Syleena Johnson is the quintessential modern-day woman. She is a mother, wife, entertainer and businesswoman. The singer and songwriter is best known for her repertoire of work for the past two decades having worked with platinum selling artists and producers such as R. Kelly, Steve “Silk” Hurley, Kanye West, Common, Anthony Hamilton, Tweet, Twista and many others.
Born and raised in Harvey, Ill., a suburb less than 20 minutes South of Chicago—the Grammy nominated singer relocated with her family to Atlanta nearly 8 years ago. Since then, the decision has worked well in her favor. After 10 years on Jive Records, Johnson went on to create her own label Aneelys Records in 2008, releasing independent albums “Chapter 4: Labor Pains,” “Chapter 5: Underrated” and “Chapter 6: Couples Therapy.” Johnson’s visibility rose as she joined the casts of “R&B Divas Atlanta” and “Marriage Boot Camp.”
The Defender talked with Syleena Johnson about her new project with her father, the legendary Syl Johnson, the new talk show “Sister Circle” and the art of reinvention.
You’ve always been an incredible vocalist, working with some major names in the music business, but fans got to see another side of you on R&B Divas Atlanta. How was that experience for you—allowing people to see another side of you?
It was a great business move and there are things that went on that were definitely hard to deal with, but I would never change them and I would do it all again. I think that it helped create more awareness for me. I wish it could have went longer because it could’ve brought more awareness to R&B music. Things in the infrastructure weren’t lining up, and as artists we’re very private. To live it out loud was kind of weird. I think that was part of the demise, but you never know—it could come back. I would do it again if I had to—especially now because I’m a different person and I know what to expect.
How do you maintain your balance and keep the awareness in maintaining good healthy habits?
I try to promote and to encourage women to take care of their body first before anything. To take care of themselves first because if you don’t do you—you can’t do anyone else.
The balance… I’m still figuring it all out because I’m human. There’s new things that pop up all the time like a talk show. [she laughs] Now you have to try to figure out how to balance. I have to get up at 4 a.m. in the morning so I can make my kids’ lunches. Now, do I have to make my kids lunches? No, my husband could do that. I do that out of love to let him know that I’m also here for him and so the kids can have that. They know that mommy made their lunches.
I also meditate and pray, and pray every single morning.
You have a new album, “Rebirth of Soul” with your father, Syl Johnson, who is an extraordinary soul and blues musician. Do you feel this project you worked with him on will regenerate deeper roots especially in the South where you have a strong following?
It always has, my first record, “Baby I’m So Confused,” was great because it was released in Mississippi. It was huge down there in the South so they were already on Syleena before I was signed to a major record label. It was something that I took from my dad when we’re working on this project, he says, “Soul music is not a genre. Soul music is what people tap into, what their stories are.” It’s from their experiences.
With “Rebirth of Soul,” were there any favorites on the album that you felt stood out for you?
“These Arms of Mine,” “Lonely Teardrops” and “Make Me Yours.”
Do you think that you being on this is going to bring in a new generation of followers reconnecting to some soul music?
Well I hope so. I hope that who I am now and the following that I have can draw another ear to this music and be in love with this–to the point where they have a great appreciation for it. Give people [the chance] to understand that good music can be done without electronics and you can use live instrumentation. This type of music is timeless. That’s the kind of music you want to make.
As a co-host on TV One’s new talk show “Sister Circle,” is there a different formula that sets you all apart from other talk show formats?
We’re very real—I mean very real. Who you see around that table is who you see in real life. My whole [time on other TV shows] I was playing a character. So, to be Syleena Johnson on “Sister Circle,” I can be myself–the person my kids and my husband can see. That’s really fun for me. I believe my co-hosts are the same because they are the way they are in the green room and everywhere else. We go out to dinner, it’s the same personalities, and the production company encourages it. We’re all God-fearing, we pray all the time and every day.
We generally have fun at work and we talk about African-American issues from our perspective. We don’t have to “sugar coat” anything because we tell it from our experience. [It’s good] to see all Black faces because we need something for our people.
With your journey from being in the business from a teenager; having a major record deal; creating your own independent label; health and fitness programs; reality television star to now a talk show co-hosts—what kind of person have you become out of it all?
Speaking from my point of view, this is who I’ve always been and there has been a progression of this woman. I haven’t been perfect but no one is. It’s fun to be myself and I get to be that every day. In doing that, it would automatically relate to people. After I finish the talk show because that’s the stage—I’m off to the races. I’m at the school picking up my son. I’m a mother and wife. I go through the same thing as most working moms.