Most millennials will know Syleena Johnson from watching her take charge on TV One’s R&B Divas. The hip-hop generation would remember her from her memorable hook on Kanye West’s “All Falls Down” or her collaborations with Fabolous, Busta Rhymes, Common, KRS-One and R. Kelly. Blues and soul fans may recognize the Chicago blues inflections in her voice as the daughter of the great soul singer, Syl Johnson. (The father-daughter duo has collaborated on a few projects, including his comeback album, Back in the Game.)
But Syleena is much more than those transient memories. She may not be a household name, but the former Wilhemina model is a vocal powerhouse that always steals the show even when she plays the background, and has had a steady career since she traded in her psychology major for a music major after a talent show in college.
Her new album, Chapter 6: Couples Therapy, is the sixth chapter in her collection of blues- and soul-inspired concept albums that deal with the ups and downs of relationships. The album features work with long-time collaborators R. Kelly and DJ Wayne Williams.
Syleena talks to EBONY about the new album, working with hip-hop royalty, managing family and work, and her real-life couple’s therapy.
EBONY: You worked with your father on a couple of different albums, This Time Together, My Father’s Daughter, and Back in the Game. Tell me about working with him and you being the daughter of Chicago soul royalty?
Syleena Johnson: Oh lord.
EBONY: [Laughs] Initially I heard he wasn’t supportive of your music career?
SJ: Yeah, when I was a kid he used to tell me to be quiet and shut up when I was running around the house singing. He told me I couldn’t sing, shut up and all of that. At 15 someone else he knew called him and said, “Do you know your daughter can sing?” He tried to act like he never knew. From there I started working with him and the rest is history.
EBONY: What was it like growing up in Chicago with soul history like Sam Cooke, Curtis Mayfield, Chaka Khan, and all the record labels that came out of that city?
SJ: Well, during my era growing up in Chicago it was more house music, that was what I remember growing up in Chicago at the time. House music is pretty much old soul to a house beat, so it intertwines. The root of where I come from is probably more the blues since I grew up in a house with a blues guitarist. That’s what I remember. That’s what I know.
EBONY: What did you want to do differently with this album? I know you’re working with Dave Hollister and Leela James.
SJ: I just wanted to put out real music, real R&B music and so much more. The album is called Couples Therapy. And it really addresses couples issues. It’s a story and its really, really good music. I’m proud of it. I love every single on the album. The Dave Hollister duet is so amazing, it’s called “Harmony” and it’s so good. I think this is probably some of my best work yet. I am super excited to release it to the world. There's some feel good music, there's some falling in love music. This album is full. I am proud of every single song.
EBONY: What made you sign to the label, Blakbyrd?
SJ: Greg Baker, the CEO was really passionate about my craft and my history and I feel like he believed in me as an artist and for me that’s the most important thing is believing in the project. He’s enthusiastic. He's worked in radio for years—he worked Beyoncé’s “Crazy in Love” record. He has great knowledge of the industry, and he's passionate. For me that was the number one thing.
EBONY: What was it like working with Kanye?
SJ: Working with him was simple and easy, he's very professional. I just worked with him recently and he was normal. He was the same way he's always been. I did something with him for one of Rick Ross’s singles with him Big Sean. They took me off and put Betty White on at the last minute and it didn’t do what it was supposed to do in terms of sales. That’s on them. But it was cool working with them. It was the same Kanye I know. People like to say this person changed, but other people change too. People think artists can’t defend themselves. They think that artists can't check you. You're just supposed to just chill while they are criticizing them. Well he does not think that. I give zero cares about what people say. But he cares. He has made some ridiculous mistakes, but who hasn’t? The Taylor Swift incident? He was drunk and his mama had just died. We’re human. For me, I don’t care, plus I'm a reality TV star, so things are out loud for me. My sole purpose to be on the R&B Divas show was to get my music out there and to get my story out there.
EBONY: What was it like working with Buddy Guy?
SJ: I wasn’t in the studio with him, but he was super nice. The rapper Shawna that’s my girl, is his daughter. My uncle plays in his club every week. He was one of my father’s closest friends.
EBONY: I was reading about the Daughters of Soul tour—Lalah Hathaway (Donny Hathaway’s daughter), Indira Khan (Chaka Khan’s daughter), and Nina Simone’s daughter and you?
SJ: I haven’t had the chance to go yet, but I will go on it this year. Right now it’s with Universal Attractions, the booking agency, and I am super excited about it because Lalah Hathaway is on it and that’s my girl and Chaka Khan’s daughter. That’s such an honor. I am excited to do that.
EBONY: How do you balance family with your career—married to college coach Kiwane Garris, two boys and a 13-year-old stepchild?
SJ: It’s hard because the hardest part is walking away from them. My tour kicks off in New York at SOBs. They’re in school. They have to have a regular life.
EBONY: What are your future projects?
SJ: Me and my husband—we did the next season of Marriage Bootcamp on WE TV. All couples can use some fine-tuning and me and Kiwane had some communication issues. We were there for that. It was actually very good. It airs in January. It was very hard, a lot of crying. It went deep. It was a real camp; it wasn’t just a TV show. A lot of people showed up for the check, but we didn’t. I knew about the program and we really wanted to go through the program to strengthen the relationship. That’s why the album is called Couples Therapy. I always write about what I'm dealing with in my life. It’s not easy and there's nothing wrong with getting help. We were both divorced before. It’s hard. But it really enhanced my marriage.