Justin Johnson grew up in a town with a population of about 7,000.
Local schools and music programs weren’t booming with resources, but Johnson, now a high school educator, shares nothing but love for his small hometown of Ripley, Tennessee.
“My high school that I teach at right now is almost half the size of my hometown,” Johnson said in an address to the drum corps community as part of the DCI annual winter business meetings held virtually January 5-9. “My hometown didn’t have a McDonald’s until my senior year of high school.”
It was at his hometown high school, though, that Johnson was introduced to marching music and specifically drum corps. During a casual midday hangout in the band room, Johnson’s director opened a window into the activity, by way of Star of Indiana’s silver-medalist 1993 production.
“I remember my band director going, ‘Hey, you want to see something?’” Johnson said. “He showed me a DVD — not a DVD at that point, good God, it was a VHS tape — of ‘93 Star of Indiana. And that was the first time I saw any drum corps.”
Johnson was hooked.
“‘I want to do that,’” he remembers saying to his band director.
His band director was honest with him in response, setting expectations out of the gate.
“He said, ‘Well you play saxophone,’” Johnson said. “‘So you’d have to learn to play something else.’”
So, Johnson did. He spent the following summer working tirelessly to learn mellophone. Ultimately, all of that practice led him to an open audition opportunity held by the Bluecoats.
Johnson, a young Black man — at the time still in high school, speaking with Bluecoats’ then-staff member Charles Stewart, now a Bluecoats Hall-of-Famer — was clear about what provided the convincing factor in joining Bluecoats.
“(Stewart) looked like me,” Johnson said. “I remember the comfort that I felt, talking to Charles Stewart in this dark parking lot in Sevierville, Tennessee, because he looked like me.”
Johnson’s mother, understandably, had similar initial thoughts about her son’s prospects of joining the Canton, Ohio corps.
“I also remember the first words out of my mother’s mouth when I called and told her that I was going to get on a bus with the Bluecoats,” he said. “‘Are there any people that look like you?’”
Ultimately, Johnson’s decision to join the Bluecoats as a performer and later instructional career with the corps.
Johnson’s story, which spans far beyond the drum corps activity is just one example of a critical truth; representation in all walks of life is paramount, and the arts are no exception. It’s because of the comfort he found in feeling represented within his corps’ staff that, in part, sparked his journey to becoming a prominent music educator and an instructor in the drum corps activity.
And it’s that same representation that he’s now able to help display to countless educators and aspiring educators, having recently been honored as Illinois State Teacher of the Year for 2021.
According to Johnson, the road to winning The Prairie State’s prestigious honor started simply by being recognized as his individual school’s Teacher of the Year.
From there, he was recognized with the same title for Cook County, tabbed as one of 10 finalists for the state honor, and finally presented with the official award.
“It was this huge application process,” he said. “Lots of writing, lots of letters of recommendation. It's a pretty great undertaking.”
Johnson doesn’t describe himself as a spotlight-seeker; he almost didn’t even apply for the award. It was his grandmother who convinced him to take his shot at the opportunity.
“My grandmother said, ‘Now, these opportunities don't come often,’” Johnson quipped. “Granny always knows the answer.”
But now, his career is directly in the spotlight, and for good reason.
Johnson’s career in music education has affected countless students and organizations, and it’s all rippled from the initial reassurance he found in someone from his drum corps home sharing his skin color.
Not only has his award-winning expertise in teaching allowed Johnson to become a prime example of the importance of that representation in education, but it’s also presented him a platform to speak on the key topic of diversity to many of his peers and colleagues.
As part of Drum Corps International’s 2022 annual meetings in early January, Johnson had the opportunity to spend an hour sharing his perspectives, experiences and ideas related to diversity, equity and inclusion with more than a hundred DCI community members.
His message to the community was and is simple, and is of utmost importance to the future of the activity.
“More often than not, the music world is ahead of the game,” Johnson said. “But this is one of the things where we’re not so ahead, you know, especially when we speak specifically to music programs. So, how can we diversify our music offerings? How can we diversify what the teachers look like? How can we diversify the music that we're playing? That is the conversation.”
“10 years ago, was that being talked about? Probably not,” he continued. “So, that's an exciting place to be. Things are changing. And I just know what the activity did for me, and I know that at some point, there's going to be more people that are going to get to experience that. And that's really what it's about.”