MN VOICES | J.D. Steele, crossing borders and fighting poverty through music


J.D. Steele, of the Steeles renown, is crazy about kids. Specifically, he is almost maniacal in his commitment to empowering the disadvantaged youth of Africa. Which is a good thing, because God knows somebody needs to be.

As Steele notes, there are, in this day and age, youngsters who subsist far below poverty. They do without electricity, without running water. Indeed, Steele says, “You ain’t seen poverty until you’ve seen poverty like this. It’s ridiculous. My mother tried to tell me, the first couple times I went, ‘J.D., you know, there’s poverty here. There’s ghettos.’ There is nothing in the United States that compares to Kenya, to the slums. Not even close. They have to walk two miles to get water to wash their clothes. When it rains, everybody’s all excited, because they can capture water in their buckets. Man, please.”

I spoke with Steele about the upcoming Steeles 25th anniversary concert, his album Songs, and such—and got bombarded, chapter and verse, with an impassioned account of how important it is to work with those African youngsters. So that’s where the conversation went.

For those not quite familiar with his name, J. D. Steele is a veteran, vastly accomplished musical director, songsmith, and vocalist. His theater résumé alone lists Point of Revue and Jevetta Steele’s Two Queens, One Castle, both through-the-roof hits for Mixed Blood Theatre. He has done music for the television staple The Young and the Restless. The release event for his solo debut Songs was held at the prestigious Dakota Jazz Club. All this when moonlighting away from working with his similarly distinguished siblings.

25 years is a long time to work with the same folk, I don’t care if they are family. How do y’all do it? What’s the secret?
The biggest secret is that we love each other so much. We love being around one another. When we’re performing, rehearsing, traveling, or whatever, those are the best times in life. When I tour without them, I miss them. When we’re together it’s a lot of laughter and love. As we get closer to the tech rehearsals, the intensity rises. So everybody gets a little edgy. But that’s a good edginess, because [it] spurs everybody to work harder and make sure we get the right harmonies, make sure the choreography’s right, make sure the band is tight. But it never creates tension.

Y’all don’t never get on each other’s nerves?
Once in a blue moon. Ain’t no this someone not speakin’ to somebody else for days. My mama ain’t havin’ that. She is not havin’ it.

Looking back, how pleased are you with Songs?
When you do a record, you’re never completely pleased. There’s always something you wish you had done differently. At some point, in order to get it out, you have to go, “Okay, this is it.” You just gotta let it go.

What’s new?
Working with [composer] Christian McBride, one of the most sought-after bass players in the world, right now. Works with George Duke. Works with a bunch of people. We created this piece called The Movement Revisited. It is based on the oratory of Rosa Parks, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Muhammed Ali, and, now, Barack Obama. We were commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, last year, to do it at Disney Concert Hall. It will be at Juilliard the first week of February.

J.D. Steele is seen in this trailer for a documentary about Shangilia Mtoto Wa Africa (Rejoice, Child of Africa) and its founder, Kenyan actress Anne Wanjugu.

Coming in June at the Ordway is my project with the kids from Kenya. The group is called Shangilia Mtoto Wa Afrika. June 1st through June 6th. The tour starts in Singapore, then goes to New York, the Ordway, and we end up in Chicago at Millennium Park. It’s a choir of 30 kids we’re bringing over. I’ve been talking it up. I visited at Minnehaha Academy, other places. Telling students these kids are coming. MacPhail Community Youth Choir is going to join them onstage. January, I’ll be doing a residency at McPhail [Center for Music], instructing at schools three, four days a week. That gets me teaching in the community, which I love to do. Also, the Ordway is setting up a Skype project so that when I go to Kenya in January and in March to teach and train the kids, I’ll start Skyping to the schools here in the Twin Cities. The kids in both places will be able to sit at computers and see each other and communicate. They’ll get to know one another before the Kenya youth even get here. The schools are excited about it. That is the bomb.

You’re pretty excited, too.
Yeah, I am. It gives the kids here an international connection. Makes them more global in their thinking. In their artistic thinking, academic thinking, intellectual thinking. Just thinking globally, ‘cause the world is shrinking. These kids [in America] need to learn to speak more languages, respect other cultures. It’s a great opportunity, a chance for them to connect before the [African] kids get here. The Ordway is putting that together. And I’m going to do a benefit fundraiser for the kids at the Capri Theater. Friday night, June 4th. We’re going to bring the Kenya kids, the MacPhail choir to the Capri for the show, for a concert. We’re raising funds, because we’re trying to build a new school [in Nairobi]. Dormitories, classrooms, a theater. And an outdoor amphitheater. We’ve been working on this for the last three years and finally got the architectural design. It’s going to cost $800,000 to build this phenomenal school.

That’s what you call a pretty penny.
We’re raising the money. By having the Kenya kids tour every year, they’ll be able to bring in thousands of dollars. If we can get them consistently doing festival touring, they can earn $100,000 a year. The Children of Uganda, the dance group, bring in $1.2 million annually touring. And they go back to Uganda and do things like build medical facilities. That’s the business model I want to get to. Get the youngsters in Kenya out of their cramped space, a little quarter-acre. We want to get them to where they are self-supporting. Money from foundations is good, but when they bring in their own money, they’re doing for themselves and don’t have to beg from foundations. They can feed themselves, don’t have to eat beans every day. Can house themselves. Pay for this, pay for that. The kids are starting to build an international reputation for performing, and don’t need to be depending on foundations. Wynton Marsalis fell in love with the project. He was over there with me and bought 60 instruments for them. There wasn’t anybody to teach them. What did they do? Picked up and taught themselves. Now they got one of the hottest brass bands in Nairobi.

You’re really behind this thing.
I’m committed. Totally. These kids are my joy. What they’re doing, what they can accomplish. It’s incredible. They don’t have TV, they don’t have computers. They don’t have the distractions our kids have. They just live in the slum and, everyday, they practice. They’re coming in June and I can’t wait. Any time I hear that people are doin’ somethin’ in Africa, like these celebrities adopting kids, building schools, I don’t care what anybody does. Do whatever you can.

Well, you’re sure doing what you can.
I can do more. And plan to.

The Steeles 25th Anniversary Christmas Show is December 11th and 12th, 8 p.m. at the Fitzgerald Theater, 10 Exchange St. in downtown St. Paul. For tickets, contact Ticketmaster or the Fitzgerald box office at 651-290-1221 or online at

Correction 12/14/09:  Shangilia Mtoto Wa Afrika. June 1st through June 6th at the Ordway, Flint Hills International Children’s Festival