Singer Keia Johnson is the kind of person who immediately makes you feel warm and invited when you speak with her. It may be due to the fact that she understands the importance of making connections, growing up as the child of an armed service member, Johnson frequently moved until her family settled in the heart of blues territory, Memphis, Tennessee.
MadameNoire sat down with Johnson to talk about her career spanning over a decade, her journey to finding self-love and her undying commitment to #Blackgirlmagic.
“Memphis is what gave me that thing—that thing that you know when you see a Memphis artist,” Johnson begins. “It’s that thing that you feel. It’s maybe not hitting every note perfectly, but it’s leaving you feeling something and that’s what I’m so passionate about. I want to make music that makes you feel, makes you think, makes you happy, maybe makes you sad, maybe makes you think about a past memory and how you’ve grown from that.”
It was there that she laid the foundation of her artistry by first honing her craft in the church, a vessel where many artists learn the range of their voice through the power of praise and worship.
“I did definitely start singing in the church,” she said. “I actually started singing with my dad. And of course when I was little it was like, ‘I don’t want to sing with you,’ and now it’s one of the most cherished moments I have.”
Johnson’s talents found their way to the big stage when she secured a spot on season nine of American Idol. During her audition, she wowed the judges, including the legendary Mary J. Blige and scored a unanimous “yes’ after belting out her rendition of Celine Dion’s magnum opus, “My Heart Will Go On.” But the experience was somewhat short-lived after she was eliminated during the “Hollywood Round.”
“I went to Idol because I thought that was the end all for me,” she said. “And when I didn’t win it, because nobody does except one person—I thought, ‘What am I?’ But it was Memphis that helped me realize there’s so much left for you to do.”
Her latest EP, Back 2 Me, profiles her alto register and gives way to vulnerability as she takes you on her deeply personal voyage to finding self-love and autonomy, something she struggled with growing up as a darker hued girl in the south.
“Being a dark-skinned girl who literally–I will never forget it, when I was seven-years-old, I was told I would never be anything but a dark-skinned girl who had to cheat to get ahead in life. So that stigma was in my mind. And my mother who didn’t tell me I was pretty because she thought I knew I was pretty. But I didn’t know, and she didn’t tell me, so I didn’t think I was. And a society that is definitely European beauty based, I struggled a lot with that.”
Johnson openly shared that she’s ridden by the constant hum of social media and false societal standards. The pressure to look a certain way, one that divests from who you are and seeks to dishonor those who do not fall within European beauty standards.
“I went to therapy because I had a lot of hurts that I won’t even talk about. But I was taken advantage of and all those types of things. I had to get back to me. And I had to be who I am, and if I’m not who I am, then people are going to miss that light, and that’s what God sent me to do is be a light,” she said.
She uses her time as an instructor at the legendary Stax Museum, of American Soul Music, encouraging young Brown girls to see themselves as queens and conquerors.
“I see these little brown girls and I want them to know you are ok as you are. Get your schooling, be smart. It’s not about what you look like, it’s about what your head is and what your heart is. So It was very important for me to have this and so I named the whole EP to that.”
While touring and traveling helps sustain Johnson’s vibrancy, she remains deeply loyal to her community. In Memphis, Johnson performs weekly at time-honored venues like Onyx and BB Kings, while also devoting time to practice her love for theatre and acting.
As a multi-functional creative she hopes to continue to inspire through music and testimony.
“I just really hope to do music as long as I’m alive. If I’m not doing music I really don’t want to be here, that’s how much it means to me,” she said. “It’s not about the lights and the wealth. I don’t need a gazillion dollars to live, you know? I just need to be happy and peaceful and be able to give the light that I feel God has given me to give.”