Growing up as the youngest daughter of legendary R&B/Blues singer, Syl Johnson, Syleena was bitten by the music bug at a very early age. The Chicago native grew up listening to Aretha Franklin, Al Green, Tina Turner, and many others. She often performed in local bands, and sang in her church choir at Greater Christian Unity.
With a soulful voice that is reminiscent of old school blues singers, Syleena shares her personal stories of love, pain, and heartache through her music. In 2001, she released her first CD on Jive Records entitled, Chapter 1: Love, Pain, and Forgiveness, which reached number sixteen on Billboard’s Top R&B/Hip Hop Albums chart. The disc featured such singles as the R. Kelly produced, “I Am Your Woman,” “Everybody Wants Something,” and “I’d Rather Be Wrong.” She returned in 2002 with Chapter 2: The Voice, which gave us the sassy, “Guess What,” which was also produced by R. Kelly, the Alicia Myers cover, “If You Play Your Cards Right,” and “Tonight I’m Gonna Let Go.” Syleena’s final disc on Jive, Chapter 3: The Flesh, was released in 2005 and reached number 15 on Billboard’s Top R&B/Hip Hop Albums.
After going through a divorce from her first husband, Marcus Betts, and parting ways with Jive Records, Syleena is back with many new and exciting things happening in her life. Now the head of her own record label, Aneelys Records, and sticking to the original formula, she is set to release the next installment of her albums, Chapter 4: Labor Pains on September 2, which also happens to be the singer’s birthday. She is happily married now to Italian League basketball player, Kiwane Garris, and a new mother to Kiwane Garris, Jr. Syleena takes time out of her busy schedule to talk candidly about her early struggles, the lessons learned, and how it has all made her the strong, successful woman she is today.
Singersroom: You have been quite the busy little lady in the past year. Tell us about some of the new additions to your life.
Syleena Johnson: Well, basically I’ve been on the road, and focusing on family. I got married, had a baby, bought a new house; just stuff like that. I’m still staying current with my recording while making my family my first priority.
Singersroom: So how are you adjusting to being a new mom and handling your career at the same time?
Syleena Johnson: We just started with the new label; even though it’s been extremely difficult, it hasn’t been that bad. I know that in the future when I start touring, that’s when the real test is going to come. It has been challenging but rewarding at the same time. Having a baby is definitely an adjustment for someone like me. Being a recording artist you’re used to living a very selfish life where everything is about you, and what’s happening with you; it’s just you, you, you. But, when you have a husband and a baby all of that tends to change and it’s not about you anymore.
Singersroom: You parted with Jive back in 2006, and have formed your own label, can you tell me more about the new label?
Syleena Johnson: Well, I’m really excited about the new label. It’s called Aneelys Records, my name spelled backwards. Aneelys has always been my production company, I’ve had that for years, and I just used the name to create my own record company, which is something that I’ve always wanted to do. We have distribution through Universal, so we’re a subsidiary of Universal Republic. We’re really, really excited, I’ve got a great bunch of people working with me. My sister is the President of the company and I am the CEO. She has her Doctorate in Marketing and Business so she runs the company. We want to run it like a university where we take it back to the old school. We’ll have artist development where people get media training, we put them on like regimens, diet regimens before they even start recording, just like the old school. We’re trying to take it back to where real artists were created so that our artists will have longevity; be able to work and see their kids.
Singersroom: Will Aneelys specifically cater to Syleena Johnson or do you anticipate signing other artists?
Syleena Johnson: I am the first artist at Aneelys Records. We’re not signing anyone else until I do what I need to do. First, I wouldn’t want to take away from anyone else because I have so much that I need to get done and I wouldn’t be able to give them my full attention. Second, we want to have enough revenue from the label to appropriately push and market the artist so that they don’t just, you know, get signed to be signed. We want our artists to do well and go far. We want to do right by them so we want to make sure that we have all of our ducks in a row before we sign people.
Singersroom: You have a new CD, ‘Chapter 4: Labor Pains,’ set to release on your birthday, September 2, tell me why you chose to call it labor pains?
Syleena Johnson: Well it’s titled labor pains, obviously because I just had a baby, and the labor pains that I experienced was some of the worst pains that I’ve ever felt in my life. It was forty hours worth of them, but it was the most beautiful reward because look what came of it, my son is like everything to me. When we work, we just think about ourselves in this world, you know, work pains, labor pains, all of the stuff that we go through to try and get where we’re trying to go. Whatever you’re trying to do to reach your goal, it’s a lot of pain involved in that, a lot of work, and that’s basically where I’m at in my life. With Chapter 4, we’re praying that just like with my son, this will be one of the most beautiful albums that I’ve ever done.
Singersroom: How will the new CD be different from your previous three?
Syleena Johnson: Chapter 4 is Labor Pains, as a punishment to Eve, he gave her labor pain. As a woman, in this world, we go through labor pains everyday. It’s not just about having a baby. It’s hard being a woman in our industry. We are expected to take care of kids and household, take care of our husbands, have a job, be adequate in performance, and just as good as the next man at our jobs. That’s a lot of responsibilities, that’s a lot of pressure, and stress for women. So that’s basically what Chapter 4 is about. The album is also about love, and the good things that came of what I went through.
Singersroom: Was R. Kelly also apart of this project?
Syleena Johnson: Um, nope. I love Robert, he’s great, he’s heard some of the music; he’s optimistic and he loves the music and the sound. But, I’m not going to pressure him to record on this album because I really just want to do it by myself, as far as the writing because I am speaking from a woman’s point of view. Though I know he’s a man and he has written songs from a woman’s point of view that have been dead on, [laughs] it was almost like, “he think he a woman” but, I really just want to do it on my own, you know?
Singersroom: Who were some of the people that you worked with on this project?
Syleena Johnson: Most of the album is [produced by producers from the] Midwest except Keith and Darren out of Philadelphia, they did “Phone Sex” and “Slowly” off of Chapter 3, and they presented a track to me for this album. Basically, those are the only producers that I’m using that I’ve worked with before on my albums. I’m currently working with Toxic out of Chicago who has produced Keyshia Cole and is a well-known producer. But, I have some new guys called Dirty Works Productions out of Milwaukee and they are fantastic. I’m hoping that this album will be successful not only for me but for them as well. So, I’m kind of just open to anybody, anybody who submits a track that’s good.
Singersroom: Will there be any collaborations on this CD?
Syleena Johnson: Right now, just a Chicago artist, her name is Teefa. She’s a rapper and she’s on one of the songs called, “Where Is The Love?” I’ve talked to Shawna, and she’s going to do something on my album, a song that I’m working on called, “Maury Povich.” Also, we’re hoping to get Twista and I’m going to reach out to Kanye (West). I really, really, really want to do something with him. I have a real cool idea and I kind of want to run that by him. Um, David Hollister, I’ve reached out to him to see if he wants to do a duet so I’m hoping we can make that work. Basically, that’s about it. If I don’t get any of them besides Teefa, I really won’t be upset because again, the album is really about me doing all of this by myself with my own label. So, I can make a statement either way.
Singersroom: All of your songs seem to have a story or a message behind them, I kind of get the feeling that you are sort of an old soul, if you know what I’m saying?
Syleena Johnson: Well, I am an old soul especially because I am the youngest of a bunch of girls in my family. It was five girls and a boy, and I’m the youngest so I’ve always had to, you know, rise to the occasion. I just matured faster because everybody was older than me. I think that’s what kind of made me more mature but, also my dad was a blues singer and we used to listen to old school and all kinds of music. I think that got into my system and spirit as well. So, it was like I didn’t have a choice. I guess that’s why, musically, I come across as old school. I was just raised that way and my style and my swagger comes from my father being an R&B/Blues singer, and being born and raised in Chicago, which is a blues city.
Singersroom: You were apart of the stage play, “Cheaters” back in 2005, do you anticipate doing anymore acting or stage plays?
Syleena Johnson: I’m in talks with one person but, after doing a couple of plays, I really don’t like it. I just don’t care for them. I guess I’m just spoiled, and just used to the way that I like to interpret things. I don’t like the politics of them. Whatever I do, I have to be happy doing it, I have to be content with it in every aspect of the situation because my time is the most precious thing that I possess. It’s not money, it’s not anything else other than my time. So I cannot spend my time on things that are going to make me unhappy or uncomfortable. So for me, plays a lot of the time, like the people behind the scenes are just “BS.”
Singersroom: Besides preparing for the release of your new CD, what other projects are you working on?
Syleena Johnson: Actually, I am working on some things. I am in hopes to create something for my organization. It’s in the very, very early stages. It’s just like talks right now. I will just say that my organization is Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, Incorporated. I pledged in college, and I’m doing the National Boule Conference this year in Vegas, and I have hopes to present something that I want to create for my organization. Once that solidifies I’ll be able to tell you more about it. Basically, that’s it but my main focus is Chapter 4, trying to birth that. [Laughs]I’m pregnant with that right now, just trying to get through these trimesters and make my due date, which is September 2.
Syleena Johnson Contest:
Syleena Johnson is currently running her “It Is True” contest on the radio. Listeners who call and request her single will be entered into a drawing. The listener must be prepared to talk about their favorite love story or proposal. Syleena will fly the winner and a friend out to Chicago where they will spend a romantic night in a whirlpool at the Sybaris Pool Suites. For more information visit Myspace.com/syleenajohnson. —— By: Interview By Tiffany H.