To American sports fans, Super Bowl is the FA Cup Final, the Grand National and Wimbledon rolled into one, the biggest event of the year. In 2016 Beyoncé was its half time star. As her performance comes to an end you can just see in the background, amongst the dancers and musicians, a waving trumpet. That trumpet was the instrument of twenty-one-year-old Arnetta Johnson, a young artist for whom Super Bowl represented a triumph of will and determination and the start of what will surely be a dazzling career.
Born in Camden New Jersey, a place described when Johnson was sixteen as ‘America’s most dangerous city’, it was not the easiest place to grow up as a teenager.
“Being in Camden, it could get really crazy out on the streets, so the teachers developed a music programme. They created a haven for students because the kids didn’t have anything to do after school and some would get into trouble. They created an outlet for us. A way to express ourselves, a form of therapy and creativity. So, after school it was straight to band rehearsal! Sometimes we would be there from three to eight, but it would be cool because we liked it.”
Despite coming from a family where her mother was a music teacher, Johnson did not take to performing from an early age. Instead, at the age of thirteen, it was school that encouraged her into music, although her choice of instrument was somewhat irrational.
“The saxophone seemed complex and the trombone was huge, so I chose the trumpet because it only had three buttons. However, when I started playing, I realised it wasn’t such an easy option.”
Whilst Johnson’s neighbourhood was tough, school and the band programme became a family within the community. Although she does not readily admit it, her talent must have shone, because school was followed by a place at the prestigious Berklee College of Music in affluent downtown Boston.
“Going there was a complete culture shock. I went from having tons of black friends around me to where I was one of the very few. It wasn’t easy because people speak differently, the way they even carry themselves is different and yeah a lot of people looked at me. But I made it my job to show people at Berklee like ‘hey we do exist’. Black female instrumentalists do exist!"
It comes as no surprise that the discrimination Johnson suffered in Boston, not only occurred there but continued in her music career beyond college.
“I’ve had loads of racist comments from white musicians. I’ve been in Facebook groups of trumpet players and they say that black people think they are entitled. People tell me to move on from the past, but slavery still has an impact on my life. There are times when I will take the time to respond but there are other times I don’t. I don't owe anyone an explanation because in 2021 there is no excuse to be that ignorant. I’m not going to tone myself down because someone has an issue with me being black. That’s their problem.”
If Berklee was a culture shock it was also hard for her as a performer. Having only taken up the trumpet when she was a teenager, Johnson was way behind her contemporaries, yet it didn’t daunt her. Instead, she put in the hard hours, determined to catch up with her peers.
“Most kids had started playing when they were about three and had taken private lessons at high school. When I heard them play, I was like ‘how are you this good already?’ So rather than go back to my dorm to chill, I practiced.”
“First year was ‘finish class, go practice, finish eating, go practice, wake up early, go practice. That’s all I did because playing the trumpet was the only thing I wanted to do so I had to go hard at it. It was succeed or go home."
It was that same determination that led her not only to the Super Bowl gig but a tour with Beyoncé and a place on her Grammy award winning album.
“In high school I came across Tia Fuller the saxophonist. I thought she was cool and found a video of her playing with Beyoncé. I started listening to her music and looked up some performance dates. I found she was coming to Philadelphia, so I went to her show, met her, messaged her afterwards and she ended up becoming my mentor.”
It was from that contact she got to play Super Bowl, an experience even she still finds breath taking.
“It was a first for a lot of things. My first time playing a mainstream gig, my first time in a football stadium. It was amazing!! It was my last semester at Berklee right before I graduated, so it was a great way to end! I didn’t tell my friends, but in Berklee they play it on a big screen in the cafeteria and everyone was like ‘is that Arnetta?’ They didn’t know it was me until I was on TV.”
Since then, Johnson has received national medals from the NAACP ACT-SO competition, over 20 best soloist awards, been the Monterey Next Generation Jazz Fest best overall soloist and now founded her own band, S.U.N.N.Y (Sounds Uplifting Nobility through Notes and Youth). Success might have come to her but she's lost none of her initial fire and determination.
Arnetta strives to continue to motivate those in the community and make an impact to push positivity. “I tell a lot of young girls from Camden, you’re going to be faced with adversity, but you have to call out people who hate you. The work I put into playing the trumpet gave me the confidence to do that, as well as the purpose and realisation that there’s a bigger picture involved. I’m not going to stop going to a jam session because those sorts of people are there. I’m going to address those issues then get on stage and play at them at full force.”
Thanks to Denis Wicks Products Ltd for supporting this article.
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