Duluth musician, therapist and activist Diona Johnson dies at 35
Well known as the leader of AfroGeode and the Gemstones, Johnson was a clinical therapist and a vocal advocate for Duluth's Black and LGBTQ communities.
DULUTH — Singer, songwriter, therapist and activist Diona Johnson (or Di Jay), a Duluthian who led the popular band AfroGeode and the Gemstones, died on Monday at age 35.
Johnson's death was sudden, said her husband, Steve Karels, and the exact cause remains unknown pending the results of an autopsy.
"There's a likelihood that she had a pulmonary embolism," Karels told the News Tribune, "some kind of blood clot event." Johnson recently had surgery after breaking her ankle, and "it could very well be a complication from surgery."
AfroGeode and the Gemstones shared the news in a Tuesday post on social media.
"Today is an unbelievably hard day," the band wrote on Facebook. "Yesterday we lost one of the strongest, kindest, badass women we have ever had the pleasure of calling our friend, bandmate, bandleader, and family."
Community members reacted with an outpouring of sorrow, and tributes to Johnson's legacy. AfroGeode and the Gemstones were scheduled to play upcoming events including the Duluth Homegrown Music Festival and Bent Paddle's Festiversary, and had recently finished recording an upcoming album.
"Di was a fierce advocate for social justice, supporting the Duluth NAACP and BIPOC communities throughout the region with her words, her professional work, her music, and her advocacy," the Duluth NAACP wrote in a statement. "There truly aren’t words to express the sadness we feel amidst Di’s passing, nor the impact this loss has on our community."
"She was a trailblazer within that world of what we were trying to create in Duluth," said Daniel Oyinloye, whose organization DanSan Creatives was a partner in Johnson's artistic endeavors. "She excelled tremendously in that. She knew the value of it, and she was successful because she was amazing."
"All the success AfroGeode (and the Gemstones) have had is because of her," said Josh Nickila, guitarist in the group. "We (the band) create the music, but she is the music. She is what we are playing for."
"She had a very holistic approach to her intention to heal people," said Karels. "Everything that she did tied into that: music, therapy, community activism. It was all one big thing, that was her."
A shining light
Diona Johnson was raised in St. Paul, where she was adopted into a large interracial family. In 2022, she was quoted in the News Tribune saying, "Growing up was chaotic, loud, and crowded, but interesting and sometimes fun."
"She had a difficult childhood," said Karels. "She spent years in therapy and years and years of self-care to unwind from all of this, and I feel she has risen far above some of the tragic beginnings and circumstances and events in her childhood."
She had a very holistic approach to her intention to heal people. Everything that she did tied into that: music, therapy, community activism. It was all one big thing, that was her.
Johnson earned a bachelor's degree from the University of Wisconsin-Stout and a master's degree in social work from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. In 2012, after completing graduate school, she moved to Duluth for a job at Northwood Children's Services, and eventually landed what Karels called her "dream job" as a student therapist and intercultural specialist at the College of St. Scholastica.
Karels said he and Johnson met in 2015, when she attended a show his band Fearless Moral Inventory was playing at R.T. Quinlan's in downtown Duluth. Johnson "happened to see our band, and was like, 'Who's this ginger bass player?'" Karels remembered. "We hit it off that night, very strongly."
The two married in summer 2022 in Solon Springs. "We just wanted to throw the biggest party possible for our friends and family and our chosen family, and I think we did an excellent job at throwing a killer party," said Karels. "It was probably the best day in my life."
Over more than a decade in Duluth, Johnson became one of the city's most widely admired voices — musically and otherwise.
Last year, Johnson told Visit Duluth that her mental health advocacy was driven by "my lived experience as a Black, Queer, Fat person. These are the communities that I claim and do my best to protect, and these are the lives, families and futures that are in need of and deserving of protection from systemic oppression, phobias and isms."
"She was very vocal about how Black folks were being paid in Duluth, how Black folks were being treated in Duluth, how queer people in Duluth were being treated," said Oyinloye. "She was very vocal and advocated for safe spaces for all people."
"It's been very difficult for her to live in a place that's 93% white," said Karels, "and she didn't have the kind of strong Black, BIPOC community that she grew up with in St. Paul."
That said, Karels continued, "she was definitely focused on making change and doing as much as she could in this community, because there is a really strong, albeit small, group of BIPOC community (members) and activists in this city, who we were very close with and that she collaborated with a lot."
"It started small with her," said Karels, "doing music events for nonprofits, like the Black Student (Association) at UMD."
"Her musical name is AfroGeode," said Oyinloye. "I remember when she came up with that. I asked, 'What does it mean?' She said, 'Afro, because I'm African and Black, that's my roots, that's my origin, and Geode because I just love stones."
Johnson reached a wide local audience starting in 2021, when she founded AfroGeode and the Gemstones as a live band to perform at Duluth Superior Pride. "The performance at Pride went so well, we decided to stick together," said Johnson in a 2022 interview quoted in the News Tribune. "It was incredible to be able to find my people, my music people."
"Di sent out the message about looking for people to back her up for the Pride show of 2021," remembered Nickila. "We just got everybody together, and without any sort of signal or anything, we all just started jamming. That's when Di comes through the door and hears what we're playing, and you can see her coming in with a big smile, knowing that she did something right and she got the right people."
"There aren't too many people that are making art about nontraditional relationship dynamics," said Jess Morgan, who was entertainment coordinator for Duluth Superior Pride that year and had been deeply impressed by Johnson's earlier performances. "It felt important to have her voice and all of the different intersections that she occupies."
Morgan continued, "I also just really loved her 'Just Be' song and how free it was. It just felt really, inherently relevant to the Pride festival. Once I witnessed that song ... I was just like, wow, I feel like everybody needs to see this."
Despite stormy skies at the band's Pride debut, said Nickila, Johnson was determined not to miss the gig. Just as the band took the stage, Nickila remembered, "the clouds parted and the sun came down and we got to play our whole show. There was so much worry about if it wasn't going to happen, but she knew it was going to happen."
After that triumph, the band had many offers to perform, but they never played "just to play," said Nickila. "This was, we're playing shows to prove something. We're playing shows to stand for something." The band steered toward venues like the former downtown spot Blush, which was "so inviting and so accepting of everybody."
There aren't too many people that are making art about non-traditional relationship dynamics. It felt important to have her voice and all of the different intersections that she occupies.
On top of one full-time and another part-time job as a therapist, Johnson worked to support not just her own artistic career but those of her associates. "Duluth talks about 'love, love, love,' but no one really puts in the work to make sure people are cared for," said Oyinloye. "She did that. Every person she came in contact with, even with us."
Oyinloye continued, "She wrote those grants to do our project, but not once would she negate the work that we were doing and what anybody else was doing. Everyone was paid something, even if it was not enough. They were paid on that premise where she would be vulnerable enough to tell them, 'You deserve more.'"
Recently, Johnson curated and performed at a sold-out Studio Four concert called "Jazzy, Classy, Queery." Johnson, who took she/they pronouns, told the News Tribune she convened the show "as a way of making sure that we still have visibility, that folks who identify as queer, folks who identify as trans and on the rainbow spectrum, that we have that space (where) we can perform, be ourselves and be safe."
"She would really see people's good stuff, and want to encourage them to bring those types of things to the space," said Morgan. "By her being as authentic and real as possible, I think it also encouraged other people to be authentic and real as they could, too."
The music lives on
Johnson's music and performance drew widely on traditions including soul, jazz, pop and spoken word. She and DanSan Creatives recently filmed a music video for the song "Unprotected Woman" from her debut EP of the same title.
"It was kind of my way of coming to grips with all of these intersecting identities," she told WTIP about the EP, "and understanding what it means to be a Black, queer person in my body, and how I move and how society moves around me."
She just was a loving person. She wanted everyone to love and have love. That speaks to her nature by the career she chose as a therapist, also.
Johnson and the band recorded their forthcoming album with engineer Ryan Rusch at the Weight Room studio in Washburn. "The mixing process was basically finished on the day she passed," said Karels.
"Last Wednesday was the last time we were all together," said Nickila. "We were talking about the process of ... when can we have (the album) done and unleash it to the world."
"Her birthday is on June 29," said Karels. "I think we're going to have a celebration of life party on her birthday this summer, and potentially, that'll be the album release, too."
Karels said he thought music could potentially have become Johnson's main focus. "She always would have kept doing therapy, but she had aspirations to go on the road." Johnson was beginning the process of planning a move to Minneapolis in search of bigger opportunities, said Karels.
"As a musician, and a huge music nerd, I was so deeply impressed and so proud of what she had done with her music, and how she had grown and her identity," Karels continued.
"She just was a loving person," said Oyinloye. "She wanted everyone to love and have love. That speaks to her nature by the career she chose as a therapist, also."
"She was a healer," said Karels. "Really, first and foremost, that's her calling. She's a healer, and that ties in directly with her music because she was healing with her music."
This story was updated at 4:53 p.m. April 13 to add a statement from the Duluth NAACP. It was originally posted at 7 a.m. April 13.