Catching up with Atlanta R&B singer Syleena Johnson, featured on TV One’s ‘Unsung’

Syleena Johnson is featured on an episode of TV One's docuseries "Unsung." TV ONE
Syleena Johnson is featured on an episode of TV One's docuseries "Unsung." TV ONE

Her episode debuts April 25 at 9 p.m.

But the Chicago native’s music career never quite crossed over to mainstream pop and Jive dropped her in 2007.

Five years later, she landed on TV One’s “R&B Divas” and moved to Atlanta with her husband and two kids. She stayed and hosted TV One’s “Sister Circle” talk show for four years.

In 2019, TV One asked her to sit down for its bio series “Unsung,” with her episode airing Sunday, April 25, at 9 p.m.

Johnson, in an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, said the episode was delayed a few months but the timing ended up working well because she has a new album out now called “The Making of a Woman.”

At age 44, Johnson said she feels like she is in a good place in her life for “Unsung” to come out.

“I’ve talked about my life on so many different platforms already,” she said, including an episode of OWN’s “Iyanla VanZant: Fix My Life.” She said after watching an early cut, she felt at first that it was too short, but ultimately, “it was a good story. It was enough.”

She said she has done a lot of therapy and worked through some of the pain she experienced as an artist at Jive. “They expect you to perform at high levels no matter how sad or how much pain you’re suffering,” she said. “In some cases, they create the pain and don’t allow you to heal.”

Johnson said what has helped her has been a strong foundation of supportive family and friends including her husband of 14 years and former pro basketball player Kiwane Garris, her two sisters Syleete and Syleecia and her mom Brenda. (She still has some issues with her dad Syl, who also appears in “Unsung.”)

“I’ve just kept going no matter what,” Johnson said. “I’ve kept positivity around me. I also see a therapist to keep my head clear. There are things you suppress to keep things together at the time, but it’s good to recognize the past and work on that.”

For instance, she recently parsed over a traumatic moment with her therapist. She was five years old attending a Catholic school packed with abusive nuns. “I had colored an angel black,” she recalled. “It was beautiful. I remember the shading, the outline. But when we turned it in, the nun held up my picture and made a mockery of it.”

She said that was the start of her becoming “flaw-focused.”

“I had to always be perfect and fix things,” she said, “to be in alignment with others. That’s why I’m so hard on myself.” As a result, she became hard on others.

She is now giving herself more grace when she makes a mistake and has done the same when others around her screw up. That attitude shift, she said, has made her life far more peaceful in a good way. She also encourages her kids to express their feelings.

The special gingerly touches upon R. Kelly, who she worked with on some of her biggest records including “I Am Your Woman” and “Guess What.” Johnson had no idea at the time he had abused women in any way. She said she had a completely professional relationship with him and learned a lot about work ethic.

“He showed me different ways to sing and improve my writing skills,” she said. “He was very good at moving with the trends. That was something I admired about his work.”

She also collaborated with Kanye West during his early years. “He was humble, believe it or not,” she said. “But he had a fire inside him that he could do great things. His resilience has been inspiring. He hasn’t always said great things lately, but I think he has a good heart.”

Johnson hopes her “Making of a Woman” album gets attention as the next progression in her musical life. “It’s an ode to women,” she said, “and me maturing into a different, wiser person.”

Though she lost her “Sister Circle” talk show gig last year, she is now on a similar digital-only show on Fox Soul called “Cocktail With the Queens” featuring former “The Real Housewives of Atlanta” cast member Claudia Jordan and actresses Vivica A. Fox and LisaRaye McCoy.


“Unsung” featuring Syleena Johnson, Sunday, April 25, 9 p.m. on TV One

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