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Grammy nominee Syleena Johnson returns to CU to celebrate Juneteenth with free concert

Singer-songwriter Syleena Johnson

A Grammy-nominated artist from Illinois will perform in honor of Juneteenth on Thursday, June 20.

Syleena Johnson will headline a concert at the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts Stage 5, sponsored by Illinois Public Media’s new station Illinois Soul. Doors for the free concert open at 5:00 p.m. Music starts at 6:00 p.m.

She was born in Chicago and attended Illinois State University. The late blues legend Syl Johnson is her father. Johnson has collaborated with fellow Chicagoans Kanye West and Common. She is also an author, talk show host and reality show star. 

IPM’s Kennedy Vincent recently talked to Johnson about her music career and ties to Champaign-Urbana.

Syleena Johnson: Well, the Juneteenth concert is amazing because first of all, any time you just get to celebrate Juneteenth that’s lit. Doing it on a college campus is lit. My husband is University of Illinois alumni. They are also recruiting my son in basketball. So that’s fun. And I went to Illinois State. So, we were at U of I all the time for parties and stuff like that.

Kennedy Vincent: How did you first get into music growing up? What was playing in your house? What inspired you when you were young?

SJ: Well, my father was an entertainer. My dad sing the blues and he sang soul R and B. And so, growing up in my household, music was always a staple, and we went across the gamut from Isaac Hayes to Michael Jackson to Prince. We were just a music field household. And so, I guess because of my dad and my dad’s side of the family, I just have that music bug, I’m obviously musically inclined. So therefore, I pursued everything, music after that, I got in the band, I got in the gospel choirs and all the choirs and everything music because I was just drawn to it. I’m a songwriter so I did a lot of writing as a child. 

KV: June is also Black Music Appreciation Month. What do you think about music in 2024 and how it’s changed over time?

SJ: So, here’s the thing, right? I don’t wanna be like, it’s, it’s a mess, it’s trash because when I was coming up, my parents thought the music that we liked was trash. So, you have to have an open mind to the younger generation because they’re not like we were, they’re also, you know, you guys are also not growing up in a time that we, that we were, we didn’t have no internet and we didn’t have cell phones and being able to film everybody. We didn’t have social media where you  compare everybody where you can drive yourself crazy all day long with social media and comparisons. And access to everything. So, getting access to music was a joy in it. When I was coming up, you had to wait every Tuesday that was in Friday or Friday for music to release before you could get it. You know what I’m saying? Like if it was leaked, that was like a sin and a shame like a crime, you know, but now it’s like everybody has that SoundCloud. You know, everybody has access to everything all the time.

KV: You’re performing on June 20th at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts here in Champaign. What does Juneteenth mean to you? 

SJ: Juneteenth is important because it highlights a milestone for our country and to be able to, you know, perform in the name of it is always special. It’s just like Black History Month. It’s, it’s fun to be able to perform for our own independence, our own freedom.

KV: What can audiences expect in Champaign from your performance on the 20th?

SJ: Oh, honey. Let me tell you something. I don’t know if you guys are ready. It’s, it’s gonna be really good. It’s an acoustic set that I’ve put together. But it, it sounds like a full band. It’s really dope. It’s two guitars and my percussionist has like Congos and Cajóns and I mean, it like it and it makes it feel like it’s a full show and my background singers sing down to the floor. So, it’s gonna take you through a journey of old school, new school, 90’s, love, pain. It’s a really fun show. So, it’s gonna be a history lesson for the young people, but it’s gonna be nostalgic for the older people.

Click here to listen for a longer interview on Illinois Soul’s Dialogue Show.

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