The Bay Area native began singing as a child in the church choir, but found that her style began to take shape during her time in the Oakland Youth Chorus.
“We sang in a bazillion different languages,” she said. “Our conductors took every opportunity that they could to make us as culturally aware as possible about the people that we were around. I think I learned at a very young age that I needed to leverage for social change through that organization.”
She left her hometown for Los Angeles at 19, and realized that she could make music in a much more economical way that didn’t require nearly as many moving parts. “Most singers, like me, do a whole band out of the gate or working with musicians until it winds up being very expensive for them to travel and produce their art. I learned very quickly that I could rock two turntables and a microphone and go all over the world, so I did.”
Johns released her debut album ”Heavy Electromatic Soularpoetic Junglehop,” in 2004 and has since continued to tour and perform throughout the world, sharing the stage with such artists as Mos Def, Lauryn Hill and Les Nubians. In addition, she has channeled her activist feelings into being an advocate for food justice and serves as an artist in residence for the food policy think tank Food First. Before she takes the stage Monday as a performer with the 11th Annual Hip Hop Theater Festival at The Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage, Johns discussed her passion to change the way we eat, what’s next for her musically and why you sometimes have to take a step back in order to hone your craft.
What it is about food activism that speaks to you?
A couple of things. My mom had diverticular disease, which I had never heard of. One of the first things you read about when you read about [it] is how it was rare before we introduced genetically modified foods into the system. That was kind of a ringing of an alarm at that point, and then I got into some environmental justice stuff. What I realized was that food is connected to everything. It’s the one action that you can take to change everything that you see in your community. If you collectively, in your community, decide that you want to localize your food system. . .then you change the entire system. It felt like it would be the most powerful way of activism and the most entertaining. It’s fun! I love cooking and I love being with people. I love how food and art bring people together. The perfect merger for me is an artivist to be able to do these things that I love.
You’re the first-ever artist in residence for Food First. What have you done within your time in that role?
I created a project called “Go Liv!,” which is a grassroots mass media edutainment campaign that will last about 18 months, starting in January. I’ll be traveling around the world every few months linking up with different “artivists” and different communities, working with them to create bodies of work that can be used to raise consciousness and capital.
Frequently, we as artists who are politically minded get asked to do great work, but there’s no appropriate compensation, and we’d much rather be doing this type of work, communicating with our community and really fulfilling our responsibility as artists. . .but there’s no thought around how we can make it sustainable both for the community and the artist. I’m working with Food First to create some ways of storytelling so that we can communicate the circumstances and opportunities in communities through the food system, through localizing the food system.
What is a Jennifer Johns show like?
It’s energized, it’s passionate. . .it’s an exchange. I feel as inspired as I hope the audience does. For me, performing is, I get to show up but I also get blessed by experiencing the people there. I never feel like anyone is missing because it was all intended. So, we come together and together we make a really great show. The vibration tends to be high because people came and intended to have a good experience.
Working with others who are considered at the top of their game, what is the biggest takeaway that you have learned?
Do you, and don’t do it alone. Know your role, so to speak. I’ve toured with some folks and I’ve been like “Wow, you don’t have anybody that really, really loves you on the road with you. If you did, somebody would pull your card and tell you “Baby, don’t do that.” That was a real learning experience, and part of the reason why I haven’t put out music for a long time is ‘cause I needed a minute to really get clear about what it is that I do and why I’m important as a musician. God gave you the gift that you got for a good, blessed reason, and only you are the person that can do what you are supposed to do. So, don’t go out there trying to be Beyonce, don’t go out there trying to be Lauryn Hill. I can only be Jennifer Johns.
Johns will perform at 6:30 p.m. Monday at The Kennedy Center. The Hip Hop Theater Festival will run through July 14. Visit hhtf.org/dc2012/ for more information.