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Juneteenth to feature gospel singer

She has co-written songs for Grammy Award-winning singer Mary J. Blige and has done background vocals for the superstar musician. Plus, she co-managed the "Queen of Hip-Hop Soul" for a few years.

But LaTonya Blige -- Mary J.'s older sister -- always knew what she wanted for herself: a singing career, too.

While her famous sibling has several Grammys and multiplatinum records under her belt for her R&B tunes, LaTonya's focus is gospel and inspirational music.

"I just wanted to sing a different genre of music," LaTonya said.

LaTonya will be a featured performer this weekend at Juneteenth Festival 2010. The 35th annual celebration will be held Saturday and Sunday in Martin Luther King Jr. Park.

"I'm so excited to come there. Everyone treated me so very nice. I'm excited to come back again," she said.

During a Buffalo visit last fall, WUFO was the first station in the country to play her first single, "It's Coming," a duet with her sister. And she performed in True Bethel Baptist Church during a special service.

"They gave me a lot of love. They made me feel so happy," LaTonya said.

At this year's Juneteenth event, LaTonya will perform during praise and worship services that begin at 9 a.m. Saturday and 10 a.m. Sunday.

Juneteenth, a worldwide celebration, commemorates the end of slavery in the United States, according to the official Web site. It dates to June 19, 1865, more than two years after President Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation became official. That's when Union soldiers landed in Galveston, Texas, with word that the Civil War had ended and that slaves were freed.

Buffalo's Juneteenth celebration is the third largest in the country, and each year organizers try to bring in name acts, said Marcus Brown, president of Juneteenth of Buffalo.

Last year, it was Blue Magic, a 1970s R&B group, Brown said.

As for LaTonya, for years she co-managed her sister's career, helping with day-to-day needs. She also sang backup vocals and co-wrote Mary J.'s hit "I Can Love You." And she co-wrote another song of Mary J.'s, called "Searching," she said.

So, when she stepped out on her own in the music industry, LaTonya was in familiar territory.

"It was a good learning experience. She opened up a lot of doors," she said of her sister. "When you write songs for a big artist like Mary, it's easier to get into that world. It just opens up doors for you to do your own thing."

Since then, LaTonya has released "It's Coming." Another single is expected to be released soon. And last week, she performed in Madison Square Garden with other gospel acts for an ovarian and breast cancer benefit.

The Blige girls also have a brother who writes, LaTonya said. Their mother was a singer, and their father is a musician. As little girls, they would rehearse with their father.

"He had his own band. He used to tour Canada and local places, and me and my sister would practice with him," LaTonya said. "But when you're six or seven, you really want to be outside."

An annual parade will kick off the festival at 11 a.m. Saturday. It will start at Genesee and Moselle streets and end at the park, where activities will run each day until 8 p.m. Performers include the drill team from the Buffalo Elementary School of Technology, which will be marching in honor of Regina Wiggins, a longtime teacher's assistant at the school who died recently.

Other events include entertainment on the main stage, arts and cultural activities, a vendors marketplace, a tent for children's activities, a food court, tours of the Underground Railroad, a health pavilion, family portrait booth, job and book fairs, African drum and dance lessons, and historical exhibits.

"Juneteenth is all about the community coming together and showing their versatility and talents in the community," Brown said. "Bring your family because there is something for teens. There is something for the 5-year-olds and younger, and something for you."

For more information, go to www.juneteenthofbuffalo.com or call Juneteenth headquarters at 891-8801.

e-mail: dswilliams@buffnews.com

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