“The Road to 20,” a concert that takes place June 22 at 2 p.m. at the Victoria Theater at NJPAC in Newark, represents a double celebration.
It will commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Jubilation choir, which started as the official gospel choir at NJPAC before becoming independent. And it will celebrate choir leader The Rev. Stefanie Minatee’s long, difficult recovery from a 2015 stroke.
Over the last two decades, the choir has — in addition to performing and recording its own high-energy material — worked with pop artists such as Ray Charles, Queen Latifah, Dionne Warwick and Kenny Loggins, as well as gospel stars including Shirley Caesar, Bishop Walter Hawkins, Albertina Walker, Kurt Carr and Donnie McClurkin. In 2009, it sang with Queen Latifah on Oh Happy Day: An All-Star Music Celebration, a compilation that won a Grammy in the Traditional Gospel Album category.
I spoke to Minatee – a Newark native, a retired music teacher (who had worked in the Plainfield school system) and a minister at the Community Baptist Church of Englewood — earlier this week.
Q: I’m glad to hear you’re feeling better these days.
A: You know, I can’t even say … what has happened … God has just touched, and He’s given me another opportunity to do some work for him. So however He leads me, that’s how I’ve got to go, but I thank Him for everything. I really wasn’t supposed to even be doing any of this stuff (after the stroke). I really wasn’t.
I haven’t been on the NJPAC stage since before the stroke, so I’m going to do my best to walk out onto that stage, and not be rolled out, and I’m just grateful to everybody who has bought tickets, and I thank Queen Latifah for her video (see below), and Dionne Warwick for being supportive. I’m excited about being back with people who I haven’t seen in 20 years or more. They sang with me when Jubilation started, in October 1998. So it’s really a powerful experience.
Q: So what can you tell me about the concert itself?
A: Well, we’re going to honor Rita Owens, who is Dana’s — I call her Dana — Queen Latifah’s mom. Rita (who died last year, at the age of 69) was a charter member of the choir, and she was also a good friend of mine. So not having her here physically, on this Earth, is devastating to me. But I’ve accepted what God has done, and we’re just going to try to celebrate her life. So I’m going to do a special tribute to her. The choir’s going to do various selections from negro spirituals. We’re going to do an R&B song that I’ve rearranged, gospel-style. And of course gospel music will be involved. The choir will be at least 100 voices, so it will be an awesome time.
Q: Were all current and former members invited?
A: Well, really not everyone, because when we started, it was 120, and I have had 27 that have transitioned, and then I’ve had new members come in, and some of the older members have moved away. It’s been a revolving door. But a lot of the original folks will be with us on Saturday.
Q: What do you see for the choir’s future?
A: You know, I used to really plan what we were going to do. I’d say, by this time we want to do this, and by this time we want to do that. But after I had this stroke, I realized you can’t really plan anything. You just have to want to do it, and see if it’s going to happen. I would like for the choir to record again, down the road, and do a new project. We got invited to go to Korea next April, so I would like to do that. But we’ll see what happens.
Q: Is gospel big in South Korea?
A: Yes! Gospel is big all over the world. Like, Japan only has like 1 or 2 percent people that are Christian there, but they look at gospel as an entertainment entity. So we’re trying to just minister to the people that we’re allowed to visit, and help them to understand that this is not really for entertainment, but it’s a message that we’re trying to get across.
Q: Looking back over the 20 years, are there any things that really stand out for you?
A: Yes. I would say the Ray Charles DVD that we did with him, in 2002. (“Ray Charles Celebrates: A Gospel Christmas”). And then I would say the Grammy Award that we won in 2010, with Queen Latifah. And we also sang at the Super Bowl: Some of the members sang at the Super Bowl. So those things stick out. But we’ve got a wonderful resume, and we’ve done some tremendous things.
Q: Which Super Bowl was that?
A: Super Bowl XLIV, I think it was. Queen Latifah sang “America the Beautiful,” and we sang it with her. And someone else (Carrie Underwood) sang “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
Q: Will you be singing, at all, at this concert?
A: I’m gonna do what I do, and that is really just to kind of exhort, and just move the program along, and lead people through the experience. I’m just going to do what I do. I’m not planning to do any solos, if that’s what you mean.
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