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Innovation and Honoring Legacy Through the Magic of Music with Janinah Burnett

Innovation and Honoring Legacy Through the Magic of Music with Janinah Burnett
Innovation and Honoring Legacy Through the Magic of Music with Janinah Burnett

There’s something magical about anyone who not only understands their magic but taps into it, risks and all. Janinah Burnett has always been led to stand in her power with the gift God gave her, regardless of anyone else’s reservations.

She’s an internationally renowned Broadway and Metropolitan opera soprano who has played the role of Carlotta Giudicelli in Phantom of the Opera and Mimi in Baz Luhrmann’s La Bohème. Recently, she released an album featuring collaborative arrangements that fuse classical and jazz while showcasing her ability to create boundary-pushing music.

In this episode of the Branding Room Only podcast, you’ll learn about Janinah’s commitment to innovative, uninhibited singing and passion for honoring the legacy of past musicians through her own art. She also discusses how she focuses on helping new musicians produce sound in a healthy, uninhibited manner.

1:38 – How Janinah describes personal brand, herself in three words, the quote that’s been the driving force of her career, and her hype song

5:56 – The influence of growing up in an artistic community and attending Spelman University as an aspiring musician

15:06 – How Janinah started performing on Broadway at age 23 and fiercely leads with her talent, no matter what

23:59 – How Janinah and I met and what it was like for her to perform at The Met in New York and learn to speak Italian

29:38 – The opera song Janinah loves singing the most and the Broadway character who had a huge impact on her development

34:15 – The magic that went into creating Janinah’s album and the power of the language of music

42:05 – How the album’s title reflects Janinah’s brand, how she supports new musicians, and why the body itself is an instrument

46:55 – Janinah sings a few inspirational lines and reveals what she does for fun, her uncompromisable brand aspect, and her Branding Room Only skill

Connect With Janinah Burnett

Janinah Burnett’s artistry is profoundly carving her place as one of the most versatile, accomplished, change-making singers of this generation. Ms. Burnett has performed with most of the opera houses in the USA, including the Metropolitan Opera where she was a soloist for 8 seasons. Ms. Burnett also debuted roles in several notable international Opera houses including Teatro Dell’Opera di Roma, Deutsche 

Oper Berlin, and Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris to name a few. Not only on the operatic stage has Ms. Burnett made tidal waves, but also on Broadway. Ms. Burnett began her professional career in Baz Luhrmann’s La Bohéme on Broadway which won her the Theater Alliance’s Ovation Award, gave her Tony Award recognition, and allowed for her to appear on the Tony Awards with the show.  In 2023, Ms. Burnett was a closing cast member in the iconic musical theater masterpiece, Phantom of the Opera on Broadway in which she made appearances as Carlotta Giudicelli.

Ms. Burnett recently released her debut recording project from her own label CLAZZ Records entitled Love the Color of Your Butterfly. On this album, Ms. Burnett breaks fresh ground and ever so naturally transcends traditional genres and parameters in marrying jazz and classical music styles in a term she calls “CLAZZ”. Through collaboration with some of the world’s finest jazz musicians, Ms. Burnett creates a recorded and live concert experience which creates a compendium of the boundless musical elements of her life and career including opera, art song, oratorio and the American indigenous music genres: spirituals, blues, jazz and soul available everywhere music is sold and at www.janinahburnett.com.

Janinah Burnett | Instagram | Facebook

Listen to Love the Color of Your Butterfly 

Mentioned In Innovation and Honoring Legacy Through the Magic of Music with Janinah Burnett

Branding Room Only podcast interview with Sonya Olds Som

Malcolm J. Merriweather

Sponsor for this episode

This episode is brought to you by PGE Consulting Group LLC.

PGE Consulting Group LLC is dedicated to providing a practical hybrid of professional development training and diversity solutions. From speaking to consulting to programming and more, all services and resources are carefully tailored for each partner. Paula Edgar’s distinct expertise helps engage attendees and create lasting change for her clients.

To learn more about Paula and her services, go to www.paulaedgar.com or contact her at [email protected], and follow Paula Edgar and the PGE Consulting Group LLC on LinkedIn.

Paula Edgar: Welcome to The Branding Room Only Podcast where we share career stories, strategies, and lessons learned on how industry leaders and influencers have built their personal brands. Now, let’s get started with the show.

Hi everybody, it’s Paula Edgar, host of Branding Room Only and I’m so excited for this conversation. My guest today is Janinah Burnett. She is an internationally renowned Broadway and Metropolitan Opera soprano.

She’s fantastic. Let me tell you a little bit more. She is an internationally renowned versatile singer, actor, musician, writer, and educator, who most recently was a part of the closing cast of Phantom of the Opera on Broadway, making appearances as Carlotta Giudicelli.

Other Broadway performance credits include Mimi in Baz Luhrmann’s La Bohème on Broadway, a principal artist at the Metropolitan Opera for eight seasons. Janinah recently released the album Love the Color of Your Butterfly, a former record Class Records, featuring her own innovative arrangements of opera, spirituals, jazz, and more available everywhere.

For those of you who follow me on all platforms, you know that her song is the first song on our Joy Mixtape for the Year. If you haven’t heard it, you’re definitely going to hear it now because we’re going to share it again.

Janinah, welcome to The Branding Room. How are you?

Janinah Burnett: I’m good. Thank you so much for having me. I’m so excited to be here and talking to you.

Paula Edgar: Me too. I’m really excited for this conversation. I start off by asking everybody the same question. What does a personal brand mean to you? How would you define it?

Janinah Burnett: It’s so funny because I thought about it, I was like, “Hmm, what does it mean to have a brand?” But when I think about a brand, I think about it meaning how the world sees you, what people think about when they see you.

In thinking about that, I think about, “What do I want that to be?” I want it to be joy. I want it to be versatile. I want it to be virtuosity. There are certain words that come to mind when I think about my brand. But yes, I think that it means that it’s what comes to the front of mind when people think of you.

Paula Edgar: Love that. You jumped into the second question, which is, what are three words or phrases that you would use to describe yourself? I’ll give you the opportunity right now in case they’re the same or different. What are three words that you would use to describe you?

Janinah Burnett: Definitely joyful, positive, and I would say exceptional.

Paula Edgar: Oh, yes. I love that, come through, exceptional. Well, do you have a favorite quote or mantra?

Janinah Burnett: Oh, I thought about this today and I was like, “I wanted it to be this.” But sometimes in the moment, I just let the spirit move and what’s coming now is just keep doing it. That was a quote that was given to me by the great singer, Shirley Horn.

When I was younger and an aspiring singer and musician, she was performing at the Drew Jazz Festival. My job was to go get her food and to make sure that she was comfortable as an artist. I asked her, I was nervous to ask but I said, “Do you have any advice for an aspiring artist or an aspiring musician?” She said, “Just keep doing it.”

At the time, she didn’t care, she just said it flippantly. She wasn’t invested in really helping me. That quote, that single line of advice, that’s been the line that has gotten me through this career.

Paula Edgar: Oh, wow.

Janinah Burnett: Keep doing it. When you’re feeling bad, just keep doing it. When you get all the nos, just keep doing it. When you’re feeling good, keep doing it. When you think you’ve arrived, keep doing it. That was a powerful line. I’d say it is my quote.

Paula Edgar: It’s simple, but very powerful and an excellent mantra, whether the day is going well or the day is not going well, it can still lift you up. I love that. Now, this song is going to be hard for you. This one, I’m going to ask you, what is your hype song? Every time I ask somebody who is an artist, they’re like, “Why, I can’t pick one song.”

But let me tell you about hype song. This is when they’re going to get full 100% Janinah, what’s playing in your head? Or if you’re having a bad day, what song do you use to pick yourself up? It could be the same song or two different songs.

Janinah Burnett: I thought about this one. ♪ In the midst of sorrow. You can’t see up when looking down. A brighter day tomorrow will bring. ♪ It’s Optimistic by Sounds of Blackness.

Paula Edgar: I love it.

Janinah Burnett: That song gets me together.

Paula Edgar: I love it. I’m so happy that I didn’t have to ask you to sing because I was like, “I need her to sing something.” Oh, that’s wonderful. It’s such a great song. It will always make me feel good.

I was just talking to somebody else today and they said, “As by Stevie Wonder,” and I was like, “Oh my God.” When you think about the song, the song even without hearing it play makes you feel. I love that. That’s fantastic. The mix tape is going to be fire. Well, tell me, where did you grow up? How did that shape your brand?

Janinah Burnett: Oh, I’m from Los Angeles, California. I grew up on the Westside. That has definitely shaped my brand. My dad is a jazz musician and my mother is an artist. She’s a writer and worked in philanthropy.

We lived a very, I don’t know, I want to say hippie-like life. I don’t know if that’s an adjective. But when I think about hippies, I think about freedom. I think about art. I think about community. I think about a number of things.

That’s how my life was in Los Angeles. We went to the beach, we listened to music, and we had parties, the life and the feeling at that time in Los Angeles, there was a lot of levity and I was very fortunate to have been able to participate in that levity and what made it happy and light.

But I’m a California girl at heart. I’m always going to think about those cool evenings, those palm trees swinging, and the easy-going element of my childhood. That definitely has contributed to my brand. I mean, when I think of how I appear to the world, I think there is that element of that ease and that coolness juxtaposed with that serious musician and the virtuosity and whatnot.

Paula Edgar: I’m from Brooklyn. No matter who it is, somebody has a feeling about what that means. But really my little piece of Brooklyn was very Caribbean, very family-centric, and right before middle class.

We still had to struggle. That community definitely shaped my resilience, my ability to navigate amongst a lot of different places, all of these things. Having lived in California as well in my lifetime, I noticed that we have—well, I’m going to tell the story about how we met—but we have a lot in common without even knowing and I love the universe does this. I went to Cal State Fullerton.

Janinah Burnett: Oh, my gosh, I have experiences with that for sure. I didn’t get an audition there in high school.

Paula Edgar: I know. I saw that and I was like,”Look at the world because of all the schools and all the places.” I was like, “Look at that.” That is a connection that we have.

But I love thinking about the palm trees and seeing the mountains and being on the West Coast has a very different vibe than what the East Coast does. That being said, I can’t wait, I’m going to California next week, so I can’t wait.

I’m going to be in Los Angeles, I’ll be there, I’m going to be there next week. We’re looking forward to that. So tell me, what else? Did you live in California all your life until you went away to school?

Janinah Burnett: I lived there until I went to college until I went to Spelman. Then I knew though that I always wanted to end up in New York. For some reason, I just had this feeling in my heart, I was like, “I’m going to end up in New York and that’s where I’m going to be for a large part of my life.”

Paula Edgar: Well, I’m glad you brought up Spelman because you are the sixth Spelman grad to be on my podcast. As the audience knows, my daughter is at Spelman now, so the sisterhood is very important to me because I’m looking forward to her being a part of it. Y’all are serious about Spelman.

Talk to me about your experience at college and learning the stuff of art as opposed to being around art and the singing and the choir, etc. Tell me about that experience.

Janinah Burnett: Yeah, I love Spelman and on my journey when I got there, I was not exactly sure how music would manifest in my life. But I knew that I wanted to do it as a profession. I mean, that’s one thing that I will say again about Los Angeles, I was raised in the community of musicians so I saw people living life as artists.

When I got there, jazz was the biggest genre that reared me, I would say. I dabbled in other things and in high school was in choir and whatnot, and I said to myself that I didn’t want to be limited, I wanted to be able to do everything with my voice. When I got to Spelman, I was like, “Oh, great they have a jazz ensemble, the Glee Club.”

I just basically decided to partake of all that I could. It was interesting because the year that I came in, I came in with a whole lot of sisters from DC that had gone to the Duke Ellington School of the Arts and from other places around the country that had classical music at its root.

They were so fabulous. That inspired me immensely. It honestly inspired the school because they were just like, “Oh, my gosh, we have all of these singing people that are coming in and this is about to be fierce and what can we do to serve them.”

So the year that I got that, they got in gear to kind of really showcase and help these young people who were serious about this art form. I really enjoyed it. The inspiration for my sisters, we would practice together, I would be like, “Show me how you do that.”

There’s so much to be said about your peers and what you can learn from them. I was in the jazz ensemble, which was a smaller ensemble than the Glee Club because the Glee Club was huge and had so many people, but the jazz ensemble was smaller and it was singers and instrumentalists.

We had a chance to connect with other instruments. The impact that makes on us as a musician is very powerful because you get to see how people interact with their instruments and how that allows the music to flow through them. It’s different.

I learned a lot. I made amazing friends that I still have today who still inspire my music, whom I still collaborate with today. It was powerful. That Spelman experience was powerful in terms of my music-making.

Also the etiquette, I would say, of performance I learned at Spelman. We hated it. They were like, “You can’t wear no jewelry, just the jewelry. You have to wear these black dresses and you can’t have this,” and we were just like, “Oh.”

I see the value in that uniformity, in that poise, and in that etiquette. When I came out into the real—not the real world because it’s the real world too—but when I came out into the professional world, I saw how that made a difference and how that set me apart from other things.

Paula Edgar: I love that you pulled that out. Because a big part of branding is understanding the baseline. My mother used to say, “There’s a certain way you walk out of the house.” That’s gotta be a connection to what we expect and that you’re not going to embarrass us and you’re not going to embarrass yourself when you walk out of the house.

I didn’t go to the [inaudible] between HBCU but I say I go there now because my daughter does. I love the fact that there is ritual and there’s an expectation and that gel that experience—it’s sort of like the military—you’re doing the same things, you have the same experiences in order for you to truly flourish on your own, you stand stronger because you understand what it’s like to be in the rank and file and then to emerge. I’m glad you pulled that out, I love that.

Janinah Burnett: Also in that rank and file, but also know that it’s connected to something that a lineage that came before you and that you are a part of that chain that is going to keep on going into the future. What are you going to do to make sure that that chain keeps staying strong?

I didn’t understand that as a young person. I was thinking about myself in college, I was like, “Nah, we thought we were wrong.” We were like, “Oh, we aren’t wrong. [inaudible] we know.”

Paula Edgar: That’s hashtag every college student ever thinks that they know everything. I don’t know. Listen, I’m way out of college. I’m like, “I have no idea what’s happening. Please, somebody, teach me, teach me your ways.”

But humility is not of the youth. The youth is about being like, “I’m free. I’ve got a little something going on. Let me try to see where I am in the world.” I love that. I love that about it, even though it is frustrating to me as a mother.

Then talk to me about the professional world. What was your career journey? What has it been like?

Janinah Burnett: Oh, it’s been one surprise after the next, for sure. I just feel like you just got to walk one step at a time and your teachers can lay out and say, “Well, the next steps can be this, this, this, and this.”

I was always, still to this day, I’m like, “Well, if these are the possible steps, then I’m going to do what I can to take these steps, to be doing the right thing.” But then, of course, the universe steps in and says, “Well, we’re going to take you on this.”

But the important thing is curiosity, to step one foot in front of the other. After I did my grad work at the Eastman School of Music, I asked my teacher, “So the next steps,” and she’s like, “Well, you’ve got to continue in classical music, you’re going to do a young artist program with an opera company, and that will be a further ground for you to learn the craft of opera and go forward.”

So I did that, and I applied, I did all the auditions, came to New York, and did everything. But then—long story short—a magical thing happened called Lebo M on Broadway. It really was magic because they had auditions in New York and it was like the longest audition process. They were trying to do something different and they weren’t sure what they wanted. People had 9, 10, 11, 12, 13 auditions.

Paula Edgar: 13 auditions?

Janinah Burnett: Yeah, which was for the same part. It’s just like, “Y’all still don’t know?” I came in at the end. They had closed the auditions and then they reopened them. I took the chance and they said no calls and my teacher was like, “Let’s just call.” I said, “Okay.”

We called and I was like, “I can be there tomorrow. I can perform for you. I don’t have to do this video,” because the video was some obtuse direction that no one could understand. I said, “I’ll be there tomorrow.” The lady on the phone was like, “Hmm, okay.” I went to that audition and everybody was just like, “Ugh, they’ve hurt everybody. You can’t possibly get it.” I went down there and got that job.

Paula Edgar: That’s like you did.

Janinah Burnett: I went down there, I had three auditions and the next thing I knew, that summer after I graduated with my graduate work, I went to a summer program in Italy, and then directly after that, I came and I started on Broadway.

I was 23 years old. I was the youngest person in the cast, and that’s when we learned everything, well, so much about the professional world. It was again, the power of community—I think that’s my word for today—the power of community, the power of the people that are around you, they told me what to do.

It was because of that engagement that I was then able to come and get Phantom later on down the line because they were like, “Always audition for Phantom, always do it because it’s there, it’s a staple, and they always need people.” That was that. That story is just to show that the magic kept happening in my career.

After that show finished, I wanted to do opera. I was clear that that’s what I wanted to do. I auditioned for that. I got the agent, I went, and I did all the grueling auditions. I did all the operas that I possibly could. I’ve sung it in almost so many regional theaters across this country. I did things abroad. Yeah, so I did a lot.

Then I got to the Met finally, which in classical music is considered the pinnacle. When I got there, I felt like, “Well, this is it,” but it wasn’t it, of course, because you’re still alive and there’s still things to do.

I realized, “Oh, my God, this is not it. [inaudible].” I just tried to find my way through that and, in doing what I was supposed to do-ness of life. But then, of course, as I got older, there were things that I wanted to do that were outside of singing opera.

That included making this album Love the Color of Your Butterfly, the music of my life and story. That included singing at churches and that included having social justice performances and works that told the stories of my heart and lamented the brutality that exists in our country.

I had a very varied career and the desires begin to rise as you walk forward and you follow the path, and you just continue to walk. It’s a lot.

Paula Edgar: I love it. Of course, I’m going to go, “I had to go backwards.” Probably every question I’m going to ask you is unfair because I’m going to be like, “What was your favorite?”

But when you were talking about doing La Bohème and being 20-something years old and learning so much, I got scared. I got like, “Oh.” That must have been such an intimidating experience, but obviously also so enriching.

Where did you pull from that to go through that? Can you remember even the first time getting on stage in front of an audience?

Janinah Burnett: Oh, yeah, I definitely do. I always was very secure in the fact that I knew I could sing and everybody else knew it too. The other thing was George Floyd’s death which opened up a door in our lifetime for a lot of African American singers to walk through or African American people to desegregate spaces.

Prior to that, we were in a little bit of a lull. It was a big deal that I was a sister girl in that show on Broadway that was not a Black show. Everyone was just like, “Oh, my God, do they have a Black Mimi?” You know what I’m saying? It was something.

But I was clear that I knew what my skills were. It was just the way that y’all deal with it is on you. But I’m going to stand here and be fierce no matter what. I was very clear in that way. I led with that. I couldn’t help but lead with that because that’s what God gave me. That’s who I am.

But I do remember the first time I went on for Mimi and I was nervous, but I walked on through it. I just pumped my heart and did it because I just knew that’s where I belonged.

Paula Edgar: I’m sitting here, I almost have chills because, first of all, there’s something magical about anybody who understands their magic and that they’re actually going against everything when they don’t tap into that magic.

It is not easy, but it’s so much easier to live in that authentic space of your skill, of your talent, and try not to do it. I think it’s harder than doing it and having challenges.

But as you were saying about representation and music and opera and then the theater, when I grew up, I was like, “Opera is for like white people who are rich.” I saw my first opera in my 40s.

For all of you who are on, Sonya Som who was on my podcast last year, she’s the person who first took me to the opera and I fell in love. We went to the Met and it’s music that vibrates through your whole entire body.

Janinah Burnett: Yes, exactly.

Paula Edgar: It doesn’t matter the language. In fact, there were times when I was looking at them trying to read what they were saying, I was like, “I’m distracted. I have to just look at what they’re doing and listen to what the music is saying, even if I can’t actually understand it.”

Janinah Burnett: Sometimes you understand something.

Paula Edgar: Yes, emotion. It is powerful, powerful, powerful. For those of you, if you have not been to the opera, listen, please go to just say you experienced it for at least one time.

But I will tell you, if you were like me, I just became hooked, I was like, “I got to do this again,” and I like to be fancy, so there’s that. I’m going to take a break and tell the folks how we met before we jump into more of the questions. Many of you know that I am a bourbon lover, and I love old fashion. My favorite old fashion in New York City is at Del Frisco’s Steak House, which is in Midtown.

I often will go there and just sit at the bar, particularly because I do a lot of work with my clients and with law firms in that area. One day I was like, “Oh, well, I’m here. Let me go and sit at the bar.” I usually grab a little bite to eat. This is not a Del Frisco commercial, except that it actually is because I love them.

Anyway, the bar downstairs, which is like a famous bar, it’s a beautiful old wooden bar, it’s a gorgeous space that was filled with all of these accountants and finance and lawyers and all these people, I was frustrated because usually there isn’t a seat for me, the woman at the front was like, “Just go upstairs and see if there’s anything.”

I had forgotten there was a bar upstairs. I was like, “Upstairs? For what? You want me to go upstairs?” So I went upstairs, and there was one seat available at the bar, and it was next to a Black lady. I was like, “Oh, then it should be fine.” [inaudible]

I was saying to myself, “Paula, you’ve got a lot of gala dresses to go into. Do not order this bacon.” But I really, really love that bacon.

Janinah Burnett: The bacon is so good.

Paula Edgar: The bacon is so good. I got my old-fashioned bacon. As I was getting it, I was sitting next to Janinah and she was like, “I love the bacon.” I was like, “Girl, me too, have some.” It was such a New York experience where there’s such a rich opportunity in this city to meet and fall in love with people and you have no idea what’s going to happen that day.

We clicked immediately. We started talking about [seeking], and Spelman, and opera, and food, the south, and the north, and all those good stuff. What I love is that it was like a quintessential New York experience for me and was able to grab somebody fabulous out of it, where we had so many things in common.

I said to her, I was like, “You need to be on my podcast.” I love, love, love our conversation so much. This is the result of that by chance—but I also believe nothing happens by chance—moment that we met in Del Frisco. I’ll be sending them this podcast and be like, “Look, we talk so much.”

Janinah Burnett: We’re talking about you Del Frisco [inaudible] We are doing a commercial for you.”

Paula Edgar: Exactly. “Here is you, the bacon, and the old-fashioned are all our favorites.” I’m so happy that we met that day. Let’s jump back into what we’re talking about. Tell me this, the first time you went to the Met—it is a gorgeous, gorgeous space, it’s lit up and it has red seats and it’s beautiful—but from the stage, I can’t even imagine, I’ve been on the stage at Carnegie Hall, I actually have, but I cannot sing, and Lord, forgive me, I would be uncontrollable if I could sing, please.

But I remember feeling overwhelmed just standing there because of the historicness of it. You just said it’s considered the pinnacle. What was that like?

Janinah Burnett: Yeah, it was a big deal. I remember I had dressed all up because I like to think of the Met times and eras coming out of the era with the old singers. I would see Renata Scotto walking through the hall like she owned the place in her heels. I mean, it was a place where you could just see, I mean, Susan Graham had asked, who’s the dude from X-Men? Wolverine? Who is that?

Paula Edgar: Yes, him. We all know who we’re talking about, him. Hugh Grant. No. Hugh, Hugh somebody [Hugh Jackman]. Anyway, we know who we’re talking about.

Janinah Burnett: He was there. I mean, just people [Plácido], I mean, it’s a very weighted thing, but it is also a place of work. We really respected it for the lineage that it held and the experiences that I had. But yeah, so I dressed up and I made sure that every time I went there, it was a thing.

Then again because of the [inaudible] that I got there, it was a shift happening in management, stuff like that. People were feeling a little different, you’re feeling the transition. It was interesting.

But then with each contract each time that I was there, it became more and more of a family but when people recognized that I was there for the first time, everyone was just like, “Welcome to the Met. Welcome to the Met.” The stage manager, the main head guy, he told me, “Welcome to the Met.” I’ll just never forget that. It was really [lovely].

Paula Edgar: I love that. I’m glad and love that you had an experience that was welcoming there for you too. Two questions, number one, do you actually speak Italian?

Janinah Burnett: Yes, yes. I went to study Italian in Italy for two years. It was just for a month each time. It was an immersion in, we would take classes and we stayed in a town where nobody spoke English so we had to learn it. I loved it. I love Italian. I love languages. If I was not a singer, I would be an interpreter or a translator.

Paula Edgar: Oh, I love that. Well, second thing, is there a song that you love from an opera that you love to sing more than others? I won’t say the best, but more than others.

Janinah Burnett: Yeah, that is true. What is coming to mind that I really just loved? Well, I love E Lucevan le Stelle, which is what I put on my album, one of the songs. But the funny thing is that it’s not a soprano aria. It’s a tenor aria from Tosca.

That was another reason I just wanted to do it and I wanted to arrange it so that I could sing it and just stretch my imagination, because I wouldn’t do it in the opera, but it’s just the melody I love, and I love singing that.

Paula Edgar: I love that. Wait, Tosca, is that the one with the horse, the big horse?

Janinah Burnett: No, no, Tosca is about Prima Donna who is harassed by this horrible man, but she’s really in love with, he puts in jail and–

Paula Edgar: Yes, yes, I did see that one too. Yes, child, yes.

Janinah Burnett: Dumps off the thing.

Paula Edgar: Yes, oh, my God, the drama. That’s what I love. It’s the drama of it all. It’s like it is so dramatic. I feel like there’s no love like the love you experience in an opera, that’s some like deep, deep love where, “I don’t know what I’m going to do if that person is not in my life anymore,” that kind of love.

Janinah Burnett: There are different categories of opera so what we’re talking about is “opera seria” so it’s going to be a dramatic and romantic era. But then there’s all opera buffa which is hilarious and there’s nothing serious about it. It’s often making fun of people, which is fun too.

Paula Edgar: I need to see one of those. I think I’ve only seen the ones that I was like, “Oh, my gosh, I love them too.” Awesome. I’m so excited. The song that you like to sing—you told me that one—is there a particular role that you think about the preparation that you did for that role that really connects to you and your person and know how you kind of grew?

Was there like a specific, whether Broadway or opera or any other thing that you’ve done that was a specific, not necessarily a challenge, but maybe to help to transform some of who you were because of that.

Janinah Burnett: That’s a good question. Because I always say that the characters choose me and then [inaudible] something to show me in life. But I always say that Carlotta in Phantom, man, she taught me a lot and it really helped my development because she was quite powerful and she had the audacity to challenge the Phantom who was running around killing people.

Paula Edgar: Yes.

Janinah Burnett: She had the audacity to be like, “This is what I’m doing. This is who I am and you can’t make it happen, you can’t change that.” She didn’t get killed, she still lived. But someone who was so clear to stand in her power and to play that night after night was just a good and she was excellent each time. She was a really big, wonderful, confident character that really inspired me.

Paula Edgar: Well, I love that you chose that one because my next one’s going to be like, “I actually saw you because I saw the last one.” The only time I saw Phantom was the last one and I was like, “Oh, she’s Black.” I was like, “Oh, my God.” And then what I asked for my birthday for my husband, we went to Del Frisco after work.

I mean, it was a beautiful night and I loved it. It was so great. I was like, “I have to see before at least Broadway because they made a big deal like it’s gone. Like this is it.” I was like, “But I have never seen it. I have to see it.”

I didn’t know anything about it except that he wore that mask. I knew of it, but not the specifics of the story. So when the Chandelier came out, I wanted to see what was happening. I felt like a kid because I was experiencing something truly for the first time without having any background other than knowing this dude is in the mask and he’s like, no killing people. I didn’t know all the specifics. It was fantastic.

Janinah Burnett: Awesome, yeah.

Paula Edgar: Can we talk about collaborations? You have intentionally, particularly—I mean, I really only knew your work from the beginning of this new work that you have—you have some strong collaborations that I feel like you did on purpose. You’re bringing out their talent and your talent. Talk about what magic went into bringing your new piece, your new work together.

Janinah Burnett: Yes. I’ll start with the I, Too Sing America: A Lament for the Fallen. That one came about because I noticed that when we worked—especially as Black people in these companies—there’s a lot of our artistry that we put to the side to kind of fit into someone else’s view of what this show should be. As you know, that’s what we’re supposed to do, we are supposed to be this character and everything.

But I think that also limits us from sprawling out into our full artistry because we want to be hired again, we want them to choose, we want to keep working, all of these things.

A lot of times I feel like, especially for Black artists that squelches us, I wanted to do a recital in which my colleagues and I could fully spread out into our artistry, really care about the repertoire, really feel a strong connection to the repertoire, and really have a message that speaks to the community.

I collaborated with some of my dearest friends and some of the people who I know can interpret music in a way and text in a way that really is inspirational. My colleague Kenneth Overton was in Bohèm on Broadway with me and he has always been a good friend and colleague.

Then James Davis Jr., who is now conducting, I believe, on the road in Hamilton. I’ve known him since days at Spelman, he went to Morehouse. Then Dr. Rashad Raymond Moore, he was an associate pastor at the Abyssinian Baptist Church, also went to Morehouse. Now he’s over his own church.

I just was like, “Let’s make this work, and let’s make some magic.” That came together and it really did. Then the next project, I Love the Color of Your Butterfly, my dear friend, whom I met while I was at Spelman, he was the guest drummer in the Jazz Ensemble, Terreon Gully, we met each other since then.

Well, first off, I got one of his students to play. I told him I was delving into making these arrangements and trying to fuse this classical together with jazz. It’s something that I’ve always wanted to do.

I got one of his students to play a gig with me in a presentation featuring my own arrangements. Even though my friend was my friend, I guess he needed someone to kind of co-sign that what I was doing was okay. This student was like, “It’s really good, it’s really good.” Then after that, it seemed like he was more inclined to be like, “Okay, well,” and so I told him I wanted to make this album and I wanted to do it in a certain way and I had the repertoire and he said, “Okay, let’s do it.”

We talked about the instrumentalists who would participate. He had a lot. It was interesting, we had to have a conversation about it because it’s a new thing and we didn’t want it to sound too, we wanted to be true to all of the genres. The communication around that had to be alive and we had to find instrumentalists who were able to make music no matter what.

That was the biggest lesson that we learned the language of music, as long as that is there, as long as we are true to being good musicians and doing what it says in the music, listening to one another, interpreting with our hearts, souls, and minds, that’s how we make magic happen. It just came together and I’m thankful for my friends who were willing to work with me.

Paula Edgar: Again, not a musician—I do love music though—but what I love is innovation. When I think about the—gosh, I’m such a knucklehead—the song I put on the sound, on our playlist, tell me what the song is.

Janinah Burnett: What Is This Thing Called Love.

Paula Edgar: Yes. That song sounds like, “La, la, la,” let me just listen to this, minding my business. I was like, “Oh, my God,” it’s taking me in all the places and it slows down, and it speeds up, and it goes high, and it goes low, and it is not safe, but it’s safe.

It feels like a risky thing, but it’s not, and it feels comfortable but uncomfortable. It’s hard to explain, but I remember I texted the Spotify link to like 10 people. I was like, “You gotta listen to this.” I rarely do that unless it’s a Beyonce track. Trust me.

The experience of someone who is clearly not phoning it in, that you actually own the experience of curating the music, it’s so powerful. It brings me joy because it’s like, “Wow, anybody can sing a song,” and I don’t mean well, I just mean sing a song.

But to sing a song and you can feel the emotion and the shift and what you’re doing, it feels like art which is what it is. I don’t know how to say it. I’m not being good at how I’m saying it but you all can tell because I’m really speechless, it changed how I thought about music, which is really hard to do because I’m either 90s hip-hop, 90s R&B, or not, or Beyonce, and then that’s it.

I appreciated that it opened me up. Then I in turn—because I think you should be a catalyst for things where you learn something new—shared it with other people. And so many people have clicked on that link for that, I mean, again, I’m not trying to say I’m an influencer, but I’m an influencer so I’m like, “Y’all have got to listen to it.”

Just listening to how I’m speaking about it, I invite you to listen and I want you all to send me an email when you’ve heard it because it’s hard to explain except that it’s fantastic. That’s all.

Janinah Burnett: Well, thank you. I appreciate that. That’s a big part of my artistry. I want to push limits and boundaries. Our ancestors and the people who’ve come before us have left us this lineage of wonderful things. And a lot of what they did was risk-taking that people didn’t like. They were like, “Oh, my gosh. Some people didn’t live to see the success of their stuff.”

It meant a lot to me to just, especially because people were like, “No, you can’t do that. You shouldn’t do that.” I was like, “Well, I’m going to do this. I’m going to figure out how to do it and we’re going to make it happen.”

Paula Edgar: Well, I mean, you did, and clearly the impact, small and big, is huge because I think anytime you see somebody again living in their magic and then taking those risks and it showing up, it gives us all the confidence to be able to live in our magic and take some risks and then show up. That’s how new stuff happens. That’s how we now say same old, same old.

Janinah Burnett: Yes.

Paula Edgar: Yeah.

Janinah Burnett: I saw it in the middle of my career that was happening and I saw the old guard passing and them being like, “No, you can’t possibly do that.” But the people coming in were just like, “We have to do something to change it because this way is not working.” It just is what happens over time. I’m like, “Well, I’m gladly a part of this change.”

Paula Edgar: I love that. It makes me think about your brand as a musician, as a singer. Why do you think this is not you—just you, you know, the words that you chose before—as a singer, how would you describe yourself?

Janinah Burnett: I would say definitely versatile because I could sing in a lot of different ways. I would say colorful. That’s why I Love the Color of Your Butterfly. I would say colorful because I can create a lot of different colors which then respond to emotion. I would say that I am an emotional singer. I would say I’m a dramatic and passionate singer.

I would say that I am holding this torch for good singing, and healthful singing, and trailblazing singing, and holding it for, shining the light so that anybody that wants to come after me and do this or with me, whatever, can be like, “Oh, yes. Okay, cool. This is what we’re going to do. We got to sing.”

Paula Edgar: I love it.

Janinah Burnett: It got inspirational.

Paula Edgar: Well, that’s a perfect segue to what I wanted to ask you about next, because you are doing that because you teach. Talk to me about how you support new musicians who are coming up and learning. How do you support folks who want to do this? You got taught to just continue to do it. Just do it. What do you teach them?

Janinah Burnett: Oh, goodness. I think I start by doing it healthfully, by really trying to find a way to allow the sound that we make to come from a place that is uninhibited by muscles, force, contortion, or lack of a breath.

I’d say that’s where I start because singing is coming out of our bodies, it’s the sound that we make with our bodies and it’s a very natural thing. We make sound all the time.

It’s basically teaching them how to release and allow, that then becomes a metaphor for a lot of other things. We start there, that’s where I feel like we start. Then we get into, but they’re still, and at this stage in college, it’s still relatively in a new space. The healthful element is a really great place to begin, a great foundation to build.

Paula Edgar: I mean, foundations are so important. Throughout this conversation, you’ve taught about the leaning back and looking back at the folks who did things before and paying homage to what’s come before you.

I think about that foundational piece in addition to that the body itself is an instrument. I remember when I, all of you know just how healthy I am. Anyway, but my trainer, I was trying to do push-ups, I mean, not push-ups, but sit-ups, I couldn’t do the sit-ups. I was like, “I had to put my feet underneath something,” and he was like, “You’re not breathing.”

When he taught me how to breathe properly, the power of actual breathwork was wild. Even as—so I speak for living—understanding how to take a breath, how to have it fill your whole diaphragm, and then how to release that, it changes so much about how your body as an instrument shows up and the noise that you make.

But I had no idea. I just was like, “That’s just how I workout. I just want to be skinny. I don’t care about all of the things.”

Janinah Burnett: Oh, you don’t think about that. You don’t think about these little things. Plus breathing is something that, again, we take almost for granted because we do it all the time. We’re never necessarily deliberate about it.

When you have to be deliberate about it, think about it, and figure out how to just do it without tensing or putting it on and just trying to figure out how to allow for it, it’s an interesting thing.

Paula Edgar: It sure is, because when I go to karaoke, I’m always out of breath. I’m always like, “How do they dance and sing at the same time? I don’t understand.” My karaoke song is Push It! by Salt-N-Pepa. I’m like, “I can’t, this is too much.” I mean I’m either going to push it or sing Push It! Which one is it going to be? It can’t be both.”

Janinah Burnett: I know. It’s tricky.

Paula Edgar: So there is that. Well, before I ask you my two questions that I ask everybody as we close, I want to ask a favor.

Janinah Burnett: Yes, yes.

Paula Edgar: Will you sing something for me?

Janinah Burnett: Yeah, but what do you want me to sing?

Paula Edgar: Whatever the spirit brings to you right now, I will take it. Understanding this is not a studio, this is a podcast. I will take whatever is coming to mind that your spirit is moving you now and it doesn’t have to be long. I just want you to sing something to me.

Janinah Burnett: Okay, let’s see. This is a good one to help us all. I think this is something that is just helpful and I won’t sing it in the key that I sing it in on the album, but I’m going to sing it just in a comfortable place.

Paula Edgar: Okay, perfect.

Janinah Burnett: ♪ Hang on to the world ♪ ♪ As it spins around ♪ ♪ Just don’t let the spin get you down ♪ ♪ Things are moving fair ♪ ♪ Hold on tight and you will last ♪ So that’s just it.

Paula Edgar: Oh, thank you so much. I just, oh, my gosh. I so appreciate that, and I also appreciate the words. I’m inspired and I’m also very grateful so I thank you thank you, thank you for that and indulging me in wanting you to sing to me.

I have three questions I need to ask you still but before I do that, I have to remind I have to tell you something I forgot about this. We know somebody in common.

Janinah Burnett: Who?

Paula Edgar: Malcolm Merriweather.

Janinah Burnett: No, Paula. Oh. He’s one of my favorite people, literally, I just love him.

Paula Edgar: I met him through one of my favorite people and he sang Happy Birthday with a whole bunch of other opera singers there, singing Happy Birthday. It was one of the most sensational experiences. I was like, “Are they singing? What is happening right now?”

When I saw your bio, I was like, “Oh, [inaudible],” I was like, “I have to tell, I have to make sure so I can send him this little shout-out.” Every single time that I have met him and connected with him, he’s just a wonderful, wonderful person.

Yes, so I will link to his stuff, too, because we can and it’s mine. But shout-out to Brooklyn College and shout-out to all the musicians and people who I know who are making the world better by music, being in it, whether it’s conducting, singing, or playing an instrument, I appreciate all of you for making the world sound better. Now, what do you do for fun? Don’t tell me sing.

Janinah Burnett: It’s so funny you should ask that. I was thinking about that today. I was just like, “Man, now because now that I’m in a different place and I’m in a different space, thinking about I do for fun.” I was thinking, “Maxwell’s coming to town, so I’m going to go see Maxwell.”

But I was also thinking about like travel, going to the beach I love, I love wine tasting. I was thinking about that. I was like, “That’s my jam.”

Paula Edgar: I love that. Also, shout out to Maxwell. Thank you, Maxwell College.

Janinah Burnett: [inaudible] Thank you [inaudible], we love you.

Paula Edgar: [inaudible]. Somebody send this to him when you hear it because love you so much. Fantastic. Two questions I ask everybody, one is this: What is the stand-by-your-brand moment? What is an aspect of your personal brand that you will never compromise on?

Janinah Burnett: I have to say I’m always going to be meticulous about the way that I do what I do. Other people can be sloppy with their music making and do it slovenly and whatever. I’m not going to do that. If I’m going to be on stage, it would be the best. I will not compromise on doing my best when I’m doing my work.

Paula Edgar: I love that. That standard, I mean, it’s a part of your brand, that excellence and how you show up to the work that you do. I love that. The next question is probably not at all fair because you do this all the time, but I’m going to ask you anyway.

Branding Room Only is a play on the term standing room only, so the question I ask everyone is what skill do you have or what experience would they have that would be a room full of people who are standing room only to see or experience.

But for you, you’ve had that. You’re like, “Well, I do that.” I ask it anyway, because what if there was something else? You could have another skill that I don’t know about that you might want to say. I will leave it open to you. Is it a specific kind of music that you think? I don’t know. Whatever you want to answer this question with, what is your standing-room-only, Branding Room Only moment?

Janinah Burnett: I’d say it would be a concert, varying styles, collaborating with musicians that I revere and that I respect. That would be ideal.

Paula Edgar: That is a perfect answer. If you need a backup dancer, I got you. I cannot sing, but I can running man off that stage.

Janinah Burnett: No, no, no.

Paula Edgar: Janinah, this has been a fantastic conversation. I knew that I was going to enjoy it. Can you tell the folks how they can find out more about you? Well, obviously we’re going to put everything in the show notes, but tell them so that they’re listening, they can go run and find you now.

Janinah Burnett: You can definitely find most of the information about me on my website, www.janinahburnett.com. I update my calendar there, and I have my CDs there, and I have my information about who I am, what I do, and where I’m going to be, there.

Paula Edgar: Fantastic. Absolutely. We’re also going to, again, drop the link for the playlist again. Go through all the streams, on Spotify or wherever you listen to music, to make sure that the musicians get the acknowledgment and the listens that they need.

I appreciate you being on the podcast with me today. Everybody go and tell a friend, this is going to drop during Black Music Month in June. Tell a friend, play it for a friend, download, like, and subscribe to the channel. I appreciate you all. I’ll see you next time in The Branding Room.