Student Profile: Major "Choirboy" Johnson-Finley
How would you describe this young man? He's a churchgoer, to say the least. He's a student who actually waited until he was of legal age to have his first sip of alcohol, and he's never tried drugs at all. He launched a nonprofit ministerial organization—in the eighth grade—was heavily involved in student government, and considers Oprah Winfrey one of his role models. Mr. Nice Guy, perhaps? A do-gooder? A choirboy? If you picked the last one, you're actually too late. Berklee student vocalist Major "Choirboy" Johnson-Finley was tagged with the moniker by a relative when he was little, and he'd be the first to admit the name works.
"It made sense," says Johnson-Finley, a 21-year-old from Houston, Texas. "I'm the good kid. I always wanted to go to church."
And he wanted to stay. When he was 3, Johnson-Finley announced to his mother that he was going to be a gospel artist and a pastor. She told him he would be, and before he was 4, he was leading the youth choir in a song. When he was 5, he was leading the adult choir in "Jesus, You're the Center of My Joy."
"It was unusual," Johnson-Finley says. "People were, like, 'What's this kid singing a song with us for?'"
They got used to it, though. With a voice as powerful as Johnson-Finley's, they sort of had to. "I was always the one who was too loud," he says. "I was always the one who stood out. They had to give me solos because I stuck out so much."
It wasn't just the congregation that noticed. When he was in the fifth grade, Johnson-Finley, who had been lead singer in the gospel group Sounds of Creation, was approached by an agent who said he was going to get him signed with the management of the Backstreet Boys. There were limo rides, expensive meals, but, in the end, something just didn't feel right about the contract, and Johnson-Finley's mother and stepfather pulled the plug on the deal. It wasn't just the details, though.
"My mom said, 'When you were 3, you told me gospel, and that's where I believe we're supposed to go. That's the direction I think we're headed in,'" Johnson-Finley recalls.
Johnson-Finley stuck with it, too, not only in church but also in extracurricular groups at the performing arts schools he attended throughout his youth. He also trained in classical voice and theater and had accrued enough scholarship support to attend Juilliard. As far as he was concerned, that was the place to study vocals. But then he heard about Berklee from a college representative, and he learned he didn't have to study only classical for four years. He could study just about anything he wanted, including gospel.
"I thought, 'That's the school I'm supposed to be at,'" Johnson-Finley says. "It was tailor-made for exactly what I wanted to do."
And besides, he honestly didn't expect to stay very long. Before enrolling at Berklee, Johnson-Finley says he almost landed a deal with the gospel division of Music World Entertainment, the management company started by Matthew Knowles, father of pop superstar Beyoncé. He had already performed at the Apollo Theater and on Black Entertainment Television. He would be breaking out soon enough.
"It'll just be a couple of semesters," Johnson-Finley recalled thinking, "then I'll be famous, and I'll still have Berklee on my resumé."
But once he enrolled, he realized he had an opportunity to accomplish something that none of his siblings—he has 13 of them—had done. He could be the first of them to graduate from college. Suddenly, it seemed the big time could wait. "I had to set a standard, even though I'm not the oldest," Johnson-Finley says. "I know my siblings were all looking up to me. I knew that everyone was counting on me."
His commitment was put to the test when he was offered the opportunity to sing background for R&B artists Mario and B2K. He was well aware that they wouldn't wait around for him to get his degree, and Johnson-Finley knew that Berklee would always be there. And yet, he worried. "I was so excited, but I remember debating in my mind," Johnson-Finley says. "If I stop, will I ever finish? Will I get off track? Will I contradict everything I'm trying to say as a gospel artist? So it took me awhile, talking to my friends, my pastor, my mom, and I just didn't feel comfortable doing it."
Besides, it wasn't as if Johnson-Finley wasn't benefiting from Berklee. He loved his classes and was heavily involved in Berklee's gospel ensemble from the very beginning, an experience that even managed to exceed the standards of someone nicknamed Choirboy. "It's amazing how, regardless of your beliefs, everyone wants to be in gospel choir," Johnson-Finley says. "We have Jewish people, we have Buddhist people, we have everybody in gospel choir because they can all understand and connect to the spirituality of it all and the purity of it all. It's just incredible how much we depend on each other to support each other.... It's the ensemble that has made people want to come to Berklee. Some of the most incredible artists today are products of the gospel choir."
But even that wasn't enough immersion. He needed something more, something that would really commit him to Berklee for the duration. That's when a friend suggested getting involved in student government. And Johnson-Finley did-he eventually became student body president. "That was the turning point for me," he says.
Of course, Berklee students are in many ways not your typical undergraduates. While they often collaborate with their fellow musicians, they also have a maverick streak, the kind of independence that once compelled them to transcribe Dizzy Gillespie solos or tinker with turntables while their peers attended the high school pep rally. "It's not like other schools," Johnson-Finley says. "At first, when I was public relations chair, students would say, 'We have a student government?' Everyone's doing their own thing, so no one really knows what's going on in the student body. My mission was to make sure there was a cohesiveness between the student body and the student body advocates. Our motto was 'Let your voice be heard.'"
Johnson-Finley's graduating next May, and he's getting everything lined up for the future. He's in the recording studio, and some of his music is already playing on national gospel radio. He's got label meetings set up and plans on having some kind of deal worked out by the time commencement rolls around. (If the unthinkable should happen, Plan B is to study entertainment law.) But even if he signs on with a record company, he's only accomplished one small part of a much more ambitious plan.
"I want to be an international Christian superstar," Johnson-Finley says. "I want to do TV, to do film. I want to do radio, I want to be a motivational speaker for the Boys and Girls Clubs all around the world. I have a passion for people. I know I can't be in anything that isn't going to help people.... I just really plan on being an advocate for the world."
And that includes, of course, a particular contemporary music college in Boston, Massachusetts.
"I plan on giving back to this school," Johnson-Finley says. "I just really feel that Berklee has been a crucial part of my career. It has opened doors that I didn't know it was going to open-Berklee doesn't even know half the stuff it's done for me. Wherever I go, wherever I sing, wherever I perform, they don't even have to ask about Berklee, I want to let them know that Berklee's part of this thing."