Syleena Johnson is not your average entertainer. Over two decades, the Harvey, Illinois native has developed an uncanny niche of broadening her ability to forge a lane beyond the recording studio. The daughter of legendary soul and Bluesman, Syl Johnson—she was signed to Jive Records in the mid-1990s. She would go through a rollercoaster career in an industry challenged by the ever-changing music business paired with bandwagon label executives shoving her mature vocal ability in a pop-cultured box.
After kicking off Chapter 1: Love, Pain & Forgiveness to Chapter 3: The Flesh, Johnson left Jive Records in 2007 to launch her independent record label—creating a musical novel of album releases with Chapter 4: Labor Pains to Chapter 6: Couples Therapy. Married to former professional basketball player Kiwane Garris, the couple have two sons and the world had a chance to tune in every week to TV One’s “R&B Divas Atlanta,” which ran for three seasons. On the show, Johnson along with fellow female singers gave an insight into the pros and cons of surviving in the music and entertainment world. Since “R&B Divas”, Johnson’s talents have not gone unnoticed, along with her sister
and manager, Dr. Syleecia Thompson, they have taken the ball and are making several touchdowns.
From co-starring in one season of WE TV’s “Marriage Bootcamp,” voicing her opinions every morning on TV One’s talk show, “Sister Circle,” to becoming a fresh face sporting the New York & Co. fashion line—Johnson is not slowing down. She recently released her book, “The Weight is Over” giving readers a fresh guide to healthy living, nutrition, and mental wellness.
Bronzeville Life talked with Johnson about her book, life goals and her approach to balancing a
“The Weight is Over,” is about my journey of loving myself from the inside out. The book chronicles my journey from a child to adulthood. It’s on how I perceive and view myself as it regards to body image.
It’s about family and tradition and how tradition can be a double edge sword. You can unlearn loving yourself or you can learn how not to love yourself. How to break that habit and love yourself as well as growing and re-knowing
Everyone knows you from your illustrious career in the music business and your awesome vocal gifts. What motivated you to make the shift?
My sister—Dr. Syleecia Thompson is my manager. She is a brand manager and specializes in consulting. Imagine your manager being an actual brand expert. That’s when Napster hit the scene, the industry started to shift—that was around 2007-2008. I recorded Chapter 4. When I went indie on Universal Republic, a label through Universal Music Distribution—I flipped the bill for everything else. There was a type of power that I started to understand that was going to be the most lucrative thing I could to do.
Being an independent artist musically inspires me to want to be a CEO—a mogul. Watching other people like Kimora Lee Simmons, Puffy, and even Jennifer Lopez. Rihanna who came later as well as Beyoncé who had House of Deréon. I saw artists branch out into other avenues and realized as an indie artist, it would be more feasible to follow. I wasn’t contingent upon whether or not somebody believed in my vision and creative thought process anymore. Becoming an indie artist lit the fire. I started to focus and hone into the things I was interested in and really say, ‘If I’m going to do
this, I might as well make money.’ To set up for my children, and create wealth for myself—something as African Americans we don’t always do for ourselves before our children turn 18. I want my children to walk into a fortune when they graduate from college. My dad is an entrepreneur and had different revenue streams as well. I think my upbringing and my environment pushed me in that direction.
The primary challenge that I faced was the tone of my voice. It’s very mature. At 19 years old, I sounded the same as I do now. That type of grit at that age was to the point where people thought I was 35 years old when I came out. I was looking like I was 20 but singing like I was 40. There were some people at Jive Records who at the time, didn’t believe in the Syleena Johnson brand. I wasn’t your A-typical pop, jazz artist. There were depth and soul there, and I got it directly from my dad—I even sound like him when I sing. I have a very masculine voice in a lot of incidences. I spent the time to sweeten it up for others to accept it. I did this to get radio or just having a softer female voice. If I were singing with men, I would sweeten it up, so it wouldn’t overpower them.
While it was unique and fun, it really hurt me on the other side of the coin. I also struggled with body image. Coming into the game being 5’10, 170 pounds that’s like a monster in comparison to these little girls. I come in the door, these little suckers are 5 feet, 85 pounds. I’m like, “Are they eating?”
For me as a young person, trying to impress my label, the industry, the press, to others, was trying to change my body and look a certain way. Jive made me think that I wasn’t marketable. Even the president of the marketing department told me I wasn’t marketable—that was crazy! These were the types of struggles I dealt with because I came in as an athlete. I played basketball in college, but as a recording artist, I was literally a giant. I was trying to please everyone except Syleena. It wasn’t until I got off of the label that I understood and learned how to appreciate myself.
How did you maintain your education while pursuing a singing career?
If I could go back in time and do things differently then, I would’ve finished my time in college instead of pursuing my career in the music business. Not that I needed that education for the music business. I was a junior in college,
and I dropped out of school to sign the record deal. That was dumb. I didn’t come out until three years after that. I clearly could’ve gotten my degree, probably a master and doctorate. Or even at the same time. Also, I’m a hot yoga instructor. Furthering my education, I did a tour and training with Yoga Alliance. I earned my bachelor’s degree
in Nutrition and Science. That was in 2007; I wasn’t able to get back into my education until 2015, and I had to switch up the major. You want to have that [education] under your belt.
For all of the young people who have this creative talent in school, if you’re in music or engineering—get the education first. Then exercise your different creative so you can bring in various revenue streams. With the college degree, people take you more seriously, primarily as an artist. The importance of education is about life experience. At college, I was able to pledge Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, Inc., there I was able to have a college life, that was an experience that could never be erased.
I wanted to create a ‘SheLean’ lifestyle to educate the moms. I felt when the mothers are educated properly it will trickle down to the children and the father. SheLean lifestyle is a lifestyle company. It’s not about weight loss and diet; it’s about changing your entire lifestyle. Part of that process is a 21- day challenge on my website, sheleanlifestyle.com. It takes you step-by-step via a video showing how to get yourself prepared for a diet. We just
say whatever day it is, if it’s Thursday—we are starting Monday. We just pick Monday. The truth is we’re never ready because we don’t know how to get ready. We have to clean house.
Getting ready for negative people out of your life. Diet is everything from removing people who are not helping you to accomplish your goals. The SheLean lifestyle was inspired by my children. It was inspired by me not knowing how to eat. Seeing my grandfather who died from heart disease; my parents suffering from hypertension and my friends’ parents having the same issues and ailments. Understanding that was our diet.
As we wrap up, what can we expect from you? Do you have time to be in the recording studio producing new songs? How do you create balance to keep it all together?
I have a full length [project] coming out. It’s almost done. It’s insane—it’s ridiculous. I feel we can do it all in this lifetime. It’s about understanding who I am, what my strong points are and going in those directions. I do have to have help. I have live-in assistance. My husband is awesome, and he’s a great dad. I want people to understand, it takes a village to raise an entertainer. Not just children, but an entertainer. I have Team Syleena, without this, I am ‘Team Nobody.’
I have my mom, my aunt, my sisters, my friends, producers and “Sister Circle.” I have help, and I’m not afraid to ask for it. As long as God puts people in my life that are helpful and there for a purpose and help me stay strong, I can give them back something by being strong and help them accomplish their goals and dreams—we’re
all good. Nothing is impossible when you put your mind to it.