Aprina Johnson: Transformation, Highways, and Musical Activism
I met Aprina Johnson outside of a warehouse. “You ready?” she asked. I said yes, although I wasn’t sure. I put my Subaru into drive and followed her sedan through a quick series of back alleys. We parked in a secluded area near an abandoned truck yard, and out of Aprina’s car tumbled four children plus herself. We scuttled across a road and past patches of overgrown weeds and large cement blocks, eventually making it to a highway overpass.
“Isn’t it beautiful?” she asked with a beaming smile as we rounded the corner. I was met by a work of art: brightly colored stairs with a painted waterfall cascading down the steps. So simple, and yet so unexpected in this gritty wasteland.
We sat on those painted stairs and talked as cars sped past, trains whistled, and the kids danced on the overpass. As the sun set, Aprina opened up about musical activism, her work with affordable housing, and her battle with depression. It was evident that Aprina thinks big. She is not limited by her struggles, but emboldened to find beauty and meaning in the chaos around her, even if that beauty is a simple set of stairs tucked away beside an unassuming highway.
Tell me about yourself.
I'm a lover of people. When I was nine years old, this new girl came to school. Everybody was making fun of her for having holes in her clothes. I had just cleaned my room and had tons of extra clothes. After school, I asked her where she lived, and I bagged up my extra stuff, and I carried this big bag over to her house. The whole family came out and started digging through the bag, and I was completely oblivious to what was going to happen next.
I got this adrenaline rush and had this sense of “feeling whole” when I did things like that, and so I just kept doing it. After a while, people would say, "Hey, the little black girl with the white dad… If you need anything, you can go to their house. They've got clothes. They've got food.” Mind you, we lived in the ‘hood. We didn't even live in a house, but an old car garage. So multiple opportunities presented themselves for me to be kind and generous, and my dad definitely instilled that in me. My mom was the more aggressive person, but my dad always taught me to not judge people and to empathize. I have carried that into my adulthood.
As far as music goes, when I was a little kid, my mom and dad gave me a keyboard with an M.P.C., a mini turntable, and all these different synths and things. And I'm telling you, I would make a new song like every day. I was always beat boxing, and every time there was an instrument around, I’d pick it up and I could catch on. There were no hardcore music programs where I grew up in Newport, Kentucky, and the ones that were available cost too much money. I was too shy to put myself out there, so I could never get noticed. So it was a secret that I could sing and rap and write. When I got older, I tapped into clubs and parties. One night, I was singing next to the DJ and he was like, "Oh, you can actually sing." So, he gave me the mic and I was singing in the club, and some people came up and said, "Yo, we've got a studio!"
I started recording my stuff in a studio and I sucked, like really bad. But I got connected to a youth center downtown, and that's where I got an opportunity to start performing live and recording my own beats. I started getting a lot of opportunities, but I felt pretty empty early on, because when you're around hundreds and thousands of people and everyone is like, "Oh you're so great; you're so dope,” that feels good, but I had some brokenness going on, and I needed more than that.
I was asking people if they would be in to changing their community in different ways, and people were in.
I decided to take these workshops that I was secretly doing all over the city and combine them with the songs I was writing. When I did, it caused these explosive interactions with people wherever I went, and I felt people's lives being transformed in a matter of five minutes. I know that sounds weird, but it was really happening. I was like, “This is musical communal activism. I don't just want to be an activist and I don't just want to do music. I want to do both, and hell, it's the year 2000, so I can be both.” [Laughs.]
What is "musical activism”?
It's very intricate. When you go to church – and this can be in the white, black, Hispanic community, whatever – they do praise and worship, and they call you to worship God with music. The music basically tells God you love Him, and “thank you.” I'm a firm believer in God, and I felt like God was calling me to do more and calling everyone to do more, so I wrote this song called “Are You In.” That was one of my first experiments. I was asking people if they would be in to changing their community in different ways, and people were in.
I want to capture the voice of the community and bring it to the table.
The songs are supposed to activate these dreams, these desires, that you already have. I don't have to tell you about it. You already have it, and I'm pushing you to do it. Then, I will form a workshop so that you can dive deeper into whatever that calling is. It's creative and diverse so that people can see that others feel the same thing, so they don't feel alone and they can partner and work together. I've seen a lot of cool stuff come out of these interactions.
Are people writing their own music or being changed through your music?
So, I'm singing at clubs, churches, universities, all over the place, and I bring my own songs, obviously, but there have been a lot of people who have reached out and asked me to come to their school, their 50-and-over group, their moms group, and so I've definitely sat down and worked with people, teaching them how to write and produce songs, and different things like that. And other musicians have been birthed from what I do.
How cool is it to be like, "I’m the reason that they're now in the game"?
Oh yeah! I don't even say it, but they know, and I know. It's very empowering, because I used to feel like I was worthless, and I even tried to commit suicide when I was 15. It's pretty amazing to go from there to a place where you're inspiring and igniting people to be what God called them to be. To step into their full potential here on earth.
Coming from such a dark place, how did you get out of that hole? Is that something you still struggle with?
I definitely still struggle with bouts of depression and anxiety, because when you work in the community and you're advocating for things, and you come up against giants – whether ideas or people – it's just like, “This is so big. What am I doing?” I still struggle with those feelings, but since I've been able to make such a huge impact on people, I know that I'm meant to live. I'm not meant to die. The darkness that I've gone through is really this fire that keeps me going because, had I never experienced that, I'd probably be a typical little guitarist out here singing beautiful songs, and there's nothing wrong with that, but I wouldn't make the impact on the world that I know Martin Luther King fought for. When I learned about him in school, I took that seriously. I didn't take it as a suggestion. I was like, "Oh, I want to be like him." [Laughs.]
What are you fighting for?
That's a big question. One of the biggest things that has been on my heart lately is home, because a home is a place where you are supposed to feel safe and secure, and you're supposed to be able to cultivate your creativity and your dreams. That's been one of my biggest fights. I work in real estate here in the city, and me and my dad in the past went through some gentrification. I was just a kid, but growing up, I realized that someone needs to fight this fight. If you don't have a nice, warm, healthy place to live, you're not going to care about the food you eat. You're not going to care about the company you keep. You're not going to give a damn about your city. You're not going to care about anything because you're always going to be fighting to belong. So, that's one of the fights I've really been entangled with as of late, and I mean, there are so many different ones. Suicide; youth not understanding emotional intelligence; dealing with single mothers; trying to help them understand how beautiful they are – and it's not on the outside. It's inside. It's your character. Life is not over because you had a baby. Also, people returning from prison and helping them understand that there is another world that exists and it's waiting for you. It's there. I think I'm in every fight, really. [Laughs.]
Doesn't that get exhausting?
Yes. But for me personally, the place where I rejuvenate is through meditating on those who have come before me and done amazing things. Like I said, I strongly believe in God, and I look at the Bible as not just a sacred thing you can't touch, but it's a book full of heroes. So, I'm like, "Yo! They did this?” I know that I'm created to do the same thing, so I'm going to be hurt; I'm going to be fatigued and pissed off in moments, but there is a reward with the risk, and I've seen plenty reward, and I'm addicted to it. I'm addicted to seeing somebody else get set free. It is the most unexplainably beautiful feeling in the world.
You mentioned home being your one big thing, amongst a million others. Tell me about your work with the Walnut Hills Redevelopment Foundation.
There's this new term called “creative placemaking,” which is apparently what I've been doing all my life. Someone finally created terminology for it. [Laughs.] So I've been specializing in a lot of resident-led initiatives. As a community development center, we work with developers who have ideas to come into a community to make it better, but the ongoing issue is that the community does not agree, and because they don't agree, there's tension and people feel left out. I want to capture the voice of the community and bring it to the table. We've done that, whether it be a simple conversation, a formal or informal meeting, or some kind of opportunity to fund something they want to do in the community. That's been a humongous blessing to me and to others because it doesn't commonly happen through community development.
Has your own experience with gentrification informed how you are now taking action?
1,000 percent yes. What I find is that I come up against a lot of people who have never gone through it. When I share my story, their eyes pop out of their head because they just assume that people haven't gone through it and that it's not real. It's “fake news.” But no, it's actually real.
Did you get displaced when you were a child?
Yeah, we did, and we got thrown like $1,006. I'll never forget. My dad is a very warm-hearted, countrified kind of guy, and so he didn't think to go any deeper. It was really simple for him: Find a house; find work. So, we went to the next house and it was a mess.
With everything that you've gone through, including becoming a mother at a young age, how has all of that impacted and inspired your creative process?
The coolest thing, I think, is that I'm able to understand so many different people from so many different walks of life. I used to ask, "Why? What is the point of all this?" But now, I absolutely get it because I can't truly help someone if I don't understand their story. I feel like I have that because of the struggles that I went through, because of the multicultural family that I came from. I love it and I'm grateful for it.
When you were 15, did you ever think that one day you would be saying that?
No, absolutely not. It was the end for me. I was like, "That's it. I'm gone. Mom and Dad divorced. Boyfriend broke up with me. I'm being bullied at school. I'm out of here." So I never would have thought that I'd be able to look back at those experiences and use them. I'm using them, they're not using me. [Laughs.]
So, what's next for you?
I recently did a music video called “One Day.” My family and I actually wrote the lyrics. I put the guitar part to it. I'm also working on an album. My [biological] dad recently passed away. He was a world-renowned artist. He played with Bootsy Collins, George Clinton, many different artists; worked for King Records. Did all kinds of amazing things, and I'm just now tapping into all this information. I want to be like my dad, so I want to put this album out. I want to launch a bunch of campaigns and bring our community together. I want to be in a position where I can make a call or say something and people's lives are really changed. I see it happening here in the city and I'm like, “I'm born to do that.”
So that's what's next, man. Saving some of the world.
I just found my biological father, and through that, discovered that my grandfather was involved in the community. He was a musician. I'm reading through this information, and I'm speechless. It's in my blood to do this, so I'm going to follow through. So that's what's next, man. Saving some of the world. [Laughs.]
Tell me about an influential woman in your life.
Oh, that's hard, because I didn't actually have a lot of influential women in my life. I had my dad. He acted as both parents. But, my dad bought me a Lauryn Hill CD and, living in Kentucky, I went to an all-white school. It was pretty bad. Listening to that music did something to me, so I would definitely say that Lauryn Hill was important to me.
My fifth grade teacher told me that I was an excellent writer, so that put me on a path to continue writing.
There was a woman in downtown Cincinnati who had an organization called Higher Branches. Her name is Emily. She allowed me to be creative and use the space and bring community together with no strings attached, no trickery. It happens a lot in the music world. People want you to pay or sign or give your ideas. It's always something weird like that. But she was amazing. She and her husband just gave me a space to fly, and I'm forever grateful for her.
Oh my god, I can't just say her, there are so many different women now that I'm thinking about it! Once I became twenty-something, it seems like supportive women started popping up everywhere. I mean, I love my mom. Like I said, she was really aggressive, and the way she showed us love was very different than the typical definition of how a mother should show you love. But she was a fighter, and I know that I have adopted that from her fully. I fight a little different than she does. She actually beat people up, but I took on a different method of fighting, and I’m just as fiery.