Over its 35 years, McDonald’s Gospelfest has developed a core group of artists who are usually on the bill, including Hezekiah Walker, Donnie McClurkin and Cissy Houston. They were all on hand for this year’s show, which took place at the Prudential Center in Newark, May 13.
But producer A. Curtis Farrow also routinely books artists who aren’t primarily gospel singers (though they may have recorded gospel albums). Aretha Franklin, Dionne Warwick, Regina Belle, Patti LaBelle and Jennifer Holliday have all performed at Gospelfest, at least once, over the years. And this year’s show branched out with Fantasia, the R&B star whose singing is firmly rooted in gospel, and who made the gospel charts last year with “I Made It,” a collaboration with Tye Tribbett.
And Fantasia didn’t disappoint. Backed by a band and a choir, she performed a short but thrilling set that climaxed with Richard Smallwood’s “Total Praise” (see video below). At the end of it, she dropped to her knees and seemed to be overcome by emotion.
“God told me to tell you, that everything you’re going through is necessary,” she said. “Amen! Thank you, Jesus.”
It’s no exaggeration to say that Gospelfest is New Jersey’s most ambitious gospel event, year in and year out. The year’s show began at 4 p.m. with a talent contest featuring acts culled from months of tryouts. The headliners started around 7 p.m., after a prayer and a sermon that helped to properly set the mood.
Vintage videos of classic gospel artists, including Mahalia Jackson, were shown between sets. Media personalities and celebrities (including Jersey City-born actor Derek Luke, currently featured in Netflix’s “13 Reasons Why”) introduced the artists.
Highlights, for me, included two stately (and, ultimately, cathartic) ballads, Bishop Paul S. Morton’s “Let It Rain” and Anthony Brown & Group Therapy’s “Worth.”
Israel Houghton, who brought out McClurkin for a guest duet on “It’s Not Over,” stood out by pushing the show in a more upbeat, pop-oriented direction. So did Erica Campbell (of the group Mary Mary), who welcomed young members of the Los Angeles-based Divine Praise Dancers group (who had competed in the talent contest portion of the show) to dance with her and re-created the buoyancy of the Motown Era on “A Little More Jesus.”
A television special featuring highlights from this year’s McDonald’s Gospelfest will be shown by Fox 5 New York this summer, on a date to be announced.
These were the winners in the talent contest:
Rap: Daniel Cody, Maplewood.
Poetry: Christopher Elliot, New Haven, Conn.
Praise Solo/Trio: Victorious Praise Dance Ministry, Staten Island.
Praise Dance Group: Divine Praise Dancers, Los Angeles.
Group (3-8 singers): Voices for Christ, Bridgeville, Pa.
Comedian: Mike Troy, New York City.
Teen Soloist: Mikayla Serrano, Newark.
Male Soloist: Jadelwen Robinson, Jersey City.
Female Soloist: Shanee McDonald, Newark.
Adult Choir: Kean University Gospel Choir, Union.