After Playing Around The World, Rock Island Alum Returns for Q-C Juneteenth Festival Saturday
A 2005 Rock Island High alum, JUNO the Artist has toured the world as a guitarist and has played with everyone from Bruno Mars to Camila Cabello to Lizzo, plus Lady A at the June 9 CMT Awards in Nashville.
But the exuberant, 34-year-old Chicago native had not returned to the Quad-Cities until Covid hit in March 2020, and she moved back to her aunt and uncle’s Rock Island house, where she recorded her debut album, “Help Is Not on the Way.”
“Now coming back is so funny. I’ve toured the world and I had all these experiences, right?” JUNO said in a recent interview. “And all I can think about are the people here — the kids at Rocky, the kids at the King Center, all the people here that are in the same places that I was in.
“I was not aware of how big the world was and all the opportunities out there and so when the pandemic hit, I was in Nashville at the time and my lease was up and the tornado had hit there,” she said. “I was just like, you know what? I’m going to go back home and plant some seeds in
this community. We got a year. Everyone was kind of shut down and I really just wanted to plant seeds into the community to hopefully inspire people, to build something, to do something, create.”
“I just happened to be locked in during the pandemic, in my same room that I grew up in in high school and made my album in that room and it was just mind-blowing,” JUNO said of her 2020 solo debut, “Help Is Not on the Way,” noting the tremendous changes that happened in those intervening 15 years.
“I’m here again, all these years later. And so it’s interesting that I went out to try and find all these incredible opportunities, all these things. And it’s so cool that I ended up right back here, even though it’s just temporary,” she said. “I’m still here and instead of just the Quad-Cities being a place I used to go to high school, I got to genuinely over the last year, re-experience the Quad-Cities.”
“I genuinely asked myself as an artist with the resources and the talent that I have and the opportunities that I have, what can I do to pour into this community while I’m here and be some type of participant instead of just kind of passing through?” she asked. “I really wanted to do something to leave something behind, to hopefully inspire people.”
Moving for a better life
JUNO grew up on the south side of Chicago, in a family headed by a single mother, and she was moved to Rock Island to attend high school.
“We were kind of struggling to be honest, and it was just an opportunity for us to be in a in a more safe, stable choice and we all kind of moved here to just rebuild,” she said. “My uncle works for John Deere, so that’s why he was here.”
Her aunt, Diana Allen, was the principal at Hawthorne Irving Elementary School and Washington in Rock Island, who recently
retired. JUNO later graduated from Illinois State University with a degree in social work, and didn’t pick up the guitar until her first job after college, as a drug rehab counselor in Bloomington, Ill.
“I grew up with a single mom and we utilized a lot of social services. I always felt a responsibility to give back when I could,” she said. “The best thing I could think of was to make a career out of helping people, that probably needed the same type of help that we needed. And I think that a lot of people don’t realize that a lot of these kids are really talented, very valuable, they just don’t have some of the resources.”
Her first client, a 15-year-old heroin addict, was obsessed with the guitar and he lost his guitar privileges for not following program rules. JUNO saw this as an opportunity to convince the center to give Jake his guitar back, connect with him, and she asked him to teach her to play. Both their lives were irrevocably changed.
“I literally felt passion go through my body for the first time,” JUNO recalled. “This is something that I’m touching the strings, and I can feel something in my body and I just, I never felt that before.”
“That grabbed my attention and made me want to feel that more and then I started to set goals and maybe I couldn’t change my situation in life, but I can learn this song,” she said. “It gave me a little bit of confidence, and I got really excited and addicted to the passion of how it felt to do something that just moved so many people. I mean, music is so powerful.
“And when you see people like Jimmy Page and B.B. King and John Mayer, Stevie Ray Vaughan, you think — I could never do that,” JUNO said. “I noticed that maybe I can’t play those notes, but I can play three of them, real slow. I just started to really take it one thing at a time.”
“It was a very organic experience and I was never trying to build a career. I was just trying to get better than I was yesterday,” she said, noting she basically taught herself by ear and worked to duplicate artists’ playing by poring over their videos.
Berklee to teaching to touring
JUNO went to the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston for two years before being asked by Fifth Harmony in 2016 to go on their world tour (after they saw her YouTube videos). And she’s returned to Berklee several times to speak with students, including virtually over the past year.
“You just have to have the confidence and the work ethic to just keep going, you know, so I’m hoping to inspire some people to do that,” she said.
“Finding your own path means having the confidence to do what feels right for you,” JUNO said. “Even if it’s not popular, that’s what finding your path is — everybody wants to do was popular but sometimes, you know in your heart that what was popular, that’s not for you. You have to be confident enough to say, even though this thing is popular right now, that’s not who I am.
“So I’m going to continue to develop who I am. Because one day, that’s exactly what people will want. Me — not me being somebody else,” she said.
She filled a need by offering guitar classes online and created JUNO’s Guitar Bootcamp – which today has 400 students, including several given scholarships. The Fifth Harmony tour took her all over the world, and a tour with Bruno Mars and Camila Cabello followed. JUNO wrote a lot of songs for her 2020 record while on tour with Fifth Harmony, originally intended for Camila Cabello’s first solo album. Cabello (who left the girl group in December 2016) convinced her to keep them for herself.
“I didn’t think of that, you know. I wasn’t an artist. I was a guitar player, right?” JUNO recalled. “She said, you sound good. You should do
these songs. So that’s why because just somebody telling me that they believed in me. I respect so much saying that – that’s why I’m like OK, you know she doesn’t even maybe even realize how much that inspired me.”
“We all have this awesome, amazing life in us and I just think that the Quad-Cities has so many talented, brilliant people that I’m sure have so many cool visions and ideas and I want them to do them all,” she said.
JUNO titled her record “Help Is Not on the Way,” because “if you wait for somebody else to come change your life, they are not coming,” she said. “I realized that I had access to any musician or producer in the world for the most part. But when we talk about something not being right, I knew that no one could get the sounds in my head.
“I have to take the time to lock myself in my room to figure out how to do that,” JUNO said of being back in Rock Island. “I had a message I wanted to say and I wasn’t going to ask anyone else’s permission or wait for someone else to help me say it. I decided that I was just going to do it myself. I am so proud of it because it’s me and I did not just sit there and wait for the world to change.”
“You hear about people putting out albums. You think, well I could never do that,” she said. “But when you have a dream, you just take one step at a time and figure out how did they do it? And take the things that that work for you, take the meat and spit out the bones.”
A rave review of the record at buzz-music.com said JUNO’s story “is all about courage, inspiration, fearlessness, and hope. JUNO has played for a wide range of icons that include Camila Cabello, Lizzo, Erykah Badu, Machine Gun Kelly, Fifth Harmony, Estelle, and many more. After touring around the world, JUNO began writing and now finished her debut album ‘Help Is Not On The Way‘ and we are absolutely in love with it.”
JUNO also said she worked with the Q-C’s Essence Wilmington (who runs Essence W dance studio) to do choreography for her music video, which hasn’t been released yet. “And it’s funny because I babysat her when she was a baby, her mom and my mom were friends and now she choreographed the dance for my first music video,” JUNO said. “There’s so many full circle things about being here in the Quad-Cities and sharing this moment, with the community that I feel like I was a part of.”
Special to be back for 1st show
It will be very special for JUNO to play back in the Q-C, in her first live solo show since the pandemic, and she’ll be here into July. One song she’ll do Saturday is called “Rise Up Together,” which she penned before the pandemic but didn’t make the album.
“That’s what I’m trying to do. I’m trying to come back here and you can do well, but it doesn’t feel good until you can come back and bring people with you,” she said. “Like you talk with people who came from where you came from.”
In the song, she recognizes Black leaders like Rosetta Tharpe (1915-1973), who influenced rock pioneers like Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley. “I just want people to see themselves in all their heroes and see that they too are human beings who have the ability to make something happen if they want to,” JUNO said. “They just got to find the right team and find the right way to do it.”
It also reflects the need for all people to work together on tough issues like racism, and neatly reflects the nonprofit that runs the Lincoln Resource Center – Together Making a Better Community (TMBC), an affiliate of Third Missionary Baptist Church. “I think everyone needs now is just wanting to come together and come to a solution that everyone can be taken care of, everyone can be seen and heard,” JUNO said, noting even though she’s a Black, gay woman, she fights for straight white men to do well.
“I don’t want only one group. I want to all rise up together and understand that if I’m in my lane, you’re in your lane and doing well, I should be happy for you,” she said. “You’re not going to disrupt my process. We can inspire each other. In fact, we can collaborate and both of what we’re doing could be more meaningful because we came together.”
In 2016, while working on her album, JUNO decided to come out as a queer person. She was kicked out of her church and completely cut off
by some family members, her bio says.
“After this moment, it was as though only half of those same people still loved her,” it says of others. “This was a life moment that ignited the activist in JUNO.”
JUNO also is proud to be part of Juneteenth on Saturday, the national celebration recognizing Black Americans’ freedom from slavery. “It’s a blessing and a privilege as a Black woman that I get to play music as a career,” she said. “I only get to do that because of all that B.B. King and Miles, they did all this, these sacrifices and went through all this stuff for us. Each generation gets further and further. And so when you think back to Juneteenth, that’s when they were free, but look at all we’ve accomplished since then.
“And I’m here, coming back to show y’all what I’ve accomplished, ‘cause I’m so proud to be Black and I’m so proud that that my ancestors didn’t give up so that I can do this and I feel like it’s my responsibility to display that for the next generation.”
The free Juneteenth event (presented by Friends of MLK, Inc.) will be 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday, including food and retail vendors, history and information booths, fun-filled games and entertainment for the whole family. Live music includes the Q-C’s Soultru at 1 p.m.
The U.S. House was expected to vote Wednesday on legislation that would establish June 19 as Juneteenth National Independence Day, a federal holiday commemorating the end of slavery in the United States.
blocked by conservative Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin in 2020 but he dropped his objection this week despite his concerns.
“The history of this country, obviously, is very complicated and I think that the one thing we can do moving forward is celebrate the things that maybe weren’t traditionally celebrated,” JUNO said. “I just think that there are so many Black people who have accomplished so many amazing things and we could not have done that without the people who fought for us to be free.”
“It’s really important that we all celebrate this because it’s Black people have contributed so much to this world and our culture,” she said. “So we absolutely should be celebrated by everyone, because if you were to take away everything Black people have contributed to this country, you ain’t going to have nothing but some ketchup and some index cards. I really just think that it’s something that everyone should be excited about — not just Black people.
“I think it’s really important for Black artists and Black leaders right now is that’s how we’re going to get everyone else. We can’t just say like this is important, but I didn’t show up to it,” she said. “Well, if it’s important, you need to be there and we need to tell the next generation that this is important.
“And sometimes that just means showing up, so it’s like, I ain’t played in a year. I might be a little rusty, but I’m going to show up for my community and I’m going to do my best,” JUNO said. And when she does her best, that is THE BEST, what she calls going the extra mile.
“Everybody doesn’t know how to go the extra mile. So that’s what I’m here to do,” JUNO said. “That’s my mission on this Earth. I have figured out how to go to extra mile and I’ll share that with you. Now, what are you doing tonight? That’s up to you. But, you know, the reason people call me is because they’re going to get 300% from me or I just I’m not going to do it. There’s no middle either.”
Greg Hipskind, director of the QC Rock Academy in Davenport, is having her speak to students on Monday afternoon, June 21.
“When I found out that she had just shot a video here in town, I had to reach out. It makes a great connection for the kids to know that someone from the QCs can follow their dreams and do music for a living,” he said Wednesday. “She’s played with some of the biggest names in the game right now. Her positive attitude will really inspire the kids.”
For more information on this amazing artist, visit https://theartistjuno.com/.