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It’s a sunny Thursday morning on the roof of Boardroom HQ, cameras and lights are all in place. Sitting down for an in-depth interview is Flau’jae Johnson and the force behind her, her mother and longtime “momager” Kia Brooks.
Johnson is completely Puma’d out. Dressed in all black, all products reflecting the footwear giant’s recent foray into basketball. Johnson stands alongside Charlotte Hornets standout LaMelo Ball and the New York Liberty’s Breanna Stewart as just a few marquee Puma athletes.
She and her mother have recently been on a summer press run comparable to what we see from NBA or WNBA champions: A trip to the White House, courtside at TD Garden with Meek Mill, and posing with DJ Khaled ahead of their much-anticipated collaboration.
This all comes on the heels of an April national championship win that catapulted the LSU Tigers women’s basketball team into the national discourse. Teammate Angel Reese’s trash talk in the title game made this particular win a hot-button issue for both pundits and casuals; both players reached 1 million Instagram followers seemingly overnight.
And although Johnson has been famous since she was a child, the gravity of this win and this moment felt different.
“I think it’s just been on another level that we didn’t tap into,” Johnson says. “We’ve never been on a bigger side of sports, you know what I’m saying? It’s big.”
Brooks agrees. “We haven’t been in it before, but we did plan it out.”
Flau’jae Johnson becoming a mega-star was always part of the plan.
But basketball didn’t come first. Music was Johnson’s first love, as it was in her blood. Her late father, the rapper Camoflauge, was something of a hip-hop legend in Savannah, Georgia. He was a mainstay on the city’s radio stations in the early 2000s before his untimely death in 2003.
At the age of eight, Johnson decided that she, too, wanted to be a rapper. Her mother then worked feverishly, sending letters and emails to secure her a spot on The Rap Game, a Lifetime reality competition series for up-and-coming emcees, co-created by Grammy winners Jermaine Dupri and Queen Latifah.
This national television show was Johnson’s first major stage as a child, but it wouldn’t be her last. By 14, she competed on season 13 of America’s Got Talent and subsequently on America’s Got Talent: All-Stars. By high school, she was named a McDonald’s All-American and had her number retired at Sprayberry High School in Marietta, Georgia just outside Atlanta.
And now? She’s a national champion with 1.4 million Instagram followers, is one of the highest-paid NIL athletes in the country, and has her debut EP “Best Of Both Worlds” expected this summer.
She’s only 19 years old.
It’s not easy for Johnson to deal with those who might not understand the duality of her careers in music and basketball. Directly, I ask her if being an anomaly makes it harder to be taken seriously.
“Anomaly,” she whispers back to herself with a smile. “I like that.”
Another integral individual who has long respected Johnson as an anomaly? LSU head coach Kim Mulkey. Brooks says Mulkey has both understood and appreciated Johnson’s gift from the start.
“Kim brings in 60- and 70-year-olds and lets Flau freestyle to them,” Brooks explains, “and they’re standing up in the room going crazy, screaming and hollering like, ‘Oh my God!”
Mulkey also understands that rapping can be therapeutic for the freshman, giving Johnson room to go out and create music after tough losses or bad games.
But bigger than her therapy, being a musician is a defining element of Johnson’s growing business portfolio.
Deals have always come in for Flau’jae Johnson, as she had an established fan base and social media presence before stepping foot on Kim Mulkey’s court. Winning a ring in the highest-rated women’s college basketball telecast in history did change the game, though.
Since every check doesn’t cash the same, Brooks and her daughter are selective when it comes to which brands to work with. While lightly skimming through Johnson’s social media presence, you’ll also see deals with JBL, Red Bull, Raising Cane’s, and her own signature line of merch.
“We’re not following a path, you know, but I feel like we’re just building what it looks like to us,” Johnson says, “’cause there’s no blueprint for it.”
“Creating our own wave,” Kia adds. “Yeah, she’s the new wave.”
Johnson also finds it important to balance deals with major brands and those within her community — particularly in Baton Rouge.
To hear her tell it, you can still get a bag from local companies in the community.
“The local deals don’t really be smaller,” Johnson says with a laugh. “Everybody got a budget.”
With the integration of name, image, and likeness deals across campuses in this country, new dynamics are bound to emerge. After all, Johnson was entering LSU with a record deal, Puma across her chest, and a seven-figure projection going forward based on her NIL footprint.
So, what does it mean for a freshman to walk into a new locker room with an IMDb page and net worth you can Google?
Johnson admits her teammates probably did have suspicions about her character. That’s fair — she had been in the spotlight since she was a kid. Once they got to know her, however, she says the money wasn’t an issue.
“That’s the thing with NIL. They said it would mess up the locker room, but it really just depends on the type of person you are,” Johnson says. “You wouldn’t know if I was making $20 or a hundred thousand like, you know what I’m saying? I’m just still gonna be that same person.”
“Who I am as a person and how I make people feel, I feel like that’s like something money can’t buy.”
Much of the way Johnson carries herself is a testament to how Brooks has raised her daughter. The two are often in lockstep on potential deals, on the need for balance and rest, and on making sure there’s separation between Kia Brooks the manager and Kia Brooks the mother.
Brooks’ maternal instinct has never been limited to just her daughter. It’s no secret that NIL pacts aren’t all created equal, and in most cases, female athletes are handed the short end of the stick in regard to opportunity and paydays.
Because of this, Brooks often feels compelled to extend guidance to Johnson’s teammates, who benefit from her insight.
“She tries to help everybody,” Johnson says with a laugh.
Brooks admits to offering insight to players on LSU’s championship team often, sometimes unbeknownst to Johnson herself.
“Some of their parents aren’t tapped into this world. They just don’t know,” Brooks says.
After all, Brooks has not only been managing Johnson through adolescence, she also runs social media pages for Johnson’s much younger siblings. With so much room to learn from athletes and parents alike in this new, lucrative world, Brooks just wants to help.
“Even if it’s a deal I can leverage with Flau and get somebody else a deal,” Brooks says. “I’ve tried that.”
One thing Brooks has stressed from the start is the need for young women to be multifaceted in the competitive world of women’s basketball. After all, the WNBA is one of the smallest leagues in major pro sports, where first-round picks secure only modest guarantees and can even struggle to make final rosters.
These players need a more evolved portfolio, to explore several interests, to ensure they can build financial freedom for themselves like their male counterparts.
“You’re not about to get a check like Kevin Durant or LeBron James,” Brooks stresses as to why her daughter fully embraced dual careers. “You’re not gonna get it because you’re a woman. So, what’s gonna make us get that? Let’s do both.”
And so far, it’s working. Johnson is currently a Roc Nation artist, owns her masters, and has creative control of her music through her distribution deal with EQ Distro. This particular deal and all of the power she wields within it are tools that she believes will help her one day own her own record label.
“It’s like an internship in a way, you know what I’m saying? ‘Cause I’m learning so much from them and being independent,” Johnson says.
With the exception of Portland Trail Blazers star Damian Lillard, Flau’jae Johnson might be one of the only athletes on the planet to have her own music blaring in the arena in which she’s hooping, which was precisely the case last spring when the Tigers arrived in Dallas for the Final Four.
“I was in [American Airlines Center], that’s where Luka [Dončić] plays at,” Johnson recalls, visibily giddy. “That was a big deal. And my teammates love it and it’s just good for the culture.”
Her single playing in one of the most notable arenas in the country, while shocking to some, felt right on time to these two.
Like Brooks says, they haven’t been in it before, but they did plan it out.