Karma Mayet Johnson, Conjure Woman

Karma Mayet Johnson, Conjure Woman

May 28, 2014


Get a bowl. Throw in a few spectral handfuls of Spanish moss, a generous slice of cornbread, and a dash of funk. Add a don’t-be-shy amount of molasses. And don’t forget to put in a pinch or two of glitter, and then run away, giggling like conspiracy. This is the recipe, more or less, that will conjure up Karma Mayet Johnson, a woman of many métiers and magicks. She is a multi-disciplinary performer, poet, educator, and composer. Karma composed Indigo, a Blues opera, billed as a “music and dance-infused story of love and liberation, via Lesbians on the Underground Railroad.” And the music video for her “September Song” seems to be the daughter of the opera, reasserting that erotic love between black women is a radical act of great beauty.

She has performed domestically (the Apollo, the Blue Note, The Juilliard School, Columbia University, Lincoln Center) and internationally (the Melbourne International Arts Festival and in Paris, at Sons d’Hiver). Karma has combined her talents with the Albany Symphony Orchestra, Meshell Ndegeocello, Bernice Johnson Reagon, Bill T. Jones, Antibalas, and The Roots. And here: a random page from her book of spells….

How is “erotic love a site of resistance” (to use your words) in Indigo, a Blues Opera and in general?

 To claim sovereignty over the experience of our minds, our bodies, our pleasure is to know Freedom. In the context of the Blues opera, Indigo, the protagonists (our ancestors) were subject to a legal and economic system (as are the women of our contemporary moment–albeit in slightly different form) that cast them as commodity, incapable of sovereignty or of legitimate desire.
The act of celebrating oneself
              is      f     r     e     e     i     n     g,
is a way of locating Power
That power fuels decision, risk, self-care, intellectual curiosity–
                                 in short,
it fuels our life force, in other words— to bring it full circle. Life itself, after all, comes
                                                                                                                                     from sex.


What fertilizes the roots of the rootwoman? What inspires you as you walk on your art road? 

The faces of human beings all twisted by the lives they lead.
The sounds inside my memory wanting release.

Ancestral music and the architecture
                                    it gives us for compassion.
Communion with my sistren and brethren. And deeply, deeply, the love of my Family above all,
and of the Earth and the One/Zero/Om/Allah/Great Mother/Goddess.


I’m so lucky to come from a family who have always recognized me as a messenger child since I was born, and who celebrate me every step of the way. This is why I love myself, because they taught me how — and so I am brave enough to try this artist life because they told me I cannot fail if I am true. And I believe what they say because they are Black people and if they can have faith, then who am I not to say yes to life?


What artists, living or dead, would you dream of gathering together for an inter/cross-disciplinary collaboration?


Well, I have been so amazingly fortunate to collaborate with an awe-inspiring array of magnificent creative beings…so I would say                                                                                          ooooooweeee
if I could have anybody/everybody I wished for in one place,
               it would be in the unity of creation where there is a oneness of time and space,
where Alice Coltrane lives next door to Prince and they go to Chaka Khan’s house
where I am in the kitchen helping chop tomatoes and humming
as Jimi strumming
and then Buika changes everything
by showing how the Black Atlantic is a hard bop…
and Frankie Knuckles brings the dawn with Fela
and Memphis Minnie jammin out to Ali Farka Touré on some Cassandra Wilson-laced zydeco
with bubbles for all…and that’s just breakfast….


Anything else you’re burning to say?

I am working with all my heart toward producing an album of exquisite music that I’m calling ROOTWOMAN! The work of making this medicine called music can get expensive when it’s done using the spaces and equipment and world-class personnel I will have access to –and I want to make a record that will have a classic value, to feed the folks sonic nutrition and nurture the soul. I will be making swampy acoustic versions and house versions of several cuts, from original tunes of mine like “Cool Yo Tongue” to re-interpretations, including Dolly Parton’s “Little Sparrow.”


Learn more about Karma at her website. Line breaks added by Almah LaVon Rice.