The fire that drives Flau'jae Johnson

The fire that drives LSU's Flau'jae Johnson (6:54)

LSU guard Flau'jae Johnson is on a mission to finish the journey her father started before he was fatally shot in May 2003. (6:54)

Editor's note: The LSU Tigers won the 2023 NCAA national championship on April 2. This story, originally ran on March 19, 2023, is being republished.

FLAU'JAE JOHNSON was determined.

Her late father's birthday was approaching and so was the party that her mother, Kia, threw every year to honor him. It felt like everyone in Savannah, Georgia, and its surrounding cities would show up and show out in December to honor Jason Johnson, best known as "Camoflauge" to those who followed his rap career. Performances lasted through the wee hours of the morning. Flau'jae, who was 8, wanted in, too.

She approached Kia confidently, took a deep breath and stated her case: "Mom, I want to go there. I want to rap. I want to perform at this party."

Kia looked at her daughter and laughed. This was a party for grown-ups. It would be at a club. So, she delivered the bad news: "Girl, you're not performing at this party. You're a kid."

Flau'jae wouldn't take no for an answer. She recruited her uncle, Dominique, who would do anything for his niece -- and together the two begged Kia, who eventually gave in. She agreed to help sneak Flau'jae inside, and Dominique helped her write songs

On the night of the party in 2011, Flau'jae transformed into one of the flyest kids in Savannah. She picked her own outfit: camo pants, a red puffer vest with the Georgia Bulldogs logo and a matching hat that gave way to a long curly ponytail in the back. Her black shirt read "Georgia Swag." She completed the look with a black fingerless glove on her right hand and stunner shades.

Kia snuck Flau'jae in through a back door and had her wait in a dressing room. Hours rolled by as Flau'jae waited. It was around 10 p.m., way past her bedtime, so she dozed off, until feeling a tap on her shoulder.

It was showtime.

Once Flau'jae hit the stage, she came alive. She took command of the room with her high-pitched voice, performing a handful of songs, including one dedicated to her father.

Rest in peace to Camoflauge
This right here for Camoflauge
Rest in peace to Camoflauge
Just for him, I'm goin' hard
Just for him, I'm goin' hard
Just for him, I'm goin' hard

Flau'jae bounced from one corner of the stage to the other. She had the crowd wave their hands in the air and sway from side to side. The room belonged to Flau'jae. As her father predicted, his baby girl was special.

That performance was just a preview of what would come. Now, Flau'jae's performing in front of sellout crowds in music and basketball, she knows that night in 2011 was fate. She's signed a distribution deal with Jay-Z's Roc Nation, and she's leading the No. 3-ranked LSU Tigers (28-2) into March Madness as one of the best freshmen in the country.

Her mission? To finish the journey her father started before he was fatally shot in May 2003 -- nearly six months before she was born. Music is her connection to her father's past and a path to her own future.

"I feel like his legacy was cut short," she says. "It was taken from him. That's why I sometimes feel like it's my duty to finish what he started."

FLAU'JAE'S ALARM WAKES her at 5 a.m. every day. Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays are her busiest, so getting an early start is a priority. Her mornings are peaceful times of reflection, where she grabs her pen and writes in her journal. Then, she prays.

Next, she hits the gym for her first workout; 1,000 shots on the shooting machine. Soon, she's on her way to the locker room to shower and change with more than enough time to spare before her first class of the day at 8 a.m.

At 1:30 p.m., she has back-to-back practices and weight training. To keep up with her classes, Flau'jae heads to the study hall. If she has time, she'll go to one of the university's music studios before heading back to the dorm for rest.

It is one of the biggest reasons Flau'jae chose LSU. The Tigers' head coach, Kim Mulkey, embraced Flau'jae's rap career, fully supporting both of her passions. The coaching staff took Flau'jae to the studio, and that was it, she was sold. But during hoops season, Mulkey says, basketball has to come first.

"Most college students. They practice. They eat. They study and go to bed. Flau'jae's just getting started when practice on the court is over," Mulkey says. "If you ever go into her dorm room, you're just going to be witnessing what she does. She starts creating ... and she's very good at it."

"I always watch her on the floor to see if she gets fatigued sooner than maybe I think she should because I know what she's doing when she leaves here. She is in her dorm room thinking of the next thing she wants to produce."

After study hall, Flau'jae is back in her dorm. It's a quiet, small corner of the room that becomes her sanctuary. The rules she lives by are scribbled on a whiteboard. "Be intentional." "Go hard." Goals for her companies are written on the other half of the board; Year 1 = $1.5 million. Year 2 = $5.7 million. Year 3 = $10 million.

Flau'jae sits in her computer chair behind a brown wooden desk. There are colorful sticky notes on the wall in neon shades of orange, pink, yellow and green. The messages are a mix of short-term goals and motivational quotes. "Start YouTube series." "Start Big 4 brand." "How you do anything is how you do EVERYTHING." "Add EXTRA to the ordinary."

She reaches for her mic and plugs it into her laptop. The setup is simple. It isn't professional, she stresses, but it's perfect for releasing her immediate thoughts and recording them in the moment. "It just clears my head from everything that's going on for the week," Flau'jae says. "I get to just restart and make songs that I get to listen to for the rest of the week. They take me through the week and I go back and I make some more."

FLAU'JAE LOOKED around and saw kids with their fathers. They were everywhere. Grocery shopping, at the park, at sporting events. She felt a familiar pang in her heart -- the realization that she didn't have her father and never would.

Kia was everything to Flau'jae, but she longed to be close to the man she never had the chance to meet. So, she pieced him together the best she could by studying old photos to memorize his face and style. She read his lyrics to learn his innermost thoughts and listened to his songs to understand his heart.

Nearly every day, Flau'jae is reminded of how much they are alike. Family and friends tell her she looks just like him and her music sounds just like his. She even shares parts of his personality. "They're both silly, the life of the party. Two genuine souls," Kia says.

In 2003, Camoflauge was on the brink of signing his first major deal when he was shot and killed outside his recording studio. He was a beloved artist in Savannah and left behind an impressive catalog as an independent artist. He's Flau'jae's biggest inspiration, and she's made it her mission to carry on his legacy.

"When I hear his voice and songs I get chills," she says. "That's how I know I'm on the right track and I'm destined to be carrying on the torch."

Flau'jae's delivery is unique; she doesn't curse, and she guides you through her life's highs and lows. There are pleas for an end to gun violence, and the lyrics feel authentic. The lyrics are as heavy as they are healing. Her style mirrors her father's with a modern twist.

In 2017, Flau'jae was no longer Georgia's best-kept secret. At 12 years old, she appeared on Lifetime's "The Rap Game," which follows five young artists who showcase their talents in front of hip-hop legends. She didn't win the contest, but she impressed hip-hop mogul Jermaine Dupri and famous rappers like Rick Ross, Fabolous and Da Brat, giving the public a glimpse of what she's capable of.

The following year, she took the stage in front of a panel of celebrity judges on "America's Got Talent." She introduced herself and explained the meaning behind "I Can't Lose," a song about proving haters wrong and rising above obstacles in life.

I gotta make it, look what I done been through
This is real life, I cannot pretend to
Never let 'em tell you what you can't do
'Cause I done made it this far
I can't lose

Her eyes were filled with tears by the end of her performance, and she was met with a standing ovation from the judges and audience.

Simon Cowell, the show's harshest judge, softened after Flau'jae's performance. "I'm not an expert but I think you, the lyrics, the tracks, everything feels real. I don't say that a lot of the time. I really like you," he said with a smile.

Chris Hardwick, the comedian and guest judge, slammed his hand down on a buzzer that sends contestants on a path to the show's finale. Flau'jae was shocked and celebrated by jumping around the stage.

"Simon told me something he should have never told me ... He called me a superstar," Flau'jae said at the time. "I think I walked around my house a month straight after that. I was like, 'Yeah, I'm a superstar.'"

HER MIND WAS made up; Flau'jae wanted to play basketball. But there were no youth teams for girls her age in Savannah, so Kia found a coach at a local club who let her daughter play with the boys.

Flau'jae didn't know all the rules of the game, but she wanted to dress the part. She slipped on her headband -- she never left home without it -- arm sleeves, a blue jersey, and a fresh pair of blue Jordan 11s to match.

It was 2008, and her first organized game was at the Frank Callen Boys & Girls Club. When she got the ball, she felt a rush of excitement and mild panic. She didn't know which way to run: "Mom, I don't know which way to go! Which way do I go?"

After rerouting, the game belonged to Flau'jae. She loved hearing the crowds' oohs and aahs every time she made a basket. It was the same rush she felt performing at the tribute party for her father. As the years went by, she kept improving her game but didn't take the game too seriously until her junior year of high school.

She was hyperfocused on making her music a profession, but one day, her AAU coach approached and told her she was good enough to earn a scholarship.

Fast forward to the summer of 2022. It was her first open gym at LSU and she was playing against Angel Reese, who was joining the Tigers from Maryland as the top player in the transfer portal. Most freshmen would be intimidated matching up with one of the most gifted scorers in college basketball, but Flau'jae isn't most freshmen. She was a McDonald's All-American, ready for the challenge. She traded buckets and trash talk with Reese and they quickly developed a bond that blossomed into the regular season. They nicknamed each other "Salt and Pepper" and were off to the races.

The Tigers were one of the most exciting teams in the country and remained at the No. 2 spot in the AP poll for most of the season. As the team's starting point guard, Flau'jae grew into a leader, averaging 11.8 points, 5.9 rebounds and 1.7 assists. The 5-foot-10 guard also improved tremendously on the defensive end. Reese became one of the most dominant scorers in the country, averaging 23.4 points and 15.5 rebounds a game.

Reese says Flau'jae was hungry to win, to put in the work and willing to listen to advice from veteran players. "You don't really see freshmen come in and want it that bad," she says. "I really love that about her.

"She's loving. She's funny. She's always loud. She has great energy all the time. She's just a great friend. Someone that you always want to be around."

Flau'jae's drive translated on the court this season, and she was named SEC Freshman of the Year.

"I've only had three freshmen to ever truly start for me and play the number of minutes that Flau'jae is playing," Mulkey says. "To get freshman of the year in the SEC speaks volumes. She has no idea really today how good she will be."

AHEAD OF MARCH MADNESS, the Tigers focused on regaining their defensive identity. They blew a 17-point lead and lost in the SEC championship to Tennessee 69-67. The Big Dance is here, and the No. 3 Tigers faced No. 14 Hawai'i in the first round.

All season, Flau'jae worked to become a better defender, passer and rebounder and showed that off in front of an electrifying crowd. The game tipped off and Hawai'i got off to an early 3-0 lead. Hawai'i's Kelsie Imai threw an errant pass. Flau'jae intercepted the ball, took off, racing past the defenders for an easy layup. The crowd erupted. The play was one of many defensive stops by Flau'jae that helped set the tone for the Tigers. From there, the game belonged to LSU. The Tigers led Hawai'i 32-22 at the end of the first half.

In the third quarter, LSU started having fun. Reese threw an alley-oop to Flau'jae for an easy lay-in. Late in the fourth, Flau'jae returned the favor with an assist to Reese, who ended the game with 34 points and 15 rebounds. Flau'jae collected 10 points, 6 rebounds, 5 assists, 1 steal and 1 block. LSU defeated Hawai'i 73-50.

"I challenged [Flau'jae] all week," Mulkey says. "You are going to have to guard older players to keep advancing. I can't rush time, I can't make you experienced, but you just gotta have it.

"She performed tonight."

For now, Flau'jae is focused on helping her team advance in March Madness. LSU has eliminated Hawai'i, Michigan, and next up, they'll face Utah in the Sweet Sixteen. After the tournament, she plans to release her next EP, "Best of Both Worlds," in April.

Flau'jae wants to be limitless and takes pride in balancing her passions. She's building a brand and showcasing all the sides that make her who she is. A basketball player. An artist. A businesswoman. Successful.

"When it's all said and done, I want to be a mogul and a CEO in a Fortune 500 company," she says. "I'm really going to do it big... I really want to take it to places where nobody could see. I have the vision and I'm not going to stop."

Flau'jae has the full support of her family, friends and teammates in whatever path she chooses. Kia will be by her side, Camoflauge in her heart and in her hustle. She thinks about her father every day, often visiting his gravesite in Savannah. His memory motivates her to carry on his legacy.

"I know he's proud of me, but I just wish he could see what I'm doing."

Max Brodsky contributed reporting.