Back in January, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ernestine Johnson, an actress, poet and philanthropist from Los Angeles, California. I approached this encounter very casually, almost lukewarm and had no idea how this conversation would move or inspire me; but halfway into the thick of it, I’d surely be reminded.
“Let’s flip the script and rewind this shit and repaint the lines that have been blurred over time.
That was the line from Average Black Girl that struck me over and over again. Ok, so I watched her performance from the Arsenio show 10 times…but it resonated every time! Ernestine’s performance of an original piece, Average Black Girl, which she performed live on the Arsenio Hall show garnered over 40 million views collectively. But what everyone witnessed then, wasnt’ even half of the story. She’d later go on to do phenomenal pieces such as Red Bottoms, Formation, and appeared on FOX Network’s Shots Fired, BET”s #DigitalLivesMatter and OWN Network’s It’s Not You It’s Men. I also hear that Ernestine has a project currently in post production called Besties. So we will definitely be looking forward to details on that!
Having found her passion for spoken word and acting by the age of 10, Ernestine says she didn’t decide to be an artist, but instead that artistry chose her. Ever since then, she’s been carefully nurturing every element of her craft and it definitely shows. So how does one get from being a talented 10 year old to the “Ernie,” as her best friend calls her, so many of us have seen on our televisions spilling over with such electric compositions?
As I wrote down the questions I wanted to ask Ernestine, I considered exactly what my intention was for this Girl of the Weekend segment. I simply wanted to highlight dynamic women “doin’ the damn thang,” as my mother would say. I also wanted to use those women as an example for other women striving for the same things. In order to do that, I’d have to get right to the bottom of why these dynamic women do what they do.
You’re known for being raw, uncensored & untamed on the mic. Why do you make that an intentional element of your work and how do you relate that to womanhood?
EJ: There’s two reasons. Starting out I said that I wanted to be different. Sometimes art bores me and I definitely don’t want my artistry to be boring. So I thought, what could I do to keep it interesting but still truthful at the same time. In today’s world, we’re so attracted to the truth because so many of us are not living truthful lives anyway. The truth becomes such an attractive thing if you don’t see it everyday right? I said, I want to be that–I want to be 100 percent truthful in my work and I don’t want people to be bored.
You attract everything that is designed for you when you are 100 percent truthful.
I relate that to womanhood because so many women are hiding and pretending. When you stop doing these things and peel back those layers and get comfortable walking in your purpose– walking in your power, then you attract every single thing you say you want to manifest. You attract everything that is designed for you when you are 100 percent truthful. Im truthful with my man, I’m truthful with my friends because that’s the only thing [truth] I want to attract. That’s the only way I can I attract what I want, is if I’m 100 percent me.
The moments right before you wrote Average Black Girl, what thoughts were going through your mind, what feelings did you experience that ultimately pushed you to write this piece?
It shouldn’t be hard for you because you seem like you’re an upper middle class black woman…
EJ: Oh that’s a great question. There were two different instances that pushed me to write that piece [Average Black Girl]. I was on a plane going back to Vegas from New York when I wrote it. The first instance the day before, I was in acting class practicing a scene with a fellow classmate and we were talking about the struggles of the industry. In conversation I mentioned that it was harder for black actors than for white actors… and she says “it shouldn’t be hard for you because you seem like you’re an upper middle class black woman.” And the way she said something so offensive, comfortably–and she didn’t think there was anything wrong with it. I mean she said it so politely and comfortably….
I wasn’t proud to be black growing up because I didn’t have any knowledge the power…
So while I was on this plane, it comes up that the seat had been double booked and the white lady next to me just expected me to get up– like she was so entitled to sit comfortably and like it was a known thing that I was the one that was supposed to be inconvenienced. It’s that mindset that a lot of people have that I’m just so tired of. At that moment I knew I needed to speak up. But also not just for black women, for all women of color. I just remember growing up I didn’t have any knowledge of what being black was. I wasn’t proud to be black growing up because I didn’t have any knowledge of the power being black meant. So it was very important for me to write this message.
Which do you love most? Performing when you’re acting or performing spoken word?
EJ: I love them both equally for differently reasons. Acting and poetry have both been my passion since I was 10. I love acting because there’s freedom to create this whole character this whole person. This is my chance to give her a backstory and create a whole life. I love poetry because it’s my work and there’s nothing better than being able to put my work on paper and I don’t have to think about anyone else’s words.
As an actress, are there any roles that you have or would turn down because they lack something?
EJ: I’m pretty open and I love to get raw and gritty. I did recently turn down a role for a stripper. Not because she was a stripper–because I would totally do that, I have before. It was the context in which it was written. Im all about class and tact and it has to be tactful. This particular role just wasn’t that for me. There’s also power in saying no. When you know your worth and your capabilities and what you do and don’t want to be affiliated with.
Ivy: I didn’t originally have this question, but do you think black women have to be more careful of the roles they do accept?
EJ: Absolutely–and it’s not because of us but it’s because of the way the world sees us. We live in a society where we always have to work harder just to be half as good. I do think that black actresses have to be more careful of what we take on so we won’t get boxed in.
I thought your piece Formation was dope! All the things you would tell little Ernestine seemed dead-on. What would you tell her about the most important relationships of her life? About cultivating real honest friendships with other women and especially other women of color?
EJ: If I could go back in time I would tell little EJ that you are enough. I always felt like I needed more. I needed better clothes, better hair, better skin. During those times, I always wanted to be like someone else and I made friendships based on who I thought was cool and the pretty girl and the most popular girl.
It wasn’t until I got older that I realized…I possess so many special and rare gifts and my individualism is such a gift from God. If I could go back, I would tell her everything you need, is already in you. So I’d tell little EJ to link up with there little girls who may have felt the same way an tell them they are enough too!
Then once you grow up, those same girls that you thought were so cool, so popular and so pretty, they’re the ones looking up to me now. They’re sending me messages and telling me how much I inspire them! Now it’s like wow, if only 10 year old Ernestine knew. It’s absolutely mind blowing!
Why was Formation necessary for yourself and other women? I mean don’t we all wish we could go back and tell our younger selves something. What makes this piece necessary?
EJ: I think women naturally, at least the majority, there is this a competitive or jealous spirit in women. God gave us a special “thing” that men don’t have. There is a certain power that we’ve been given as women. If we link up we are a force, it sounds cliche but it’s so truthful.
I really just wanted to express the power of what happens when we link up–there’s power in linking up!
So when Beyonce’s Formation went viral you saw all the women singing the song together. I don’t even think a lot of women understood the power her message. There was so much power in that! So I wanted to do a poem where there was no music and I really wanted women to feel the words. I really just wanted to express the power of what happens when we link up–there’s power in linking up!
Often, this society can push women to feel like we have to choose between being a family woman, an entreprenuer, getting to the highest point of our careers and whatever else there is. Do you really think, regular girls like you and me can have it all?
EJ: I remember 5 years ago I was having a conversation with my best friend about love. I’ve always been very career driven and independent. That was never the issue, the issue was in the love department. In that conversation I said, “you know what, maybe we can’t have it all, maybe it’s either one or the other.” I thought it had to be either you’re a working woman or you’re a wife. I’ll never forget her words, she said Ernie you can have it all–and it was the way she said it that pierced my soul. Five years later I’m engaged to be married.
I never ask God for what I want, I ask Him to prepare me for it!
I asked God to prepare me! Didn’t ask Him for what I wanted, didn’t ask Him for a man, didn’t ask Him for my roles or the career. I said God prepare me for whatever it is you have for me because I don’t want it to get here and I’m not ready.
You can have it all, but you have to be ready for it! This is not easy, its a full time job! It’s a full time job being a fiancé, a full time job running my own company, its a full time job being a full time actress, and poet.
A lot of times we think we know what we want. If you really want it you have to be completely armored and covered. You want to be a career woman and a wife–that’s possible, but you have be ready!
How do you balance? What comes as a priority in your life?
EJ: Personal time and working out. That keeps me motivated, it keeps my work ethic balanced too. Also reading–I read a lot. I believe 100% in pouring into you. Someone that’s considered a public figure, we’re always pouring and giving. You can’t continue to do that if you don’t pour into yourself first. I do that by working out and reading.
Of all your roles thus far, which did you love most?
EJ: I love all of them and I’m so thankful for any role I get because I understand how hard it is to get a role or even an audition. A significant role for me was when I worked with Kevin Hart on Think Like a Man II. I’ll never forget I quit my job in 2013 and he was one of the first people I called.
I said Kevin I’m going to quit my job and start my own business. I asked him would he support me and my business and be a client. He said if you can afford to quit and you want to go hard with acting, then go ahead. I said ok cool , you’ll see me on a set soon. Less than six months later I got cast in Think Like a Man II. I didn’t even tell him I got the role until I saw him on set.
A recent movie I did called #DigitalLivesMatter starring DC Young Fly and Emmanuel Hudson, that was my first lead role. That was a really big deal for me and I had a lot of hands on working behind the scenes too. Also, my mentor Terri J. Vaughn who is very special to me she was the director. So I really enjoyed that!
Passion to Purpose
Ernestine Johnson is such a phenomenal woman. You feel her drive and sincerity through each of her words. She’s literally speaking life into aspect of her life! Life is about finding that driving force, pulling you in the direction of your passion and holding on to it. Once you’ve got a grasp on it, you’ve got to “flip the script and rewind this shit and repaint the lines that have been blurred over time.”
Doing that, is called purpose and our purpose is how we decide to share our passion with the world. Changing lives, building up the confidence of people, giving inspiration, being examples of hope–that’s the goal! Ernestine, has got that part down packed and that’s exactly why she’s my pick for the very first Girl Of the Weekend!
Keep up with Ernestine!
YT: Ernestine Johnson