In a single released earlier this year, singer Johnathan Celestin explains, "guiding lights can be a shine in the dark." This draw toward something greater and brighter in life, especially during difficult times, has often come to exemplify Celestin's experience, both in music and in identity.
"I'm pretty transparent in my music when it comes to the fact that I'm queer," Celestin says. "But I've still had the pleasure to capture a wide range of listeners."
Less than a decade into his career, Celestin has been able sing his upbeat pop to crowds of multiple nationalities and gender identities—and now he's coming to Tucson Pride.
Celestin's debut release, ...and Then the Rolling Stone Fell in Love, opened itself to a wide range of listeners and interpretation. The stripped-back R&B instrumentals allow plenty of room for Celestin to sing pop melodies in the foreground. This first EP also holds what is most likely Celestin's most famous track, "12 Steps," a soulful elegy for a failed relationship.
"That whole EP was about a lover and I, and the turmoil in our relationship," Celestin says. "It was the first time I ever fell in love with a man, and the first time I ever really fell in love in general."
The contemporary production lends itself to an urban vibe, but Celestin's vulnerable, self-reflective lyrics make his music almost inherently lonely. That is until he switches his singing style to impassioned shouts.
"That first EP was about love lost, but ultimately love regained," Celestin says.
This conflicted self-view is a struggle Celestin dealt with from a very early age. Growing up in the South in the '80s, gender identity was not something open for discussion. Not until he was older and moved to New York did Celestin have a home-space to openly examine such topics about himself.
"By the time I grew up, I had these covert reinforcements about what it meant to be a man and what it means to be a black man in society," Celestin says. "For a long part of my life I probably didn't even know I was queer. But of course I found out eventually."
After taking time to become his own person away from home, Celestin started working on music in college. He ultimately wrote his debut EP while in his senior year.
"I definitely had to overcome a lot of stuff about realizing what love, community, and religion was." Celestin says.
Celestin has now expanded the positive outlook of his music into all facets of his life. Something of a guru on social media, he shares with his fans personal details about his bodybuilding, dieting, worldview and general holistic ethos.
"Loving and appreciating myself is part of the full 360," Celestin says. "Not only is it positive sexuality that I cultivate, these are all manifestations of being the best I can. It's all interconnected."
This positivity is also put through in songs of his such as "Be-You-Tiful," a sunny pop track for an anti-bullying campaign. Of course, this type of music reminds the listeners to be caring, but it also acts as a personal celebration from Celestin about having found a comfortable and open role in life.
"I want to be able to share the blessings I've received with all the people I can," Celestin says.
That's not to say Celestin is a one-trick optimistic pony. His recently released single "Disappear" tackles darker themes, yet still finds a lesson in the darkness. A particularly affecting line reads, "If I fall, at least I'll fly."
"Even when I write songs about heartbreak, people find strength in that." Celestin says. "I want to share everything I think makes people human, not only present things that are 'happy' or 'cool.'"
Celestin plans to release a new single just before his performance at Tucson Pride. And although he's tried to book gigs here before, Celestin has never been to Tucson. He plans to get in early and experience as much of the surroundings as he can before performing, as he did when performing at a Pride event in New York and a show in Germany. As he puts it, getting to know the city helps color and contextualize his sets.
"I generally like to make a connection with the city before I perform." Celestin says. "I'm excited to share my music and just hang out with the community."