Growing up in Grenada, Mississippi, in the 1960s, Johnnie Walker observed racism firsthand. The only child of Johnny Kilpatrick and Estelle Stokes learned quickly that she could achieve any goal with tenacity and guts and put those skills to use to become a powerhouse who open doors in the music industry as founder of the National Association of Black Female Executives in Music and Entertainment.
Her upbringing in the Deep South prepared Walker for the rough-and-tumble entertainment industry.
She recalled an episode between her father and a white man, who wanted to give her a nickel. The white man dropped the coin on the ground, expecting Johnnie to pick it up. “My father set him straight, and would not let me pick up that nickel,” Walker said. Apparently, that was the wrong way to offer her money.
While attending John Rundle High School in 1967, Walker watched from the school auditorium as white kids outside the school beat black teens with chain axe handles. Her boyfriend made her stay inside the school during the attack.
“Kids were beaten for nothing,” she told BlackAmericaWeb.com.
Still, Johnnie harbored no bitterness towards white people. She was focused on achievement.
Although she was an honor roll student throughout high school, instead of going on to college after high school, Walker spent a year in the mending department at a hosiery factory. Next, she became an administrative assistant for a garden apartment complex and then a packager for Rockwell International, a wheel cover manufacturer.
During those years, Walker listened religiously to WLS radio in Chicago, captivated by Yvonne Daniels’ golden voice as she read commercials on the air. Walker dreamt of becoming a radio announcer.
“Music was inside of me,” Walker confessed.
In 1973, Walker made a trip to Pop Tunes Store in Memphis and saw Daniels and the legendary Isaac Hayes in a Billboard Magazine next to the R&B chart, confirmation that a black woman could have a career in radio.
She went beyond announcing, however, tackling a number of jobs throughout the industry before building an organization that encouraged and saluted women in the business.
“She’s my angel, a phenomenal woman, who created networking opportunities for women. She‘s down to earth, no ego,” said Vicki Johnson, senior manager of BET Networks, who met Walker 10 years ago at her first NABFEME Summit in Philadelphia.
Another NABFEME innovation has been “Women Who Jam,” a salute to women DJs that developed into a movement that celebrates talented comedians, singers and songwriters. Fundraising events were held in different cities that raised money to assist women with a variety of health issues, including breast and colon cancer.
Walker started out as a receptionist at WNAG radio in Mississippi in 1979. By age 30, she advanced to WYKC/B-100. She went to the general manager and told him she wanted to become a copywriter. He didn’t take her seriously at first and treated her request as a joke. Walker wrote copy for two weeks for free and spent many hours in the library to learn more about copywriting and advertising.
“Good copy helps to get more sales, and good copy is conversational copy,” Walker explained. She was a quick study and soon the jokes ceased.
In 1989, Walker’s zeal caught the attention of hip hop godfather Russell Simmons. He signed Walker with Def Comedy Jam as a local representative. Relentlessly hustling and putting in extremely long hours, Walker became the promotions director, music director and program director, in less than three years. As the first female senior vice president of promotions at Def Comedy Jam Music Group, Inc., she was largely responsible for the careers of Mos Def, Kelly Price, Montel Jordan, DMX, Ja Rule, Public Enemy and LL Cool J.
“We were the frontrunners with two-way pagers, a promotion driven company,” Walker said, adding that Simmons multitasked amazingly well and that he was a great business mentor.
In 1998, Walker created the National Association of Black Female Executives in Music and Entertainment (NABFEME), but it wasn’t officially incorporated until 2000.
The organization grew quickly from 2000-2007, with sites in Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, Raleigh, Jacksonville, and Detroit, Nashville, D.C., and Atlanta, with 3,500 associates.
The operation took a hiatus in 2008. In 2010, when the stock market crashed, corporate downsizing and the loss of major supporters caused NABFEME to reevaluate their services and mode of operation. It is now a more streamlined operation.
These days, Walker is the executive director of the Memphis and Shelby Country Music Commission. “She’s a God-send,” says Kurt Clayton, a former musician with Con Funk Shun. In 2010, a Memphis newspaper, The Tri- State Defender name Johnnie Walker, a “Woman of Excellence.”
She said she keeps at it because she enjoys helping others realize their dreams in the entertainment industry.
“I tried to help somebody and want to be remembered as the door opener.”