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Making Muppet music

Charlotte 13-year-old has women and girls singing to 'Sesame Street' tune about how they love their hair

By April Bethea
abethea@charlotteobserver.com

Chantylla Johnson smiles when she thinks of the karaoke machine she got for Christmas when she was 5, a sought-after gift for a youngster who would belt Whitney Houston tunes.

Now, the Wilson Middle School eighth-grader is the voice behind a Muppet that has little girls and women singing along - about their hair.

The Oct. 4 episode of "Sesame Street" included a 2-minute song by a brown Muppet adoring how she can wear a mix of curly, braided and straight hairstyles.

The clip, "I Love My Hair," was the brainchild of the show's head writer who wanted to help his daughter, adopted from Ethiopia, feel good about her own mane.

"Don't need a trip to the beauty shop, 'cause I love what I got on top," the Muppet in a pink dress sings. "It's curly and it's brown and it's right up there. You know what I love? That's right, my hair!"

Chantylla, a child actress who has appeared on Broadway and recently moved to Charlotte where her family has been for a few years, recorded the song last year.

But she didn't see the Muppet until she and family members watched the song clip online earlier this month. She thinks the character looks like her, with hairstyles similar to those she wears .

She says she's been overwhelmed by the response to the song, which has drawn millions of Web hits and spawned dozens of covers. The lyrics have elicited strong emotional reactions, particularly from black women.

"It shows how people should love their hair and love the way they are," said Chantylla, 13.

The "Sesame Street" role is one entry in what already has been an enviable resume for the teen, who also goes by the nickname Chauncey.

At 7, she was cast as the younger Nettie in the original Broadway production of "The Color Purple."

Two years later, she landed the role of the lion cub Nala in the musical version of "The Lion King." She would work on three productions of the show, including an Asian tour and a return to Broadway.

(The childhood version of Nala also was performed years earlier by then-11-year-old Christian Anthony of Charlotte, who made her Broadway debut in 2004.)

Chantylla's other jobs have included commercial jingles and "Notorious," a film about the rapper The Notorious B.I.G.

Originally from New Jersey, Chantylla said music and the arts have long been a big part of her family. She remembers her grandmother singing in the kitchen. Parents Latosha and Melvin Johnson also sing.

Latosha Johnson recalled a doctor remarking that her daughter would become a singer because she was louder than the other newborns. As a toddler, she constantly sang or hummed to herself.

"When she was little I said, 'My daughter is going to be a star one day.' I felt it in my heart because she just had that glow and charisma about her," Johnson said. "(And) the voice that she had, it was so strong."

Chantylla's three siblings - brothers Melquan, 16, and Ahmad, 12, and sister Marcinia, 10 - also are artists. The four sing, dance and act their own home shows, sometimes using the same karaoke machine Chantylla received years ago.

The family moved to Charlotte in 2007, though Chantylla stayed up North with her aunt to continue acting. The family made frequent trips to see each other.

Chantylla moved to Charlotte this summer, and began classes at Wilson Middle in August. As one of the new kids in school, Chantylla said she didn't want to draw any undue attention.

After the "Sesame Street" episode aired, though, word began to spread among Wilson teachers that one of their students provided the voice.

Around the same time, some students had started singing "I Love My Hair" at school.

Then two weeks ago, the school aired the clip on the morning announcements with a teaser that they'd find out the singer's identity the next day.

Chantylla said her classmates were surprised, though proud, to realize it was her.

She'll sing the song when asked. But she said she loves that her new friends aren't treating her any differently.

Answering questions, Chantylla displayed both the polish of an actor and bursts of excitement that underscore her youth.

She says she loves her career, and plans to keep working. She said she also did a workshop reading for a forthcoming show about singer/dancer Josephine Baker, and early next month will do a reading for a production of "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory."

"Sesame Street" also is considering making the yet-to-be- named Muppet a recurring character.

"I really want to sit down with the writers and figure out what we can do with her and give her a name, and really expand her out," head writer Joey Mazzarino, the father of 5-year-old Segi, recently told the Associated Press. Mazzarino co-wrote "I Love My Hair" with composer Chris Jackson, who played Simba in "The Lion King."

Does a bigger role for the Muppet mean more work for Chantylla? Her agent says talks already are under way.

Outside of work, Chantylla likes to hang out with friends, go shopping and watch movies. Favorite musicians include Beyonce, Justin Bieber, Selena Gomez and Sara Bareilles.

When she's older, Chantylla said she'd like to be a veterinarian. She has two doves and a cat at home.

Her aunt, LaFrances Singletary, who also serves as her niece's personal manager, said the family tries to make sure Chantylla has proper balance.

For her part, Chantylla gives credit to those around her, including family, friends, managers and agents: "If it wasn't for them, and (their work) to keep me on track, I wouldn't have made it this far." The Associated Press contributed.

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