Black woman leans forward and listens intently.  She wears glasses and a Whole Foods Co-op knit hat.

Duluth musician, therapist and activist Diona Johnson dies at 35

DULUTH Singer, songwriter, therapist and activist Diona Johnson (or Di Jay), a Duluthian who led the favored band AfroGeode and the Gem stones, died Monday at age 35.

Johnson’s demise was sudden, stated her husband, Steve Karels, and the precise trigger stays unknown pending the outcomes of an post-mortem.

“There’s a chance that she had a pulmonary embolism,” Karels advised the Information Tribune, “some type of blood clotting occasion.” Johnson not too long ago had surgical procedure after breaking his ankle and “it may very effectively be a complication from the surgical procedure.”

AfroGeode and the Gem stones shared the information in a Tuesday social media submit.

Diona Johnson is seen in the course of the course of of constructing the upcoming album by her group AfroGeode and the Gem stones.

Contributed / Studio27 Images

“Right now is an extremely laborious day,” the band wrote on Fb. “Yesterday we misplaced one of many strongest, kindest, badass girls we have ever had the pleasure of calling our buddy, bandmate, bandleader and household.”

Group members responded with an outpouring of grief and tributes to Johnson’s legacy. AfroGeode and the Gem stones had been scheduled to play upcoming occasions, together with the Duluth Homegrown Music Competition and Bent Paddle’s Festiversary, and not too long ago completed recording an upcoming album.

“She was a pioneer on the planet of what we had been making an attempt to create in Duluth,” stated Daniel Oyinloye, whose group DanSan Creatives was a accomplice in Johnson’s creative endeavors. “She excelled tremendously at it. She knew the worth of it, and he or she was profitable as a result of she was wonderful.”

“All of the success AfroGeode (and the Gem stones) have had is due to her,” stated Josh Nickila, guitarist for the group. “We (the band) create the music, however she is the music. She is what we play for.”

“She had a really holistic strategy to her intention to heal individuals,” Karels stated. “All the pieces she did was related to it: music, remedy, group activism. It was all an enormous factor, it was her.”


Diona Johnson sings Carry Each Voice and Sing throughout Duluth’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day rally in 2021.

Steve Kuchera / File / Duluth Information Tribune

Diona Johnson grew up in St. Paul, the place she was adopted into a big, multiracial household. In 2022, she was quoted within the Information Tribune as saying, “Rising up was chaotic, loud and crowded, however attention-grabbing and generally enjoyable.”

“She had a tough childhood,” Karels stated. “She spent years in remedy and years and years of self-care to unwind from all of that, and I really feel like she’s risen far above a few of the tragic beginnings and circumstances and occasions of her childhood.”

She had a really holistic strategy to her intention to heal individuals. All the pieces she did was tied to it: music, remedy, group activism. It was all an enormous deal, it was her.

Steve Karels, husband of Diona Johnson

Johnson earned a bachelor’s diploma from the College of Wisconsin-Stout and a grasp’s diploma in social work from the College of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. In 2012, after ending graduate college, she moved to Duluth for a job at Northwood Kids’s Companies, ultimately touchdown what Karels referred to as her “dream job” as a pupil therapist and intercultural specialist on the School of St. Scholastica.

Karels stated he and Johnson met in 2015 when she attended a present his band Fearless Ethical Stock performed at RT Quinlan’s in downtown Duluth. Johnson “occurred to see our band and thought, ‘Who is that this ginger bass participant?'” Karels recalled. “We hit it very laborious that evening.

The 2 had been married in the summertime of 2022 in Solon Springs. “We simply wished to throw the largest social gathering potential for our family and friends and our chosen household, and I feel we did a wonderful job of throwing a killer social gathering,” Karels stated. “It was in all probability the perfect day of my life.”

Throughout greater than a decade in Duluth, Johnson turned one of many metropolis’s most admired voices each musically and in any other case.

Final 12 months, Johnson advised Go to Duluth that her psychological well being advocacy was pushed by “my lived expertise as a black, queer, fats individual. These are the communities that I declare and do my greatest to guard, and these are lives, households and futures who want and deserve safety from systemic oppression, phobias and isms.”

“She was very vocal about how black individuals had been paid in Duluth, how black individuals had been handled in Duluth, how queer individuals in Duluth had been handled,” Oyinloye stated. “She was very vocal and advocated for secure areas for all individuals.”

“It has been very tough for her to dwell in a spot that is 93% white,” Karels stated, “and he or she did not have the type of robust black BIPOC group that she grew up with in St. Paul.”

That stated, Karels continued, “she was undoubtedly targeted on making a distinction and doing as a lot as she may on this group as a result of there’s a actually robust, albeit small, group of BIPOC group (members) and activists on this metropolis , with whom we had been very shut and with whom she collaborated rather a lot.”

A group of people squeeze onto a rolling baggage cart, with women on either side holding the cart in place while everyone smiles.

AfroGeode and the Gem stones take a tour in the course of the strategy of recording their upcoming album.

Contributed / Studio27 Images

“It began small together with her,” Karels stated, “doing music occasions for nonprofits, just like the Black Pupil (Affiliation) at UMD.”

“Her musical identify is AfroGeode,” Oyinloye stated. “I keep in mind when she got here up with it. I requested, ‘What does that imply?’ She stated: ‘Afro as a result of I am African and black, that is my roots, that is my origin, and Geode as a result of I simply love rocks.

Johnson reached a large native viewers starting in 2021 when she based AfroGeode and the Gem stones as a dwell band to carry out at Duluth Superior Delight. “The present at Delight went so effectively that we determined to stay collectively,” Johnson stated in a 2022 interview, quoted within the Information Tribune. “It was unimaginable to have the ability to discover my individuals, my music individuals.”

“Di despatched out the message in search of individuals to help her for the Delight present in 2021,” Nickila recalled. “We simply acquired everybody collectively and with none type of cue or something, we simply began jamming. That is when Di comes by the door and hears what we’re taking part in and you’ll see her are available in with an enormous smile, understanding she did one thing proper and he or she acquired the suitable individuals.”

“There aren’t too many individuals who make artwork about unconventional relationship dynamics,” stated Jess Morgan, who was the leisure coordinator for Duluth Superior Delight that 12 months and had been deeply impressed by Johnson’s previous performances. “It felt necessary to have her voice and all of the totally different intersections that she captures.”

Morgan continued: “I additionally actually beloved her ‘Simply Be’ tune and the way free it was. It simply felt actually, intrinsically related to the Delight pageant. As soon as I noticed that tune … I used to be like, wow, I really feel me like everybody must see this.”

Black woman stands alone on stage near a waterside, arms up and eyes closed in a beam of sunlight.

Diona Johnson, for a second alone.

Contributed / Studio27 Images

Regardless of stormy skies on the band’s Delight debut, Nickila stated, Johnson was decided to not miss the live performance. Simply because the band went on stage, Nickila recalled, “the clouds parted and the solar went down and we acquired to play our entire present. There was a lot concern that it wasn’t going to occur, however she knew it was going to occur. Spoon.”

After that triumph, the band had many presents to carry out, however they by no means performed “simply to play,” Nickila stated. “This was, we play reveals to show one thing. We play reveals to face for one thing.” The band steered towards venues like former downtown spot Blush, which had been “so welcoming and so accepting of everybody.”

There aren’t too many individuals making artwork about non-traditional relationship dynamics. It felt necessary to have her voice and all of the totally different intersections that she data.

Jess Morgan, Leisure Coordinator for 2021 Duluth Superior Delight

Along with a full-time and one other part-time job as a therapist, Johnson labored to help not solely his personal creative profession, but in addition that of his associates. “Duluth talks about ‘love, love, love,’ however nobody is admittedly placing within the work to verify individuals are taken care of,” Oyinloye stated. “She did. Each individual she got here in touch with, together with us.”

Oyinloye continued: “She wrote these grants to hold out our mission, however not as soon as would she reject the work we had been doing and what others had been doing. Everybody was paid one thing, even when it was not sufficient. They had been paid on that premise the place she could be weak sufficient to inform them, ‘You deserve extra.'”

Just lately, Johnson curated and carried out at a sold-out Studio 4 live performance referred to as “Jazzy, Stylish, ​​Queery.” Johnson, who took she/they pronouns, advised the Information Tribune that she convened the present “as a strategy to make it possible for we nonetheless have visibility that individuals who determine as queer, individuals who determine as trans and on the rainbow spectrum, that we’ve the house (the place) we will carry out, be ourselves and be secure.”

“She actually wished to see individuals’s good issues and needs to encourage them to convey that type of factor to the room,” Morgan stated. “By her being as genuine and actual as potential, I feel it additionally inspired different individuals to be as genuine and actual as they might as effectively.”

AfroGeode & The Gemstones keyboard player Courtney Ellian, left, and guitarist Josh Nickila play as Diona Johnson sings during a practice at Encore Music Studio

AfroGeode and the Gem stones’ keyboard participant Courtney Ellian, left, and guitarist Josh Nickila play whereas Diona Johnson sings throughout a observe in Duluth on Feb. 1.

Jed Carlson / 2023 file / Superior Telegram

Johnson’s music and efficiency drew closely on traditions together with soul, jazz, pop and spoken phrase. She and DanSan Creatives not too long ago filmed a music video for the tune “Unprotected Girl” from her debut EP of the identical title.

“It was type of my manner of coming to grips with all these intersecting identities,” she advised WTIP of the EP, “and understanding what it means to be a black, queer individual in my physique and the way I transfer and the way society strikes round me.”

She was only a loving individual. She wished everybody to like and have love. It additionally speaks to her nature of the profession she selected as a therapist.

Daniel Oyinloye, DanSan Creatives

Johnson and the band recorded their upcoming album with engineer Ryan Rusch on the Weight Room studio in Washburn. “The mixing course of was just about full the day she handed,” Karels stated.

“Final Wednesday was the final time we had been all collectively,” Nickila stated. “We had been speaking concerning the strategy of … when can we get (the album) completed and launch it to the world.”

“Her birthday is June 29,” Karels stated. “I feel we will have a celebration of life social gathering on her birthday this summer time and doubtlessly the album launch as effectively.”

Karels stated he thought music may doubtlessly have change into Johnson’s principal focus. “She all the time wished to maintain doing remedy, however she had ambitions to go on the highway.” Johnson started the method of planning a transfer to Minneapolis searching for higher alternatives, Karels stated.

“As a musician, and an enormous music geek, I used to be so deeply impressed and so pleased with what she had completed together with her music and the way she had grown and her identification,” Karels continued.

“She was only a loving individual,” Oyinloye stated. “She wished everybody to like and have love. It additionally speaks to her nature within the profession she selected as a therapist.”

“She was a healer,” Karels stated. “Actually, before everything, it is her calling. She’s a healer, and it is straight associated to her music, as a result of she healed together with her music.”

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