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Hip-hoppin' for Christ
Middle schooler honored at Gospel Choice Awards

By Joel Hall

jhall@news-daily.com

Only two years after stepping onto the music scene, Tony Betton, Jr., the Hampton-based holy-hip-hop artist known as "Young Prayzr," has become an artist to watch.

Within the last two months, the 11-year old Lovejoy Middle School student has raked in a handful of awards, becoming a noticeable blip on the radar screen of the metro-Atlanta gospel music community.

Those honors include being recognized as a top-three finalist in the "Holy Hip-Hop Artist of the Year" category, during the 13th Annual Gospel Choice Awards on Sept. 17 at the Georgia International Convention Center in College Park, as well as taking away the award for "Best Holy Hip Hop Artist" in the First Annual Youth Gospel Entertainment Awards, which took place on Sept. 29 at Hopewell Missionary Baptist Church in Norcross.

In August, he was a top-ten finalist in the Greater Atlanta Area McDonald's "The Gift" Gospel Talent Competition. With the other finalists, he will be featured in an upcoming McDonald's commercial and have his likeness portrayed on McDonald's tray-liners throughout the metro Atlanta area.

In October, his debut music video "Hittin' Dem Streets," produced by Atlanta Dream Team Productions, won "Best Music Video of the Year" at the 6th Annual Atlanta Urban Media Makers Film Festival.

On top of all the accolades, Betton was featured in a major gospel stage production of "Can You Keep a Secret," a play about AIDS awareness, directed and produced by Calvin Mitchell. The play is scheduled to go on tour around the state, starting in November.

"God is opening doors so fast that we're trying to keep up," said Betton, who, starting Nov. 5, will enroll in Georgia Virtual Academy and become a part-time student at Lovejoy Middle School, to accommodate his increasingly busy schedule. "I feel like God is bringing me to do something big."

Betton said he is currently working on two CD projects, as well as getting ready for "The Small Wonder Enlightenment Tour," which will begin on Oct. 23. The tour, which will be headlined by Atlanta-based hip-hop artist "ISSA," will visit several middle and high schools in the metro area, according to Betton.

Sheryl Brown, Betton's mother and manager, said she is excited about her son's accomplishments, but is doing everything she can to keep him grounded, and make sure "he can still be a kid."

"It has been hard work, because there's been so many successes in a short amount of time," she said. "It's made him very busy. I can see him going far with everything that he is doing ... [but] I have to be very strategic with it, so he can keep enjoying it without burning out."

Canton Jones, an Atlanta-based artist, who won the award for "Holy Hip-Hop Artist of the Year" at the 2007 Gospel Choice Awards, said he was amazed, that at such a young age, Betton was competing on the same level with other artists who had been in the business for years.

"I really love that young man ... I'm proud of him," said Jones. "He's performed in front of some very large audiences despite his age, and he has handled it very well.

"He took school and his career seriously at a young age and he was able to tackle it all and that says a lot about him."

Several notable Atlantans were present at the Gospel Choice Awards, including DeKalb County CEO Vernon Jones, who met Betton there for the first time. "I see young kids get on stage and perform all the time ... what makes him so unique is that ... here's this young kid, about 11 years old, literally preaching the gospel," said Jones. "You just don't see that, that often. I didn't look at it from him being on stage and entertaining [people]. I was listening to what he was saying. I believe he has been chosen by God to carry out a special purpose.

"What you are seeing is a positive face put on hip-hop with this young man," Jones said.

Betton said he is handling the attention well and focusing on his schoolwork and the challenges ahead. "It's a lot of gas money, but we don't get stressed," said Betton. "[God] is going to get us there, and if we have some time to relax, we are going to use that time."