Ring Em Out: The Revolutionary Jewelry of Johnny Nelson

Johnel Jamison, aka Johnny Nelson, is a rapper turned jewelry designer whose works of wearable art highlight themes of black empowerment, honoring revolutionary heroes and cultural leaders. Cell Vision co-founder Prince Terrence spoke to Nelson about his jewelry, his influences, and his music.

Words and Interview by Prince Terrence

Photos by Kenny Rodriguez
Wardrobe by Walker Wear

Johnny Nelson is a New York icon who has excelled as both a musician and a jewelry designer. Born in London and raised in Brooklyn's Crown Heights neighborhood, Nelson began his career as a rapper, part of the legendary Ninjasonik crew. He started creating his own jewelry to wear on stage and the side hustle quickly took on a life of its own, appearing in the pages of Paper Magazine and i-D and on the fingers, necks, and ears of Colin Kaepernick, Lil Nas X, Lena Waithe, and Beyonce among others. His work features strong themes of Black empowerment, honoring revolutionary heroes and leaders of Black culture.

I first met Johnny in the mid-2000s, likely in a dark club, and would see him whipping around to parties in downtown NYC on a skateboard. I was like, "this kid can really skate." He wasn't using his board as a prop or fashion statement like so many were at that time. I needed to know more about him. Soon after, quiet and stealth in nature, Johnny Nelson was everywhere.

At the time Ninjasonik had created a movement; a rowdy, diverse cast of Downtown and Brooklyn kids who would party day and night, take over any club in an instant when notified by a single tweet, and could drink PBR like it was water. Many of them were skaters and many were Black. They defied stereotypes by living DIY punk rock lifestyles. Designing their own clothes, creating their own music, they were the pure embodiment of a new era of youth culture.

Johnny was the secret weapon of this crew. In 2011 Johnny released "Put Em In A Body Bag". The hook was a call and response between Telli of Ninjasonik shouting "JOHNNY!" and the whole room responding with a scream of "PUT EM IN A BODY BAG!" Johnny Nelson was destined to emerge from this chaotic movement on top, but I don't think anyone could have guessed that it would be in this form. This is often how the greatest art happens.

CELL VISION: How long have you been creating jewelry?

JOHNNY NELSON: I’ve been making wearable art for at least 7 years.

"I felt like it would be a good idea to reimagine what Mount Rushmore or our forefathers/mothers would look like through the lens of a young Black man (me) raised in the States who has dealt with police brutality and racial injustices."

CELL VISION: Black empowerment is the clear theme in your work; you use images of the black power fist or the faces of black icons, like the 4 finger ring with the faces of Harriet Tubman, Shirley Chisholm, Sojourner Truth, and Ida B. Wells or the “Hip-Hop Mount Rushmore” 4 finger ring that displays Biggie, Tupac, Ol' Dirty Bastard, Easy-E. What led you to this as the theme of your line?

JOHNNY NELSON: Well, I know that Mount Rushmore is held in high regards in American society, so I felt like it would be a good idea to reimagine what Mount Rushmore or our forefathers/mothers would look like through the lens of a young Black man (me) raised in the States who has dealt with police brutality and racial injustices. And also as someone who was brought up as a musician. Why not honor the icons, pioneers, and leaders before me that helped open doors and make my journey more bearable than theirs was?

CELL VISION: One thing that speaks to me about your jewelry is that it really sends a strong message and is very eye-catching without being too blingy or flashy—is this intentional?

JOHNNY NELSON: My intention is to make statement pieces that catch the eye and spark conversation. I want the wearer/viewer to learn, teach and feel empowered when wearing my pieces. That’s how I feel.

CELL VISION: If you were given an unlimited production budget to do a collection what type of pieces would you create?

JOHNNY NELSON: HOLOGRAM…

CELL VISION: What is your ultimate goal in the jewelry game?

JOHNNY NELSON: My goals change often so I will keep it broad by saying keep creating impactful and meaningful pieces. And also create jobs, opportunities and open doors for newer creatives that may share a similar passion.

CELL VISION: Is this something that you have always wanted to do or did it just kind of happen?

JOHNNY NELSON: Nah this a beautiful accident lol. I was feeling so good while I was touring with Spank Rock circa 2011-2014. I told myself I wanted to wear some jewelry to enhance my stage show. so I asked my mum to make me a ring from a black tourmaline stone she had in her mantelpiece. She made a one-finger tourmaline wire wrap that covers two fingers. I got a lot of good responses when I came back from the European leg of tour. So I asked her to teach me how to make 3 finger wire wrap rings, which I fell in love with and did until I started to learn the metal casting process and lost wax in 2013. The rest is history, ya heard?

"I exercise and meditate every single day. Struggle is a mindset. You are not struggling, you are just growing through the process."

CELL VISION: Socializing plays such an integral role in the fashion and music industries. During these strange times of COVID-19, how are you keeping your creativity flowing? Do you have any advice for artists who are struggling?

JOHNNY NELSON: I exercise and meditate every single day. Struggle is a mindset. You are not struggling, you are just growing through the process. The reward feels so much better when you had to go through some hoops and hurdles to get there. Handouts are not appreciated.

CELL VISION: How old were you when you got your first piece of jewelry? What was it?

JOHNNY NELSON: I'm not even sure, but I saw baby pictures of me with chains on and stuff. I was dripped out as a baby. But I do remember when I was like in 5th or 6th grade I went to Kings Plaza with the fam and got my ear pierced. That was a game-changer. As soon as that healed I was going to the discount store with My cousin Lavey to cop those big ass fake studs the rappers was wearing lmao. Then probably by 8th grade, I had the 14k “JAY” nameplate earring. that jawn was flames.

CELL VISION: You were enlisted by Pyer Moss for their “Sister” collection, where you created iconic pieces of Diana Ross, Aretha Franklin, Chaka Khan, Patti LaBelle, Tina Turner, Nina Simone, Janet Jackson, Mary J Blige, Beyoncé, Missy Elliot, Lauryn Hill, Da Brat, Left Eye, Aaliyah, Erykah Badu, Queen Latifah, Rihanna, Lil’ Kim, Janelle Monáe and Solange. How was that experience? Aside from that, what would be your dream collaboration?

JOHNNY NELSON: It was dope working With Pyer Moss, I actually dreamed about a few of the pieces prior to my conversation with Kerby, so we was already in alignment. It was definitely the biggest project I’ve worked on and we made some groundbreaking pieces. My first big fashion show and my mum, who is my fashion icon, got to pull up wit me. That was epic. I don't really have any dream collabs, but I like Tierra Whack and Tyler the Creator. And I prolly wanna do a song or something with NLE Choppa, I LIKE HIS HOLISTIC JOURNEY.

"I can see my jewelry design as being like a 'rebel with a cause.'"

CELL VISION: You entered the scene as a rapper—a really great one, I might add. Touring the world with Naeem, aka Spank Rock, an artist that we at Cell Vision love and have featured before, and performing alongside the Ninjasonik crew. How does your experience as a performer relate to your jewelry and your outlook on fashion in general?

JOHNNY NELSON: THANK YOU FOR THE ACCOLADES. I actually miss performing. Shout out to Ninjasonik they paved the way for a lot of these mainstream artists, but we can speak on that another time lol. Ninjasonik was raw and rebellious AF. I can see my jewelry design as being like a “rebel with a cause." But Spank Rock/Naeem was political party rap. It was bad ass, in ya face, and crowd-captivating, but always had deep messages in it. I feel my jewelry to be similar. Like, we gonna make you feel good but you're gonna think and learn something today also.

CELL VISION: Are you still working on music? If so, when can we expect to hear new material?

JOHNNY NELSON: I still write bars and melodies on my voice recorder whenever stuff pops in my head. I still got some unreleased tunes in the cut, maybe i'll release those but just tweak 'em a bit. I would definitely like to work on some new stuff. SEND ME SOME BEATS, STOP PLAYIN.

CELL VISION: Your work has a bit of a throwback 80s/90s feel to it, yet it still feels very modern and new. How do you maintain that balance?

JOHNNY NELSON: History always repeats itself and I'm influenced by 80s/90s hip-hop/dopeboy/dopegirl styles, as well as some of the newer punk couture styles. Sometimes I try to mesh the two in the best way I see fit, or just do whatever I envision and hope the people bang with it as much as I do.

CELL VISION: What was the first piece that you ever made and how did it all come about?

JOHNNY NELSON: My first piece of jewelry was a wooden matchstick I was known for wearing in my ear as an earring circa 2009-2010. I used to host a party sometimes at Happy Ending in the Lower East Side. They always had boxes of matches when you first entered the building. I would collect those boxes and put the matches in my earhole on some punk shit. I became known for that. Later on, I would go on to creating a gold matchstick when I first began the casting process of my jewelry.

CELL VISION: Your jewelry has been worn by big names like Colin Kaepernick, Lil Nas X. Who else would you like to see wearing your jewelry? Maybe we can wish it into fruition.

JOHNNY NELSON: I like Tierra Whack or Angela Davis.

CELL VISION: You made a playlist for us, can you tell us more about it?

JOHNNY NELSON: These are my daily vibes, music that inspires me.

CELL VISION: Any additional messages or words of encouragement for the people during this Black History Month?

JOHNNY NELSON: STAY WIT IT DONT PLAY WIT IT!!!!

You can purchase Johnny Nelson's wearable art and check out his Instagram via the links below.

Johnny Nelson Jewelry Website
Johnny Nelson Jewelry Instagram