin’s voice into their own singing. Johnson had not eaten all day, maybe had one drink and had planned a costume change, arranging to throw off their coat much the same way Franklin was known to do.
As soon as Johnson began to sing, they blacked out. Watching the video now, Johnson’s full, passionate and effortless rendering can send pinpricks up your arms. But for Johnson, it was an out-of-body experience.
“I remember coming back to myself when the song was over and looking out into the crowd and seeing the little flecks of particle dust in the air coming in and out of the shafts of light from the spotlight. And I could see the atoms splitting in the air and I could feel the energy.” It was a spiritual moment, one Johnson assumed only they had been privy to. But when a review of the performance was published — the writer had said the same. That is when Johnson knew there was something in their music that allowed for a sacred bond with the audience.
A vessel for music
Born and raised in Tacoma, Johnson started vocal lessons and playing guitar at age 14. They were a choral singer through high school and college, and then worked on a cruise ship singing four hours a day in front of an audience. This is where Johnson honed their finesse for connecting with audiences and listeners. From there, Johnson went to the lounge scene, continuing to perform regularly, and finally emerged in the top 20 on the 2013 season of “The Voice.”
Though they saw the full breadth of the music world, the sensational performances of Hollywood and California did not quite appeal to them. After The Voice, Johnson came back to the Pacific Northwest and has been continuing to immerse themself in the soulful music scene of the Puget Sound, crediting the Seattle music scene with being a huge support to getting established in the area.
Johnson has an amazing range, being able to render soft, guitar laden love songs as well as strong, effortless bluesy vocals. Johnson’s childhood was filled with an amalgamation of influences, from early Aerosmith, to the music of the ’70s and their grandmother’s favorite gospels sung by Mahalia Jackson on Sundays.
Love — of family, of a lover, of friends and of community — is central to Johnson’s songwriting and grounding. Johnson not only pens lyrics about the experiences of being in a relationship, but conjures a spiritual energy of connection to the past and to the present when they sing.
“I have been loved by so many people and some of those people have passed on, you know, for better or for worse,” Johnson said. “I imagined that when I sing, I commune with them and we’re able to have time together, even though our physical time together has passed.”
When Johnson sang in church, they would look up to the ceiling and think of loved ones who had passed to help keep focus. Soon however, Johnson started to do the same thing outside of church as well and it made a difference. This is exactly what led to the atom-splitting performance of “The Weight.”
In these moments of musical experience, Johnson becomes a kind of vessel for an already present energy. “I am a thing that energy can float through. If I’m aware and notice I’ll be able to tell when the energy flowing through is divine and then I can be grateful for it. And so many times I was in a space for music and the spirit was also there.”
It is a deeply personal experience for Johnson, and writing cannot do justice to something so ethereal. When Johnson shares the stage with other musicians, co-creation continues to channel that musical — sometimes divine — energy. Recently, Johnson and their band — the Hidogs — were rehearsing a new song called “don’t stop calling my name,” which gives music to the feeling of having one’s name called by someone who loves them. As Johnson sang, the emotion overtook and by the third verse, they were crying. ”I turned around and all three of these grown men were crying too. We had all reached an emotional threshold and we had done it together,” Johnson said.
One lesson Johnson has gathered through life — and through musical process — is to find joy in sadness and grief as well. The experience of loss, Johnson said, begins in childhood and can rob one of safety, warmth and connection. “I think defining human things is this general feeling of loss. Honestly, I wish we were more honest about it,” Johnson said. “There are places where we could be with each other and talk about loss. Some loss is great, and some loss is small. But all loss is loss.”
Johnson has poured these sentiments into the music they write. For example, when the pandemic derailed rehearsals, in-person gigs, international trips, and sources of income, Johnson took out their frustration and sadness in a song called “Flying Cars.”
“I was led to believe in the early ’90s that when we got to the future, which is now, we would have better …”. Instead, Johnson said the future has been hijacked by a fascist regime and a national insurrection. “I’m mad and I’m shaking my fist at the sky. And instead of demanding peace and justice, like a normal person, like a regular American consumer, I’m demanding my flying car!”
The song itself allows for a chuckle or a laugh even as it commemorates the pain and mourning of what the COVID-19 pandemic has wrought upon the working class. In this way, Johnson is clear that the artist’s role is to respond to what is happening around the world and offer a shift. “We’re artists, we’re supposed to take the paradigm, flip it and make something else beautiful,” they said.
Equity in music
Johnson’s musical education stems from public schools, where they could access quality teachers in the ’90s. That is unheard of now, as education and arts program budgets are slashed year after year. Johnson ties this lack of access to music in schools back to the current uprising against police brutality and the police system at large.
“The money started leaving education and going to police unions and going to funding for instruments of terror,” Johnson said. But what if instead of instruments of terror out on the streets, instruments of music were out on the sidewalk? “I guarantee maybe we would all feel a little bit, a little bit weirder if — in the neighborhood were trying to figure out trombones in the middle of the street. I would rather see that than have to deal with police that have riot gear.”
Though they do not have children of their own, Johnson is passionate about working with young people through musical empowerment, a drive inspired by their own access to music education in public school. “I personally feel a responsibility to the children of my city because I’m part of their village. And it takes this village to raise these children.”
Johnson worked with the School of Arts in Tacoma, and later with Rain City Rock Camp with femme-presenting youth to write songs and create music. “Its really wonderful to be in a community of like-minded femmes, gender nonconforming people, who really love music and love young people and love themselves.” Johnson has done everything from teaching stage presence and performing technique to serving up lunch to the youth.
While many people grapple with systemic inequities and difficult conversations around dismantling white supremacy and racism ingrained in their organizations, Johnson says they are glad to see that Rain City Rock Camp and other organizations are open and willing to do the self-reflection that would allow for more communities of color to be involved in all levels of the organization. It is a lot of “old fashioned racism” as Johnson says, but also the way personality, ego and pride get tangled up in the arts world.
“If we remain teachable and coachable, no matter at what level we are, I think that we’re on better footing to deal with each other,” Johnson said. Organizations that are majority white, they said, need to actively seek out and “court” artists of color with the respect and value that is unconsciously granted to white artists.
Johnson, and many others in both the arts and nonprofit worlds, have said the Pacific Northwest has a culture of subdued, covert racism that gets perpetuated through a passive aggressive professional and regional culture. Moving past that means reaching beyond the comfortable into new territory and honest conversation. That means people are going to be uncomfortable.
But Johnson offers an alternative paradigm: “you personally are more important to me than my discomfort. So I’m willing to sit here with this discomfort because it means I get to be with you.” Valuing the relationship is integral to empowering and connecting artists and it can be hard for institutional leadership, but Johnson believes it’s possible to reach beyond that.
As protesters have taken to the streets to call for demands that demilitarize and defund the police, invest in communities and truly protect Black lives, Johnson wants to emphasize that there are so many ways to protest. They point to their network, to friends who are teaching, offering free therapy services, gathering clothes and other resources to distribute to people in need. Johnson’s method however is in melody and rhythm as they pour composition after composition online.
“The adversary — the fascist element — you know, the folks that are out here raining misery on other folks, what they would prefer is that I’d be miserable and silent,” Johnson said.
Compassion is central to Johnson’s approach to the current movement and they encourage everyone to ask how they can contribute using the passions and skills that inspire self-reflection. After all, Johnson sees self-doubt as a central force in allowing racism to persist.
“If we can let go of self doubt, if we can understand that, of course you won’t be perfect, but you will have tried. You will have made a start. You will have made a mistake that will teach you something, and you can take that lesson and go forward,” Johnson said. Wanting a new paradigm in society means having to take new kinds of action, “ which means some of us are going to have to get off the couch. Some of us are going to have to rest because we have to keep the pressure on. And that’s only going to be sustained if we sustain ourselves.”
For Johnson, that grounding, and sustainment comes not just from singing and the solace of music, but from the sense of community and connection that their art and resulting faith create. Music sustains Johnson, and that sustenance gives them drive and courage through this current time of social transformation.
“My rebellion is in song and it is still being visible to people and it is still attempting to uplift people. I become a riot this way in, and of myself, my standing somewhere still existing, smiling, like a crazy person.”
Kamna Shastri is a staff reporter covering narrative and investigative stories for Real Change. She has a background in community journalism. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @KShastri2
Read more in the July 1-7, 2020 issue.