Faces of Duluth tells the stories of the people behind Duluth’s iconic attractions, hidden gems, and everything in between. Traveling to Duluth? Learn the locals’ tips and tricks for seeing all the city has to offer.
NOTE: Diona Johnson passed away in April 2023. This interview took place in 2022. We continue to honor her legacy and contributions to the Duluth community.
If you’re in tune with the music scene in Duluth, you’ve likely heard of AfroGeode, or maybe the band AfroGeode and the Gemstones. They’ve played some high-profile events in the city this year, including the Mayor’s Opening Reception for the Homegrown Music Festival. Diona Johnson is the artist behind AfroGeode. Not only is she an independent musician, Johnson is also a Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker at the College of Saint Scholastica, working as a Mental Health Therapist and Intercultural Specialist with faculty, staff and students. She says it’s her dream job, and if she could incorporate some singing into her work at the college, then it just might be perfect. We spoke with Johnson about her Duluth experience.
What is your Duluth story?
I came to Duluth from Milwaukee after completing graduate school in 2012. I saw an incredible job opportunity fresh out of grad school and it was everything I could hope for as a Master’s graduate, so I took a leap of faith and moved 6 hours from everything I’d known.
What do you love about Duluth?
I am in love with Mother Superior (Gichigami). She is a special lady with deep insight and healing powers that I have had the privilege of immersing myself in, sitting next to, listening to, caring for and connecting with the last 10 years of my existence. It’s such a deep honor to live next to something so magnificent.
I also truly love our Indigenous siblings and everything they contribute in honor of protecting and platforming sacred culture, food and land sovereignty, language, knowledge, food and art; all gifts graciously bestowed on us.
I love my Black siblings – our artists, our parents, our business owners, our farmers, our healers, our musicians, our resilience, our safer spaces, our unconditional patience, love and understanding of each other.
I love that there are always opportunities to see live music, and I love that folks are open to supporting each other and collaborating. I love the enthusiasm and love for local music.
What drives your passion to advocate for mental health and the BIPOC and LGBTQIA2s+ communities in Duluth?
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.
What do you hope your music accomplishes in and for the Duluth community?
I hope my music reaches intended ears. I hope that the band and I set an example for advocating for your needs in this local industry. I hope that other BIPOC and LGBTQIA2s+ artists in this community see me and know that this is entirely possible for them, as well, with the necessary support and structure in place. I hope that my music is a legacy.
Can you tell us a little about your band, AfroGeode and the Gemstones?
Absolutely! We met in 2021, during the height of the pandemic. Courtney Ellian and I began together, she plays keys and also is a vocalist. Courtney is incredibly talented, versatile and has a big heart. She is a graduate of the Music Program at the University of Minnesota-Duluth (UMD) and is a music instructor at Encore Music Studio in addition to her role as Choir Director at a local church. There’s also Marlena who is a graduate of the UMD Jazz program. She offers so much, and her skills as a composer and saxophonist are unmatched. Manny, our bassist, is currently a student and one of the most incredible multi-instrumentalists, composers and lyricists. Ian, our drummer, is so talented and provides us with essential perspective about form and unification. Josh is our guitarist and he is so intuitive. He started as a bass player and actually taught himself rhythm guitar. He is also very gifted at graphic design. We are connected in a way that extends beyond “just doing shows.” Each of us brings something unique, important and familial to the band. We are so honored to share space.
What are some recommendations for visitors to help them get a full, authentic Duluth experience?
Know or befriend the locals. We’re talking at least 10 years in. Follow the foragers. Listen to the chefs who have lived here or visited. Go to the places that you’re uncertain about. Trust the prices. Support BIPOC and LGBTQIA2S+ businesses. Go where the LOVE is.
What are some of your favorite things to do with guests from out of town?
I love bringing them to my favorite hiking spots. I love feeding my guests meals prepared with locally sourced and grown food. I love introducing them to music they might not hear about where they live. I love taking them to the hidden gems that they might never know about if they did a Google search about this place, and watching their faces light up with joy about little secrets I entrust them with, the places and small joys that you only know, if you know 😉.
How can people find out about your upcoming shows?