c. 2000 Religion News ServiceIn her music and her manner, singer Jaci Velasquez projects the fresh-faced aura of the classic girl next door.

Somehow this youthful Christian diva -- who had a hit CD by the timeshe was 16 -- brings the best of pop, Latin and Christian contemporarymusic to her work without relinquishing the faith that got her started.This fall, Word Records released the 21-year-old's latest CD, "CrystalClear," to strong reviews and even stronger sales.

But success has not changed Velasquez's orientation. She continuesto hold fast to her values and her perspective.

"I want it to be crystal clear to people that I am who Christ hasmade me to be, and I'm attempting to follow in his footsteps," she said.

The sultry images so closely associated with some other young femalesingers don't fit Velasquez's style and substance. She draws upon hermusical and ethnic roots, integrating Latin rhythms into herperformances. She projects the presence and timing of a well-trainedprofessional entertainer.

"I think I am more the girl next door -- the type that guys, girlsand their parents can listen to," she says. "As a role model, I wouldhope to be someone to inspire young women to live out their dreams. Tobe everything that they can be and then some."

Achieving those goals takes time, effort and faith, she says,advising fans to "believe in yourself" and "be true to who you are as aperson."

Long before Velasquez had become a public singing sensation, hergifts were apparent to her family. She was born in Houston to David andDiana Velasquez. Her father, a traveling evangelist and singer, oftentoured preaching and singing. His family sang back-up vocals.

Family lore says Velasquez's parents realized she had rhythm whenshe was a baby. From her crib, the story goes, she snapped her fingersin time to music being played in a nearby room.

Later her folks realized she could sing when the family was at asmall church in Houston singing the hymn "Our God Reigns," in thecongregation. The pastor soon shushed the worshipers, listening as apowerful little voice belted out the the hymn from the church nursery.

The voice was Jaci's. She made her solo debut at age 3.

Nine years later, the big break came when the family band wasperforming in Houston. A local pastor called Mike Atkins Management toalert him to "the bright new talent" he had discovered in JaciVelasquez. Within two years, Atkins was her manager and Velasquez wassigned to Myrrh Records. She now record for Word Records, its sisterlabel.

By age 16, Velasquez had a hit CD, "Heavenly Place," to her credit.It spent 83 weeks on Billboard's Heatseekers chart. Her second CD, "JaciVelasquez," released in 1998, also did remarkably well. In 1999, inhonor of her grandparents and her Hispanic heritage, Velasquez released"Llegar a Ti," her first Spanish language recording.

Her first three albums sold more than 3 million copies worldwide. Inthe past year, she has been named "Female Vocalist of the Year" for thesecond consecutive year by the Gospel Music Association and received herfirst Latin Grammy nomination.

In the competitive climate of the music business, Velasquez hasmanaged to rise to a dominant position on the Christian charts byrelying on her musical gifts. She has moved from merely singing well tocutting CDs that challenge her ability and her creativity.

With "Crystal Clear," she illustrates the dynamism and rhythm behindher music. In this, her third English language recording, she digs belowthe surface, exploring the sorrows and the joys of the faith that hasshaped her life.

One reviewer noted Velasquez's "multiformat appeal," saying "thisfine new album should keep expanding her borders."

In the CD's first song, "Every Time I Fall," the artist articulatesthe uncertain center of a searching faith:

"Every time I try,
To explain the reason why,
I have let You down,
I fall to the ground,"
she sings, her voice a litany to the anger,doubt and unintentional stumbling that is so much a part of a faithjourney.

"What is it You see in me," the song asks. "That makes You believe,No matter how far I stray, I will still find the way."

In the album's final cut, she voices a growing, increasingly securesense of her walk with God:

"You're just a prayer away,
No matter where I am,
I know in my heart,
You're never too far,
When I I'm losing my way.
You're just a prayer away."

Velasquez believes that "doors have been opened" for her to bring aChristian message to a Latin audience. Yet she also reaches out to youngpeople of diverse races and nationalities. She has been a guestcolumnist for Campus Life magazine and is national spokesperson for theTrue Love Waits campaign, which urges young people to sign pledgespromising they won't have sex before they marry.

"I try to let my records reflect who I am," she says, "becausesongs are soundtracks of life."

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