She is a clinical therapist, social justice activist, creative artist, and passionate about all things “performing arts,” especially music.
Duluth’s Diona Johnson — “Di Jay” — grew up in St. Paul after being adopted into an interracial family with 14 siblings. She recalls that “Growing up was chaotic, noisy and crowded, but interesting and sometimes fun.” She admits that it was nice to have people to play with.
Wanting her own space, having a vision for her future, and wanting to escape trauma motivated her to go to college. She first wanted to be a psychologist. Over time, her interest evolved and shifted to social work with a focus on foster care and adoption. However, through self-discovery and internships, she realized that her true passion was mental health.
Along with her studies, Diona also had a keen interest in the arts, especially music and the performing arts. Growing up, she was active in the choir and in musical theatre. At this point, she didn’t really consider herself gifted enough to succeed in these areas as a professional; mainly because she did not have the resources, the required training or the support to reach this level. Therefore, she generally considered them hobbies. She continued to remain involved in the arts and theater in college and graduate school.
Diona moved to Duluth in 2012 and was introduced to the music scene. She says, “I haven’t seen much of what looks like me on stage.” The lack of diversity presented him with a great challenge. Fortunately, she was drawn into a social network of young black professionals who not only promoted the arts, but were actively involved in community and social justice work. Her connection to this group of friends gave her the opportunity to perform pieces specifically focused on promoting social justice.
Its first performance in Duluth was at an event called Rhythm and Hues, a show held for Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Through this exposure, she began receiving invitations to perform at other events, including a Black Students Association event and a soul food dinner at the University of Minnesota Duluth. With more visibility, she received more invitations to perform at events highlighting social justice. His music generally focuses on themes such as liberation, darkness, and social justice.
In 2020, she signed on as a “creative” (artist) with DanSan Creatives, an organization that fosters a positive creative community through storytelling arts and collaborative work. This turned out to be an important point in Diona’s career as it opened many doors for her.
Diona has been on quite the journey.
Diona performs a variety of music, including funk, neo-soul, R&B and jazz. She is currently the lead singer of a band called AfroGeode and the Gemstones. AfroGeode is the artist name of Diona. In 2021, she was asked to headline the Duluth Superior Pride Festival. She sought out other BIPOC and queer musicians like her and collaborated with them for this performance.
“The performance at Pride went so well, we decided to stick together. It was amazing to be able to reunite with my people, my music people,” she says. And AfroGeode was born.
The group has done several shows, including Women of Punk & Funk, which honors women of color who pioneered these genres. The band performed pieces by artists like Erykah Badu, Betty Davis, Macy Gray and Betty LaVette. “A lot of our music definitely centers black voices in the music. It’s pretty intentional,” Diona says.
AfroGeode and the Gemstones have just completed their first original song, an incredible feat considering the group has only been together for about five months. They are excited to continue creating their own music. Diona recognizes that producing music is a rigorous process. She feels lucky to have band members who are classically trained. She attributes their success to the collective hard work and dedication of each member.
The group has six members. However, as a core value, Diona continues to value collaborating and creating space on stage with and for other BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) musicians.
“My life experiences are my main inspiration,” she says. “My intersectional identities (are) as a queer black woman and survivor of trauma. Black people inspire me with their creativity and capacity. Black women hold me accountable, alive and well – their collective stories, their resilience, their creativity and success.
Diona’s music career has been enriched by mentor-managers like Daniel and Sandra Oyinloye of DanSan Creatives and fellow community artists like Jeremy Gardner. She also pays homage to her black ancestors and the black women who came before her.
Diona is passionate about giving back and inspiring those who come after her. “Just knowing that I’m showing other people, other potential black artists that there’s space for them, (that) we may have to push things aside for that space to be created and demand our space and compensation that is fair and just, but there is room for us,” she says.
Diona says it takes community, self-reliance, compassion, and willpower to succeed as a black artist. It invites and encourages all budding artists to share their talents. She says, “I provide visibility and inspiration. At the end of the day, it’s one of the most rewarding things for me.”
Another thing she finds fulfilling is being able to stand at the intersection of all of her identities – and to do so shamelessly while creating unapologetic art.
Diona takes pride in giving people an unforgettable performance. His group always intends to deliver well-executed performances. It’s obvious that Diona takes pride in her music and values excellence.
Outside of music, Diona wears many hats. She works full-time at a local university as a mental health therapist and cross-cultural specialist. She also works part-time as a therapist in a black-owned private practice.
And for fun? Diona says her music is fun for her – therapeutic and healing too. In addition to music, she enjoys hiking, spending time with loved ones, going out and trying new restaurants, and swimming in Lake Superior. Diona is an adventurous soul. She likes to try new things. She likes to read and write.
What keeps her in Duluth? You guessed it: the lake. She finds Lake Superior very therapeutic. But that’s not all. “Yes, the lake, loved ones, you know, and yes, the life I’ve built here, whatever conditions I have to face. I like being here. I found beauty and purpose in this community.
Diona is proud to call Duluth her home.
Olihe Okoro is a freelance writer and associate professor in the College of Pharmacy at the University of Minnesota in Duluth.
IN ONE LOOK
NAME: Diona Johnson (“Di Jay”)
ON: Adopted black, queer, transracial, raised in St. Paul, lives in Duluth
PROFESSION: Licensed mental health professional employed full-time as a therapist and cross-cultural specialist for a university and part-time for a black-owned private practice
OTHER INVOLVEMENT: With Black Liberation Lab, whose focus is holistic in trauma-informed healing, body and sex positivity, radical self-love and attachment work
THE MUSIC: Singer of AfroGeode and the Gemstones
HOBBY: Everything about music, water, outdoors, fun, activism and food