DANVILLE — For more than a decade, 16-year-old Christian Cunningham of Danville has been entertaining local audiences with his smooth singing voice and heartfelt performances.
These past few weeks, he has gotten to showcase his talent before a national audience as a contestant on "The Voice — Kids' Edition," featured on NBC's "Today" with Kathie Lee Gifford and Hoda Kotb.
Earlier this week, the Danville High School sophomore made it past the second round of the singing competition to become one of the two finalists. On Tuesday, he will compete for the top spot, which will be chosen by viewers.
"It's been exciting, and I'm grateful that God decided it was my time for this to happen," said Cunningham, who dreams of becoming a gospel recording artist. "Whether I win or lose, I definitely will be grateful for this opportunity, the experience and the exposure. Not many kids from Danville get to do something of this caliber. It's really cool."
The contest is "Today's" version of "The Voice" reality TV singing competition, which also airs on NBC. It was open to youth ages 8 to 16.
Cunningham was encouraged to audition by his former high school music teacher and show choir director, Martha Lindvahl. When Lindvahl, who is now retired, heard about the contest, she thought of him immediately.
"Christian has a great ear. He plays and writes music. He's just immersed in it," said Lindvahl, who helped him make an audition tape and send it in. "He has an amazing gift, and he's not afraid to tell people where it comes from. I really think he has what it takes. Hopefully, this will help him connect with the right people, who can help him take his gift forward and make it happen."
Cunningham was selected from thousands of hopefuls to become one of nine contestants to perform a capella on the show. On April 10, the hosts sent him on to the second round after he sang Luther Vandross' arrangement of "Superstar." On May 1, he and two competitors sang Train's "Hey, Soul Sister" before he was chosen as a finalist by singing coach and judge Raven-Symone, the former star of Disney Channel's "That's So Raven" who is currently performing in "Sister Act" on Broadway.
On Tuesday, during "Today's" fourth hour that airs at 10 a.m., he will compete against finalist Jillian Rae, a 14-year-old from Long Island. Though Raven-Symone will be his coach again, viewers will decide the winner by calling or texting in for their favorite. The winner, who will be announced on Wednesday's show, gets to fly out to where "The Voice" is taped and meet the judges and vocal coaches Christina Aguilera, Cee Lo Green, Adam Levine and Blake Shelton.
"We're doing everything we can to encourage people to tune in and vote for him," said Cunningham's stepmother, Alicia Cunningham, who has accompanied her stepson to New York City for his performances and will again for the final round. They'll fly out on Sunday so the teen can learn and practice the song he must perform.
"He's had so much support — our church, his friends, his school," she continued. "Everyone in Danville has been behind him 100 percent. It's really been awesome. We're hoping that when America hears him sing, they'll be rooting for him, too."
Derrick Cunningham said his son has been singing since he was a toddler and in public since he was 5. He started out singing in the church choir and sang his first solo in a Christmas program at 7.
"I think everyone was amazed he had such a mature voice for his age," said Derrick Cunningham, who along with his wife, are associate ministers at the New Life Church of Faith in Danville.
The younger Cunningham continued to sing at church and school. He performed with the award-winning Redcoats show choir at North Ridge Middle School and the award-winning Delegation show choir at Danville High the last two years. This past season, he took home multiple awards for best male soloist and best overall soloist and won a scholarship to Millikin University's show choir camp this summer.
In addition, Cunningham — who also plays piano, keyboards, bass guitar and drums — has performed in school musicals, the Beef House Dinner Theater production of "Big River," and at private functions and community events.
He plans to study music in college and become a professional singer-songwriter. He hopes to make it big like his role models, gospel singers Kim Burrell and Fred Hammond, but not for the reasons you might expect.
"I believe God blesses you so that you can be a blessing to other people," he said. "That's the only reason I'd want to be famous and maybe have some money — so I could help people achieve their dreams."
While Cunningham's voice may draw them in, it's that attitude that endears him to his peers and others who come to know him, supporters said. And regardless of the competition's outcome, they added, he has already won.
"Each time before he performed (on TV), Christian and I would pray," Alicia Cunningham said. "There was a peace that came over him because he knew that life is full of opportunities. There are failures, as well. This could never be looked at as a failure. It's been such a huge opportunity and a wonderful experience. We've met some wonderful people. And I really believe God is going to continue to bless Christian because of who he is and how he lives his life."