Imagine you’re a fledgling musician and your first major gig out of college is to perform with Beyoncé during Super Bowl 50′s halftime show. That’s what happened for Camden native Arnetta Johnson.
Since graduating from Berklee College of Music in 2016, which she attended on a full scholarship, she’s toured with Beyoncé (twice), performed with the likes of the Roots and Janelle Monáe, and released If You Hear a Trumpet, It’s Me — a solo album of her hip-hop influenced jazz.
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Johnson, named one of 20 artists to watch in 2019 by NPR, will bring her virtuosity to Chris’ Jazz Café on Friday for two intimate performances at 8 p.m. and 10 p.m.
“She’s always been ambitious,” said Jamal Dickerson, a music teacher at Camden’s Creative Arts Morgan Village Academy.
He remembers when Johnson’s embouchure — the manner in which a player applies their mouth to the mouthpiece of a brass or wind instrument — was “a little rough." Dickerson instructed Johnson to stand against the wall in front of a mirror every day to improve her technique. Dickerson said that Johnson joked about working on more ambitious stylings, but he kept her on the basics.
“She went to that wall every day, faithfully, without me having to tell her," Dickerson recalled.
Johnson, whose grandmother is a minister, often found herself in the pews of her family’s small church in Germantown. She listened to gospel acts like John P. Kee, Hezekiah Walker, and Shirley Caesar. Several of Johnson’s relatives are singers, her brother and uncle are both drummers, and her mother, Darlene Hunt-Johnson, is a music teacher at H.B. Wilson Elementary School in Camden.
Johnson, the youngest of four, said that growing up, she would often hear her mother practicing music on the wooden piano that sits in the family’s living room.
“Sometimes she would be working on music at 2 o’clock in the morning,” Johnson said. “The piano is covered with sheet music, to this day.”
Johnson first picked up the trumpet at the end of seventh grade by chance. She said that most other instruments were taken, so she chose the trumpet because “it seemed the easiest at the time with only three buttons.” It ended up being one of the more challenging instruments to master, but she stuck with it.
Years later while she was a junior at Berklee, she was invited to try out for a tour with a popular Latin artist, whom she declined to identify. She decided against the tour because she would have to take a year off from her studies, and she was determined to graduate.
During her last semester in college, Johnson received a call from Crystal Torres, a Philadelphia native and a trumpet player in Beyoncé's all-female touring band, the Suga Mamas.
“[Torres] said, ‘Hey, I know someone that needs another trumpet player, would you be able to get to L.A.?” Johnson remembered. The gig ended up being Beyoncé’s Super Bowl 50 performance.
“The gig was the audition. I performed to a point where I was able to get callbacks for future dates," which included performing with Queen Bey at the Country Music Awards, Johnson said.
While Johnson’s career may seem fun and exciting, being an independent artist has its own set of challenges.
“Literally everything is coming from our own sources of income," Johnson said. “Some people [are signed to record] labels, and the labels set you up for different opportunities and put out funds for you to be here and there."
Although she’s performed in front of thousands, Johnson maintains that she still gets nervous before some shows. But not in the way you might think.
“Some people correlate nervousness with fear. I just correlate it with making sure everything goes right," Johnson said.
Johnson still lives in Camden and enjoys eating her mother’s sweet potato pie when she’s not on globe-trotting tours. She said that Camden has a strong sense of community that she loves. From the people who ride their dirt bikes through the streets to the music that’s played throughout the city, Camden is home for Johnson.
“We’re so blessed,” Hunt-Johnson said. “I’ve always been proud of Arnetta when I watch her stand up there and blow her horn. I’m amazed.”