— COMPTON, Calif. - Their wardrobe is blue and red, the colors of the Crips and the Bloods, two notorious rival gangs in the Compton area south of downtown Los Angeles. But the words they mouth are of peace, not violence.
The award-winning Compton-based church choir, Voices of Destiny, is using the power of music to preach hope to a generation of inner-city young people for whom hope is slim.
"We are trying to change the perception that young children have that their future is already erased," explained Michael J.T. Fisher, the choir's 31-year-old leader.
Fisher founded Voices of Destiny at age 25 in 2005, the same year he took over from his father, W. Jerome Fisher, as pastor of the Greater Zion Church in Compton. The choir is made up mostly of young African-Americans ages 18-28.
Fisher's vision was to have a choir that would help young adults stay on a constructive track into adulthood and create positive role models in a community wracked by violence and gangs.
"What I wanted the choir to accomplish was to show the community of Compton a better way, that it was OK or cool again to be gifted, to sing something that was positive, that it was hip to dress nice and live a life of integrity and character and respect yourself, respect your community and respect your family," Fisher told msnbc.com.
The choir, which now has about 60 members, melds choreography and song, blending hip-hop and modern music with traditional worship. Its performances have earned standing ovations and glowing reviews.
At the "How Sweet the Sound" competition in Washington on Nov. 13, Voices of Destiny was named "Best Church Choir in America," beating out 13 other choirs from around the country. It took the award with an electrifying performance of a remix of Byron Cage’s “The Presence of the Lord," ending the set with a flashy, breakout file-and-shuffle dance routine that brought the sold-out crowd of 12,000 at the Verizon Center to its feet.
The performance left one of the judges, gospel music-singer Marvin Sapp, breathless,
according to Electronic Urban Report. “I have four words,” he said, “Un-be-lieve-able!”
Voices of Destiny followed that up with an appearance at the 2010 BET Celebration of Gospel on Dec. 11, performing with gospel recording artist James Fortune.
Path of hope
Young adults who join Voices of Destiny come from various walks of life. They include drug addicts, ex-cons, former gang members and single mothers.
Naima Smith, 28, joined about five years ago. She says she grew up with an abusive father and fear reigned in the household.
"I missed a lot of school because I was fearful of my mom's husband, of coming home and wondering, 'Will my mom be alive?'" Smith said.
Now a budding fashion stylist and designer, Smith says the choir has been a second family. "It’s like, if you don’t have your own family you can definitely come to Voices of Destiny and we’ll put our loving arms around you and become your family," she said.
Fisher says many choir members come from broken families.
"It's been amazing to see some of the people come into the church because they've heard about our choir and about the positive message we're preaching," Fisher told NBC News. "They walk in with baggy pants, and I see them start to transform."
Greater Zion Church sits in the middle of four different gang territories, with the Crips and the Bloods being the two biggest. So it was no coincidence that Fisher chose the gangs' signature colors — blue and red — for the choir's uniforms.
On the street level, the uniform colors represent unity in a neighborhood divided by gang colors. On a religious level, the blue symbolizes water and baptism, and the red is the blood of Christ.
"We express at Greater Zion the spirit of unity, bringing everyone together," Fisher told msnbc.com. "What better way to better represent that than how we dress?"
But the choir extends its reach beyond gang turf. It has been heavily involved in school, hospital and community projects, and the $42,000 in cash and prizes it took home from the "How Sweet the Sound" competition is being used in part to help build a youth center.
Los Angeles County paid tribute to the choir on Dec. 14, presenting its members with a scroll of recognition.
Fisher says the accolades are nice, but it's the message of family and unity that he hopes will leave a lasting impression — especially during the holiday season.
"It's recognizing a group of positive young adults and giving them a platform to express that Compton is not just inundated with a lost generation but actually a light peeking through the darkness," he said.
"As long as you’re willing to work hard and be disciplined and remain faithful, you can achieve anything you put your mind to."