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courierpostonline.com: S.J. teens describe addiction, lives turned around, through anti-drug song contest

April 25, 2018



Inspired by their own life experiences, young songwriters from Camden, Burlington and Gloucester counties are among the finalists in the annual "Shout Down Drugs" contest hosted by the Partnership for a Drug-Free New Jersey.

James "Zlim Jim" Garofolo of Monroe Township, Shawn Fletcher of Gloucester City, and Zon'ya Lanier of Burlington Township each submitted lyrically dense rap songs offering an anti-drug message to their peers. 

More: Evesham program drops fear of charges for those who drop drugs

Their work is among 18 submissions from 32 teens across the state competing for $10,000 in music contracts with the drug prevention agency. The songs are posted online, and the students also will perform their songs live before judges and an audience during a free concert on Friday at Daytop New Jersey in Mendham. 

An independent panel of judges will choose the top two submissions, and a third finalist will be chosen by online voters.

The 14th annual contest has drawn more than 100,000 votes online so far this year, said Angelo Valente, the partnership's executive director. Voting ends Thursday night.

"We felt by having music and having the students create their own lyrics, it was a great way for us to get an important prevention message," Valente said. Winning songs have included a diversity of musical styles, from hip hop and jazz to bands and ballads.

"It really takes a tremendous amount of effort and talent and skills to be involved in this kind of program," he added.

Garofolo, a 17-year-old senior from Williamstown High School, used his song, "Sick Baby," to reveal the interior life of a young person with mental illness and addiction. A Pink Floyd fan, Garofolo found inspiration from the real-life story of someone he knows. 

"Because I know this person personally, it allowed me to write a lot of specific things in the song that aren’t discussed in general, when you talk about addiction and mental health," Garofolo said, such as difficulty accessing psychiatric care and the choice some make to self-medicate with substances. 

"Every time I perform it, a bunch of people come up to me crying," Garofolo said. "It's astounding the number of people who are emotionally connected." 

Zon'ya Lanier, 17, heard about the contest through his peer leadership group at Burlington Township High School. As a middle-schooler, Lanier said he often got into trouble, but a yearlong stay with an older brother turned his life around.  

"Ever since then, my life changed," Lanier said. He said his song, "Life is a Gift," offers a positive message to audiences that "life is too marvelous, too great to even think about doing drugs or alcohol." 

"There are so many things — the skyline, mountains, beaches, birds, so many beautiful things," Lanier said. "It's just a miracle we're here on this earth." 

Shawn "Lil'SHAG" Fletcher, an 18-year-old Gloucester City Junior-Senior High School student, is Camden County's finalist. A Brooklawn native, Fletcher said he struggles with depression and anxiety, but chooses to stay away from substance use, including cigarettes.

"I know a lot of my friends got hooked on drugs early," Fletcher said, and he saw them become completely different people who were "always inside, always asking for money."

"With drugs, I think they ruin people’s lives," Fletcher said. "It might feel good, but in the long run, it’s just messing up your body."

His song, "Short Life Lived," is a compilation of what happened to those friends. He performed the song during a talent show at school, and was surprised to find he gained new friends from the experience. 

On Friday, he will get on stage and barely pause between verses to catch his breath. Like his fellow finalists, Fletcher hopes people hear the message. 

"If I feel like I inspired one person," Fletcher said, "I've done my job." 

To hear the songs and vote by April 26, visit www.shoutdowndrugs.com

For free tickets to Friday's Prevention Concert, visit the Shout Down Drugs website or call (973) 467-2100, ext. 19. 

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