Story and images by The Berklee Groove.
When I first met Arnetta Johnson, I wasn’t sure what to do. I was an observant first semester, who had already ascertained the high level of respect and reverie she had from her peers and the faculty. Most seniors I had met up until that point had been arrogant, rude, and had an expectation that I should know who they were. A lot of the time, I had never heard of them… but I had heard of Arnetta. Then, she was the extraordinary 7th semester female trumpet player, a rarity who was respected in an area where her male counterparts were known to dominate. So, when we met, I was kind of dreading the moment I assumed would come, the same as it had with the other seniors. It never came. Instead of being arrogant and rude, she was almost shy. As off-putting as that was at first, I understood then why she was so well spoken of. I sat down with Arnetta to talk about her journey at Berklee. Check out our conversation below.
Why did you come to Berklee?
I came to Berklee because of a guy named Darren Barrett. That’s literally the only reason I came at first. I remember all through high school, saying that I didn’t want to come to Berklee, so I applied super late. I saw a video on youtube of Darren Barrett playing, and I was like, “Yo, he’s super killin.” I met him at one of my friend’s graduations, and he seemed really genuine. Then, when I got here, I learned that this was a great place to learn how to play different genres of music. They’re all fun: jazz is fun, gospel is fun, R&B is fun – I just enjoy them all.
What has been your greatest challenge at Berklee?
Living with the fact that every time I do well, I have to do better. I haven’t overcome it yet, it’s just something I’ve grown to live with, but it gives me the drive to keep working hard and pushing for greater things. Someone is always going to be expecting something of me, and I’m always going to be expecting something of myself.
Well, you just did something really big: you played with Beyoncè at the 50th Super Bowl. How did that come about?
I have a friend named Crystal Torres who plays trumpet for Beyoncè, currently. I was going to LA for NAMM, and she hit me up and said that they needed another trumpet player. I was like, “Yeah, I’ll do it.” I went to rehearsal, and that was that.
So it pays to know the right people.
Yep… know the right people. Network.
If you feel as though you have to top the last thing you’ve done, what would constitute topping playing for Beyoncè?
Well, it’s all perspective. Most people say, “Oh my god, Beyoncè – oh my god, the Superbowl!” To me, those are dreams that everyone wants to fulfill, but that’s not my only dream. Coming up next weekend, I have a gig with Terri Lyne Carrington, a Grammy-award winning drummer. That’s a big deal to me, ’cause I’ve always wanted to play with her. I toured with her last fall, and now I’m getting to play with her again. So, my thing is that’s a big deal because now I can share the stage with her. If anything, that’s just as good in my eyes because it’s another goal I had – another dream that’s happening.
Do you think that musicians who play instruments focus more on playing with other notable musicians rather than vocalists?
No, I just enjoy having conversations with people. As long as I can do that musically, it’s cool. You can be a singer, a saxophonist, a dancer, a poet, and I’ll be perfectly fine with that. As long as we’re making music together that sounds good, I’m straight.
So, who are some of your musical inspirations?
Tia Fuller, who is on the faculty now, but I’ve looked up to her since I was 15, and she’s my mentor now. Crystal Torres, Sean Jones, Darren Barrett, Ralph Peterson, Terri Lyne Carrington, Jill Scott – it’s just a big list of people, and I don’t want to forget anybody.
And you won a scholarship from Jill Scott, right?
Yes, she has a foundation called the Blues Babe Foundation, and being her mentee, she awarded me a scholarship. And, of course, I put it towards school. That was through the BET United Negro College Fund.
What’s been one of your favorite moments at Berklee?
When Esperanza Spalding came, and we played with her in the BPC – I took a solo, and it was kind of long. I wanted to stop, but I opened my eyes and went back to focus on her. She was like, “Keep going.” Usually, I’m nervous if I’m playing with someone I put on a pedestal, but at that moment it was like, “Oh, I’m having fun!” That was one of the first moments I had fun on stage – laughing on stage. Just having a good time, and it made me realize that I wouldn’t mind doing this for a living. So, that was dope.
You’re in your last semester, so what’s next?
The best answer I can give to that is – great things. Great things are next. I can’t pinpoint what, exactly, but I just know there’s much more in store.
What advice would you give to early semester students?
Find a mentor. They already know the ropes, they already know how students operate, and everyone needs guidance. A mentor could be a teacher or just a peer that has it together already. Mentors are extremely important. Anyone with wisdom walking around, I’ll get advice from. Also, be careful what you ask for because if you work and pray hard enough, you’ll get it. (laughter)
What’s one life lesson that you’ll take away from Berklee?
There are a thousand people who are doing exactly what you’re doing, and you just have to figure out why you’re special. That moment for me was the day I counted how many people said “hi,” and I had no idea who they were. It made me realize that I’d had an impact on people. Also, when I finally felt like I didn’t have to prove myself. When I first got here, I always felt like I had to prove that I was good – you know how people judge girls when we play. I felt like a triple threat: I’m black, I’m a chick, and I play trumpet – I’m a minority, I’m a minority, I’m a minority. Now I’ve found it within myself that I’m cool with who I am.
What will it look like when you can say, ‘Arnetta’s made it?’
When I’m old, sitting in a chair, watching TV, and I hear a young person getting interviewed, and they say they know a lady named Arnetta Johnson who played, and I was the reason why they’re inspired.
And then, I don’t feel intimidated, anymore. I see Arnetta as a peer who is dreaming similar dreams and reaching for similar aspirations. A human out on that ledge that we’re all out on – wanting to leap into the musical stratosphere – believing we won’t fall. As she walks away, I note that her dream for her legacy didn’t include trophies, riches, or fame (although I’m sure any of us would like those things), rather she just wanted to inspire someone. Well, Arnetta… mission accomplished.