Advocating for self-love, DaJohn plays D.C. on March 18; Credit: Demetrius Barry

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A new single from 24-year-old hip-hop artist and producer Darius Johnson, known as DaJohn, is a two-and-a-half-minute metaphor about self-love and self-preservation. “GARDEN,” the raw, free-style track, was released March 3.

“I’ve been waiting for the right moment to release,” he tells City Paper. “I hope the record is received well.”

Currently based in Frederick, DaJohn got his humble start in rapping in Okinawa, while both his parents were stationed at the Air Force base there. He was 7 years old when he first signed up to perform at a talent show for an after-school program and asked his dad to write a rap song for him. DaJohn’s father agreed to help with one caveat. “If you do it, you have to do it,” DaJohn recalls his father saying. “You can’t back out.”

DaJohn took his father’s advice to heart. Not only did he perform that song for a crowd of around 100 people, but he kept signing up for other talent shows. Eventually, he self-released Adolescent State of Mind, his first EP on SoundCloud when he was only 13.

Eleven years later, DaJohn continues to release new music. He also performs all over the DMV, including shows in Frederick, Baltimore, and most recently at House of Herbs in D.C.’s Park View neighborhood on Dec. 16.

The ambitious young musician has been establishing himself in various music scenes throughout the area in search of opportunities that don’t exist where he lives. Frederick’s music scene is often ignored, he says, despite being home to many stand-out artists, including Stitch Early, Demetrius, and Asa Weeks, whom DaJohn calls “the people’s champion.” There is no shortage of talent from Frederick, but the lack of community events such as open mic nights or artist showcases doesn’t allow for that talent to prosper. In order to get attention, DaJohn says Frederick musicians are forced to move their operations to D.C.

“It took me almost 10 years of making music to headline a show in Frederick,” DaJohn says. “We need more light. We need more opportunities.”

With influences such as Smino, Kendrick Lamar, and Tyler, the Creator, DaJohn considers his music to be hip-hop and R&B with elements of experimentation. What makes him stand out from other artists, he says, is that his songs are typically built around very specific themes. For example, his 2020 song “Smoke in the Rain” uses the metaphor of being lost in a storm to tell a story about the importance of standing by your partner’s side through dark days.

“Concepts are kind of lost nowadays,” he says. “Today’s music is mostly just about blanket subjects, but I like to take specific topics and apply them to metaphors that I carry out throughout the entire record.”

Growing up as a military brat who moved around, DaJohn is no stranger to finding inspiration in other cultures. He listens to and learns from hip-hop and R&B, but he also takes influence from country, pop, and techno.

Those influences carry over into his skills as a producer with a wide vocal range. Songs like “CHAUFFEUR” (2020), “BRAND NEW MAN” (2022), and “Woah Honey” (2022) show just how much DaJohn is able to change his voice.

“I feel like a lot of people just use their regular voice,” DaJohn says. “But with me, I play around with the entire range of my voice, and I can do it consistently.”

The newly released single, “GARDEN,” is a prime example of DaJohn’s experimentation in his songwriting. For this track, his writing process was done completely out of order DaJohn says. Rappers will often come up with the hook and verses first, but DaJohn started by envisioning his background vocals and the melody instead. Before he knew what the theme of the song was, he already knew he would repeat the names of flowers throughout. “I did it kind of backwards, but on purpose,” he says. “It was how my brain was working.”

That’s not to say the message behind the song has no significance. Using flowers as a theme gave DaJohn the idea of turning a garden into a metaphor for self-care—a personal priority for the rapper, who recalls being in both one-sided romantic and platonic relationships that made him lose sight of his own identity. Loving oneself, in fact, makes up the core of DaJohn’s mission statement and his brand.

“The whole concept of the song is about preserving your sanity, your self-respect, and your self-love,” he says. “Basically, treat yourself how you want others to treat you.”

Lyrics weren’t the only thing DaJohn was experimenting with in “GARDEN.” He was sick while he recorded the song, so his vocal capabilities were much more limited. At the end, he considered scraping the entire thing and re-recording but decided instead to listen to friends, who told him that the vocals were still smooth. “It sounded so raw and so natural,” he says.

“I knew I wanted to freestyle it, and I knew I wanted to experiment with my voice,” he adds. “[The song is] super bouncy, but it’s also vulnerable.”

DaJohn’s persistence has certainly paid off. He has more gigs lined up, including one in the District later this month and he’s currently working with Weeks on a new single. The release date has yet to be announced, but expect it sometime this year. “It’s going up,” he says. “I’m working on new music and staying more consistent with these drops.”

As his name recognition grows, DaJohn has one message for fans and new listeners: “Support local independent artists.”

“Don’t just support music artists,” he says. “Support your local painters, sculptors, and other artists. At the end of the day, we do it for love, but we still need to eat. If you love art, then support your local artists.”

DaJohn opens for rapper Marc Bravo at 7 p.m. on March 18 at the Selina hotel in Union Market. eventbrite.com. $15. “GARDEN” is available on all streaming platforms.