Immanuel "Mannie" Payne is practicing daily for what he calls his big chance. At 12, the West Baltimore middle schooler will be the youngest of seven contestants to take the stage in the first Charm City Talent Contest Thursday. And, he is the only performer who hopes to drum his way into first place.

Mannie will solo with his own composition in the competition at Baltimore City Community College's Fine Arts Building.

"I am just gonna go along with it," Mannie said. "Just being in the contest is a great achievement that I can look back on later in life."

The finalists all secured their spots during tryouts at area recreation centers last spring. They will sing, rap and play for a panel of judges, who are local radio personalities and performing artists.

"I want to share my talent and know what other opportunities are out there," said Ferlyn Virtudes, 15, who immigrated from the Philippines a few years ago and will graduate from Northwest High School two years ahead of schedule next year. She has never sung in public and is rehearsing at home with her guitar for accompaniment.

Octavius Johnson, who plans to enter Stevenson University this fall, may be the most seasoned of the performers. He has appeared in a few area theater productions and at arts festivals and had a walk-on role in HBO's series "The Wire."

"I like to get myself out there and gain experience," he said.

The aspiring actor and musician plays drums, trombone and piano and will sing a ballad he wrote with his father.

"We were just sitting at the piano and we came up with 'Righteous Love — Oh Girl,'" he said. "It is all about standing up for what you want."

Terrell Talbert, 17, chose a love song that he said "shows my range." He has always found inspiration and escape from peer pressure and problems in music, he said. "It empowers me and makes me feel happy," he said.

Leah Reid, 17, said she chose a soulful tune "that complements my voice and my deep tones." She plans to study voice, or maybe politics, in college. Either career path will benefit from an appearance in the talent show, she said.

"Even if I lose, this is great exposure," she said.

Angelique Fuller, 16, has always wanted to sing professionally and plans to study music in college after her graduation next year from Dunbar High School. She also plays trombone and writes her own lyrics.

"I think of singing as a way to express myself," she said. "I am nervous, but that will only make me sing better."

Mannie, who would like one day to study at the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University, said he is not fretting about performing solo and debuting his composition. This musician has been drumming since he was two years old and plays in the Thomas Johnson School's band.

"My parents don't mind the noise," he said. "Drums are really loud and exciting. They describe me."

Taylor Owens, a recent Towson High School graduate, will also show off his vocal talents for the judges.

"This is just about a funky bunch of kids trying to chase their dreams," said Lester Davis, spokesman for City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young, who organized the contest with the Citizens Planning and Housing Association. "They are pursuing their talents instead of hanging out on the corner."

"As a city, we need to give our youth opportunities to shine," Young said. "We might be launching a career. We could have an 'American Idol' spin-off right here in Baltimore."

The winner of the competition, loosely based on Fox TV's popular "American Idol," will receive an artist development package that includes a professional photo shoot and a recorded demo CD, courtesy of Task Force Marketing. There will also be the opportunity to perform in a concert with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and a gift card from fashion retailer DTLR.

"This is just a big opportunity for me," said Talbert. "But, whether I win or lose, I will still keep on singing."

Curtain rises at 7 p.m. on the Liberty Campus, 2901 Liberty Heights Ave. Admission is free.

mary.gail.hare@baltsun.com

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