By Lauren Deal
Aris Johnston, 17, and her sixteen-year-old brother, Artis, are the future of Macon. The siblings moved to Middle Georgia in 2013 with their parents, Artis and Marlene Johnston, from Virginia.
They began singing together in their church at early ages: “We began singing in front of the church at 4, 5 years old, singing with the choir,” Artis says. The two have always performed together, evidence of a strong bond that began even before Artis could talk, when his sister would communicate to their parents for him.
“As we grew older, around six, seven years old, we began to sing by ourselves,” adds Aris. “When we were little, we were nervous being up in front of the church, and I remember my mother told us to close our eyes, so for the first year, I would close my eyes while we sang.” With experience, the children became comfortable in front of an audience.
The brother and sister have often been told that their voices complement each other. Together they compose, perform, record, and engineer their music as Aris and Artis, an R&B and inspirational music duo. They have developed their singing abilities through private vocal lessons, which they have taken on and off through their youth.
The teens have also learned to read and play musical instruments. Aris plays piano and some guitar, while Artis plays guitar, bass guitar, piano, and harmonica. He is also learning to play drums and saxophone.
Macon’s Otis Redding Foundation has had a profound impact on the teens’ musical career. Although they can’t agree on how many years they have participated, the brother and sister have both attended the Otis Redding Foundation’s summer program, Otis Music Camp, for about the last four years. Each year, they have competed for and won, scholarships to fund their participation by writing essays detailing their independent music studies and goals. Next summer, Aris will be a junior coach at the camp.
“It has been an amazing experience,” Aris says. “We love the atmosphere and the knowledge that is shared. It’s a great experience because you are surrounded by people who are all into the same things as you are.” Otis Music Camp has given Aris and Artis the opportunity to work with Grammy-award winning members of the professional music industry.
“They make you want to expand your range,” Artis chimes in, “if you go there and you don’t know how to write songs, they will try to teach you how to compose and give you classes on how to write for different instruments .”
Otis Music Camp has taught Aris and Artis every aspect of a career in music, from singing and choreography to music theory and ballroom dancing to recording and sound engineering. The camp has also opened up Aris and Artis to a wide range of musical genres, including rock-n-roll and classical.
The Otis Redding Foundation is just one outlet for these talented young performers to hone their craft. One of Macon’s greatest strengths is in the community’s willingness to nurture budding artists. Aris and Artis have received tremendous support from local music venues, festivals, performing arts groups, and churches.
“I like the music scene, especially in the downtown area. It’s very different from the downtown area in Newport News,” explains Aris. “Macon gives off a warmer vibe.”
The siblings have shared their music with gigs all over town. “We perform downtown at Parrish,” says Artis.
“We’ve performed at the Cherry Blossom Festival two years in a row, at the Pan African Festival, and at different churches,” says Aris, “and we’re a part of different organizations, like the Phillips Children’s Performing Arts Studio, and we perform through them.”
“Oh, and at Bragg Jam,” Artis interrupts.
“And Music on the Mount,” Aris remembers.
They have formed their own band and organization, called Future Generation. Aris is president of the organization, and Artis is vice-president. Their goal is to provide music education to young people, but ultimately, they want to expand their organization to provide education and encouragement to young people in all aspects of STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics.
Aris and Artis are homeschooled, which allows them to spend four to five hours every day working on various aspects of their music education in between their academic curriculum. However, the teenagers have visited several elementary schools to speak to Macon’s youngest dreamers about the hard work that is necessary for a successful career in music.
For Aris and Artis, “success” means sharing their music with the world: “We want to get our music out there, first nationally, then internationally,” says Aris, “and we want to be a part of the industry.”
The two teenagers are well on their way to making their dreams come true: they are taking advantage of the best opportunities Macon has to offer aspiring musicians and showing the community that outstanding music is not just Macon’s past, but also its future.