MANATEE -- A group of Manatee County teens are putting their rap and music skills to use on behalf of their faith, performing at local events and appearing on CW 44 over the next month in a public service announcement.
Sozo DFT (Drug Free Teens), named after the Greek word for "salvation," has aspirations to take its outreach nationwide under the direction of Dwayne "Bishop Freeze" Parker, who built a similar group in Tacoma, Wash.
"These kids are living the message and we believe it's going to impact this community, the state of Florida and the United States," says Parker, who not only founded the group but leads a Thursday night youth gathering called Sozo at Manatee Youth for Christ. "There are no other youth groups today singing about abstinence, no bullying, and saying no to drugs and alcohol."
Chris Alvarez, a 16-year-old Southeast High student, and Nikelle Kelly, a 17-year-old Lakewood Ranch High student, are the group's main members, along with Alicia Strickland, 17, who has earned her general education degree and no longer attends school.
Alvarez (also known as St. Breeze) and Kelly (who goes by Lady Joy) say they find Sozo DFT an effective and satisfying way to use their singing and rapping talents for something they deeply believe in: faith in God and living a clean, healthy lifestyle.
"It's a really great experience to explain to teens why drugs are not such a good idea," Kelly says. "I just feel like God will take us wherever he needs us to go."
So far, since the group was formed two months ago, that includes four to six local appearances every month, including an event titled "Let's Talk" two weeks ago at Pirate City that united teens with parents for an open discussion about the challenges today's teens face.
In the next month, the group will perform at a teen summit sponsored by the Manatee school district, and over the summer, Parker plans to take Sozo DFT on a tour that includes Miami and Orlando.
Sozo DFT will also be featured on a public service announcement to air throughout the Tampa Bay region on CW 44 through May. The group was chosen for the PSA in a contest sponsored by the Museum of Science and Industry in Tampa that sought out effective anti-drug messages.
Kelly has been singing for most of her life in church and at talent shows, and Parker calls her a "natural" in the recording studio. Alvarez needs a little more work while recording but is bursting with talent and personality, Parker says.
Upcoming Sozo DFT member Dantrell Waiters, 13, says the anti-drug message of the group is especially meaningful to him because he sees a lot of drug use in his neighborhood.
Parker emphasizes the overall Sozo group that meets every Thursday evening is open to all teens looking for a healthy lifestyle who are willing to sign a "contract" vowing they will abstain from drugs, alcohol and sex, and will show respect to others.
The group meets at 6 p.m. weekly at Manatee Youth for Christ, 1901 30th Ave. W., for an evening of fun food, games, Bible-reading and prayer.
Christine Hawes, Herald writer, can be reached at 941-745-7081. Or follow her on Twitter @chawesreports.