The banner in front of the speakers proclaims him the R. Kelly of the next generation. But the crowd shuffling restlessly in front of the stage at Shakori Hills doesn't look like R&B fans, and after nearly two hours of rain delay they're getting restless. Some have started a ragged chant for the act they've come to see--"Donna, Donna." But when the drizzle stops, it's not Donna the Buffalo they get, but a small bundle of energy that explodes onstage in a flash of blue. From the moment he hits the stage, Durham's lil MaQ gets the crowd jumping with his own brand of bouncy, funky R&B. Although he's only 12, he works the crowd like a vet, dancing, singing and exhorting the audience to move along with him. And they do--these hard-core festival goers that have come for their favorite herd of Buffalo get right into it, swaying and bobbing along as MaQ sings and raps his way through a tightly choreographed show complete with back-up dancers. It's not cute--it's professionally done.
MaQ and his dancers are as good as anything you'll see in videos, and his singing is as smooth as any R&B or soul crooner. The songs he's doing are ones he wrote, and although he's using a pre-recorded backing track, it's obviously him singing background while he sings over it live, in tune and letter perfect.
After the show, his table in front of the stage is mobbed with Donna fans lined up to buy his CDs, tapes and posters and to shake his hand. Speaking with him afterward, MaQ at first misunderstands when asked if his music could be called soul revival. "Soul revival as in saving people's souls? My music can be inspirational to other people." He tips his hat to favorites from the soul era including Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder. MaQ first started singing in church, but crossed over about two years ago and started writing his own music. "It comes naturally," MaQ says. "I don't really try to stretch myself to write a song. I just let the song come to me and then I'll play around with it, spend a lot of time trying to get it right after I know the concept of the song."
As focused as he is on his career, his parents and his promoter make sure he's focused on school as well. "School first, man, and positivity," says Phatnum Entertainment's Vegas Don--who MaQ calls his career manager--about his handling of his youthful performers. "I'm a father of four kids. What really got me in tune with it is that we have a production called Campaign for Change, an anti-gang, anti-drug, anti-crime production, so we go out and talk to a lot of kids. I have to really stay helpful and keep kids focused and positive."
MaQ's parents reinforce that at home. "I let him know that Christopher Denny comes first, not lil MaQ," says father Cecil Denny. "When he's at the studio, he's lil MaQ. When he's at home with family stuff, he's Christopher."
And if school is not up to par there is no studio time, per promoter Don's rules. "Every report card period, MaQ and the dancers have to take their report cards and let him see it," says dad Cecil. "You make bad grades, you can't come in the studio."
But threats don't seem necessary to keep Christopher/MaQ on track. "He's got a lot of self motivation," says Cecil. "Anything he focuses his mind to, he can do it."
That includes winning over a festival full of non-believers. But MaQ's confidence never wavered. "The color of the audience doesn't really matter," he says of his Shakori Hills experience. "The response is basically the best thing about it."
lil MaQ will play the Trumansburg, N.Y. Festival (Shakori Hills' motherfest) later this year. Look for him and his back-up dancers the Teensters--Bri-Star, ShortCake and Slim Lady--on The Busta Brown Show on 97.1 FM in October.