Duluth's Queen of Soul

Jill Fisher

Diona Johnson

On Thursday, June 29, a celebration of Diona D. Johnson’s life was held at Bent Paddle Brewing Co. in Lincoln Park. It was her 36th birthday, though Diona died unexpectedly on April 10. She was honored by Mayor Emily Larson’s official proclamation of it being the “Diona D. Johnson Day of Remembrance & Joy.”

The proclamation extolled Diona’s good work in the field of mental health and as an advocate for minority communities and individuals. It recognized that she was passionately engaged in the Duluth community, was a phenomenal musician and performer and concluded that, in the music world, Diona was referred to as “Duluth’s Queen of Soul.”  

Steve Kareļs was Diona’s soulmate whom she met in 2015 and married only about a year ago. He is a bass player and they had an instant connection through music. At 2 pm on this day, from the outdoor stage at Bent Paddle, he welcomed folks to the celebration of Diona’s life. A memorial display with artwork, photographs and Diona’s cherished possessions was a visual keepsake of this special day.  

Diona’s friend and collaborator, Shelby Joy, began the celebration with a short description of their mutual “…deep dive into friendship” and a meditation ritual that included a moment of silence. Attendees went respectfully quiet when a singing bowl was rung three times. The ambient sounds of passing trains, traffic and sirens actually enhanced the sense of being present in the moment. After ringing the bowl three times again Joy concluded by asking those in attendance to sing along with the simple tune “We Are Love” which provided a reminder of what Diona was all about.  

From that point on the vibe notched up with Hip Hop artist Jeremy “JayGee” Gardener taking the stage to perform “The Wave.” He followed that up with “Can’t Blame It On God No More” stating that Diona performed this at the Glensheen Concert on the Pier the evening after George Floyd’s Death. He finished with Diona’s own composition “Unprotected Woman.”  

Rapper and Diona collaborator, Chad Aaron Brown AKA C-Silence, continued the upbeat energy of the afternoon by performing additional Hip Hop numbers. Before folks departed, Steve invited us all to continue the celebration of D.J. at the Park Point Beach House that evening. He promised there would  be lots of food and drink, music and sharing, which many showed up to enjoy.   I did not know Diona personally and I saw her perform only a few times as AfroGeode and the Gemstones. The first was at Hoops Brewery for the 2022 Homegrown kick-off gig. This is what I wrote about that performance last year:  

“And what a kick-off it was with the 6-member band, AfroGeode & the Gemstones, launching into a mix of original songs and covers that displayed the band members’ versatile talents. Lead singer AfroGeode gave a Billie Holiday inflection to an original tune while “Boxes and Squares,” a 2018 release by Tank and the Bangas, had the band moving into a talkin’ blues mode. Further showing the eclectic range of their set list was the cover of the 1956 “I Put a Spell on You,” with a take of Nina Simone’s 1965 version. Premiering an original song by the band, “Can We Find Our Way Back?” was another high test offering as was Jamiroquai’s “Virtual Insanity” featuring jazzy saxophone licks. But it was the cover of Pink Floyd’s “The Great Gig in the Sky” that best showcased AfroGeode’s Janis Joplin-like passionate expressiveness.”  

Her voice was what initially wowed me—from the first song I heard. A photo slide show of her life and loves, accompanied by her own music, was shown during the evening gathering. It was a wonderful revelation and made me realize that what I had seen of her was just the tip of the iceberg, musically speaking. It demonstrated how adept Diona was in communicating a song’s meaning as well as her versatility with any number of genres. Her own compositions and unique collaborations with other musicians were also highlighted; music that will remain with us and continue to inspire others. I am grateful for the insight into how special this soul we know as Diona is. It was standing room only at the Park Point Beach House for this slide show, so I imagine others were appreciating this too.  

Music followed, with DJ Delgado and DJ Drew V spinning more of Diona’s recordings for the dancers in the house and to accompany a female rapper (whose name I missed getting). And so the celebration continued into the evening hours. The activity inside the beach house was balanced by the serenity of the beach and lakeshore setting outside where folks mingled to share stories. The off and on showers of the afternoon were done, the sky above Lake Superior reflected the colors of the setting sun and a cool breeze off the Lake conveyed a peace that seemed an appropriate farewell to Diona Johnson  

Out & About Options for Live Music:   Silver Bay’s free 2023 Music In the Park series in City Center Park kicks off with Charlie Parr at 7:30 pm on Friday, July 14. Every Friday evening this summer, through September 1 local and regional favorites will be featured in its lineup. Google: 2023 Silver Bay Music in the Park Concert Series | Eventbrite for more information.  

Saturday July 22, New Salty Dog and Aurora Baer are in the lineup to perform at the Aitkin County Fairgrounds as a part of the day-long event, Nature Rocks 2023—A Concert for Conservation. Details at: www.longlakecc.org.  

Jane Aleckson, leader of the band Jane Gang will be hosting several acts on Saturdays and Sundays this summer. It all happens at her and her husband Mike’s Stars and Seeds Farm located at 6269 E. Rice Farm Road in South Range, Wisconsin. In addition to Jane Gang, other performances include Shane Nelson on Sunday, July 16 and, of special note, Prudence Johnson with Yazmin Bowers and Jane on Sunday, August 6, 2-4 pm. Call Jane at 218.269.7898 for more particulars.  

Boss Mama, as we like to call Colleen Myhre, also has developed a seasonal venue for outdoor performances on Saturday evenings during the summer. They happen at the Rugged Spruce golf course at 2871 Sundberg Road in Mahtowa which she owns with her husband Jimmy Myhre. Billed as “Under the Blue Umbrella Concert Series,” several of our favorite local musicians are set to play this summer. Next one up, this Saturday, July 8, is Danny Frank and the Smoky Gold. For more information go to: www.golfruggedspruce.com.