Prime time for Dennis Reed Jr.

Entertainment People

June 28, 2024

Led by founders DJ Fannie Mae, left, and Dennis Reed Jr., right, Sainted Trap Choir performs at the inaugural Lovin’ Life festival in May

From “America’s Got Talent” to working with Fantasia, Charlotte musician and nonprofit founder Dennis Reed Jr. is enjoying the limelight.

by Krisha Chachra  |  photographs by Grant Baldwin

Award-winning singer and songwriter Dennis Reed Jr. has much to celebrate on his 40th birthday this month. This spring, the Charlotte native signed with Rock Soul Productions, an entertainment company founded by Grammy-award winner and North Carolina native Fantasia Barrino Taylor and Yvonne McNair. 

Reed, who has worked with Fantasia for more than 10 years, and his Sainted Trap Choir — the modern gospel and hip-hop singing group he co-founded with local DJ Fannie Mae — sang backup vocals for The Color Purple star at this year’s Academy Awards. The group also shared the spotlight with Fantasia when she performed as one of this year’s Time100 Most Influential People. In addition, Reed and choir members accompanied R&B singer Andra Day at Super Bowl LVIII and played in front of thousands of people at Charlotte’s inaugural Lovin’ Life Music Festival in May. 

As the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture’s first musical artist-in-residence, last month he produced Liberation & Inspiration: A Celebratory Juneteenth Concert hosted by legendary gospel singer Kirk Franklin. The concert at Knight Theater featured performances by local musicians, African dancers and Sainted Trap Choir. Fantasia made a special appearance.

All this after Reed kicked off the year as a fiancé: He proposed to his longtime girlfriend, Charlotte media maven and content creator Ohavia Phillips, in late 2023.

“You know how they say it takes decades to become an overnight success?” he asks. “I started playing piano, singing and conducting choirs at age 10, so these amazing opportunities of late are catching up. I’m doing what I’ve always done and working hard — I’m just getting recognized for it now.”

It helps to have a star like Fantasia in your corner. “Dennis isn’t just an artist; he’s a vessel of inspiration,” Fantasia shares in an email. “That’s why I knew he had to be one of the first artists signed to Rock Soul Productions. His heart and passion are exactly what this label stands for, and I’m so grateful to have him on this journey with me.”

FOUNDATION IN FAITH

When asked why he chose to be a musician, Reed claims music chose him. 

“My mom would tell me I pretended to play piano on the crib and the back of the pew at church,” Reed says. “My sister took lessons before I did, and I would wait until the teacher left and then bang on the piano.”

His parents eventually hired a piano teacher for Reed. But his strongest musical influence came from the church. Raised in east Charlotte, Reed credits music director Ron Gilliam of New St. John Missionary Baptist Church, who continued teaching him piano and encouraged him to lead a choir. “I learned to command respect, communicate effectively and that a hug can go a long way,” Reed says. “[Gilliam] could bring out the best in your voice — and in you. He is a pastor now, but as a music director, he would discipline me with a smile and tell me to go back and say things better when I would mess up with the choir.”

Reed felt comfortable expressing himself at church. “Black churches are not only our religious experience, but also our social arena. It’s everything,” he says. “Historically, the church is the place where we are free. We come in our Sunday best not only to find God, but to forge relationships and community.” 

The church is also where he became a better musician. “You get direct feedback from the audience,” he says. “Once you finish that solo, the congregation is standing up telling you to ‘Sing it, baby!’” Reed carried the confidence gained at church through high school at Northwest School of the Arts and then Catawba College in Salisbury, where he won the BMI Foundation’s 9th Annual John Lennon Scholarships award for songwriting.

“As a songwriter and a performer, I learned to connect with people at church,” he says. “Now, I create a type of church everywhere I go. Whether it is leading youth worship at Friendship Missionary Baptist Church, teaching students or arranging vocals for Grammy-Award winning artists, I am making ministry.”

FROM CHURCH TO REALITY TV

Reed believes his spiritual sound is what caught the attention of television producer Simon Cowell of the NBC reality competition show “America’s Got Talent” (AGT). Sainted Trap was invited to perform on season 18 of AGT in 2023 and made it to the semifinals, where they sang their own arrangement of Nelly’s “It’s Getting Hot in Here” before being voted off in the finale.

“When we didn’t win Season 18, standing there in our pink outfits, [Cowell] was so disappointed,” Reed recalls. “At [the] commercial break he said, ‘This will not be the last time you hear from us’ — and he stayed true to that.”

Soon after, the choir got a call to compete on Cowell’s team in “AGT: Fantasy League,” which aired earlier this year. The group earned the “Golden Buzzer” from Cowell and a standing ovation from all the judges, sending them straight to the semifinals after singing their gospel-style version of Prince’s “Purple Rain.” The choir ultimately finished fourth.  

But these appearances weren’t Reed’s first time on AGT. In 2012, Reed and Inspire the Fire (ITF), a nonprofit organization he created while in high school, got a call that the show was looking for a group that could dance and sing. 


Dennis Reed Jr. has worked with Grammy winner Fantasia for more than a decade. Photographs by Jeffrey Hendricks/Goliath Views courtesy Rock Soul productions

“At the time, the show traveled from city to city, so here we are as young kids, never been on a plane, flying to Florida, Las Vegas and then to New York City. We had the time of our lives, but in the end, we were naïve and let the producers change our style and ultimately got cut for that,” Reed recalls.

However, the exposure helped grow ITF, which encourages students to pursue creative talents and build community through art and performance. Now in its 22nd year, the after-school program has graduated hundreds of students.

“We help young people succeed on stage and in life,” Reed says. “It is completely grassroots and run by volunteers. The season ends with a showcase where the students write a show, build the set, sing and act in their own production for the community.”

In the past, ITF has performed for President Obama, Maya Angelou and Oprah Winfrey. Reed recalls Angelou being so moved by their singing that she wanted to spend extra time with them. “She told us to remember that we were better than what we may think of ourselves,” he says. “She also assured us we would go far, and she was going to help us.” 

Two months later, Reed got a call from Oprah’s team to sing at another celebration for Angelou. “It was a surprise for Angelou, so she had no idea Oprah called us. That’s a God thing — definitely an Angelou thing,” he marvels.

For some ITF students, the program has been a stepping stone: Many graduates are now members of Sainted Trap Choir, Reed says.

“We are church kids — we believe in God, but we like to turn it up,” Reed adds, describing the 28 singers of Sainted. Reed says he had been thinking about an idea for a trap choir — a fusion of gospel, hip-hop, soul and funk — for a while and reached out to DJ Fannie Mae, a local artist and the official DJ for Charlotte FC. The two pulled singers from ITF and had their first show in February 2020. “Fannie knows how to move a crowd and has a great sense of style and rhythm,” he says. “She came up with the name ‘Sainted’ — she wanted something cool and religious in nature. Our first show was lit, but then the pandemic hit.”

Reed says quarantining during Covid allowed him to refocus. “During the pandemic, creatives went to work,” he recalls. “We found social media and other tools to put our work out there. We were building momentum on Sainted, and I didn’t want to lose that, but I also had to keep ITF afloat and had my own music to concentrate on.

“Back then, everything was happening so fast,” he continues. “I felt like I had to put one thing on hold to focus on opportunities with another. I remembered a passage from the Bible that reminded me that ‘your gift will make room for you.’ Your gift will find a way to present itself.”

A BRIGHT FUTURE

Reed has already won a Grammy certificate for singing backup vocals on Oh Happy Day: An All-Star Music Celebration, which won a Grammy for for Best Traditional Gospel Album in 2010. But there is more to come.

Now, at the newly formed Rock Soul Productions, Reed believes he’ll be able to amplify all his talents. 

“At Rock Soul Productions, we focus on nurturing real talent and letting artists shine in their own unique way,” Fantasia says in describing the new venture. “It’s not just about the music; it’s about the message, the journey and the soul.” 

For Reed, it’s about paying it forward and helping other young artists gain exposure.  

“The partnership with Fantasia and McNair and all the relationships and resources they have will help me grow exposure for Sainted but also the youth of ITF,” Reed believes. “I am so passionate about bringing out what is best in these young people. No matter how far I go, I will carry them — and the city of Charlotte that has given me so much — with me.”

Reed says Fantasia has already asked him to produce some of her future tours and arrange music for her television appearances. “Dennis has been such a blessing in my life over the years,” the superstar shares. “He’s been there through thick and thin, always bringing his heart, his love for God, and his musical talents. Dennis has a way of arranging music that speaks to the soul, and I’ve had the privilege to experience that first-hand.” 

Reed is grateful. “Now, it seems that all the paths are converging, and my prayer to God is to please let me be the best custodian to all these gifts that are before me.”  SP


Crowd at Lovin’ Life festival in May 2024


At Charlotte’s inaugural Lovin’ Life festival in May, you could feel the energy in the air as Sainted Trap Choir took the stage and began their first song. With the Charlotte skyline framing the horizon, hundreds of people began to take notice as the choir began performing its rendition of Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer,” sung with tight harmonies accompanied by hip-hop dance moves. Dennis Reed Jr. came up to me after the song, his eyes filled with awe. “Charlotte pulled up for this festival. I feel so blessed to be here.” — Krisha Chachra

STAY AND PLAY IN SOUTHPARK!

SouthPark Mall giveaway

Win a $500 shopping spree at SouthPark Mall,
a one-night stay at Hampton Inn & Suites SouthPark
& a $100 Bulla Gastrobar gift card!


Enter here by July 23!