South African native, Jonathan Butler is an acclaimed singer-songwriter and guitarist. Butler made black history as he was the first non-white artist to appear on national television and radio in South Africa during apartheid. By the grace and favor of Gods, unbeknownst to him, his extraordinary musical talents would sweep him away from the world he grew up in. In a number of ways, Jonathan Butler is an exemplary representative of South Africa. I had the honor and privilege of speaking with this jazz music icon. Here's what we talked about.
Hi Jonathan, how are you? I am wonderful and I am blessed. Thank you so much for asking.
Well, happy New Year to you. Happy New Year to you.
Thank you so much. Thank you.
So, who is Jonathan Butler? I'm a humble guy from South Africa who's been extremely blessed and fortunate to be in this life and this world. I am a simple guy raised in a simple family with a simple life. I am truly a proud South African.
Growing up in South Africa under the shadows of apartheid, how did you make your way through that to coming to America to live out your dream? It took a lot of hard work, obstacles, pain, and trauma. It took a lot of working through, going through, and growing up in apartheid. It's an ever-learning process. Back then it was all about staying in your lane. I recall waking up every day to signs that read "whites only" and "coloreds only." You learn that life and that struggle early on.
It is imperative that you surround yourself with individuals who are going to encourage you to stay on the right path and educate you along the way.
I was fortunate to be educated about the country that I grew up in through men and women who went through incredible struggles themselves. Some had even been imprisoned. So, I sang my way through it. I found solace through music. In fact, even racists enjoy listening to music. Therefore, music provided us with a way to express ourselves during those difficult times.
In those days, many black shows were censored for anything that might contain anti-political messages or slogans. If your music did not contain anti-political slogans or messages, they would let you play there that night.
You know, music is like water. Regardless of how rough or smooth the terrain is, it flows through it. As a result, the music helped me get through difficult circumstances. Sammy Davis junior once stated that he had to enter through the back doors when he performed. He was not permitted to use the front entrance. For me, these types of experiences were a part of daily life in South Africa. Overall, I found that music provided me with a means of navigating through all of that.
Have you ever met Nelson Mandela in person? Oh yes, I knew Madiba. We met in person many times.
How awesome! Yes, when he came out of Pollsmoor prison, I met him at the statehouse when he became the president of the country, and it was incredible. I even invited a few people, like Dave Koz because we were in Cape Town for his birthday.
Oh, what an awesome experience! I take people every year, around October, which is my birthday month.
Oh yeah, when is your birthday? October 10th and that’s when I take people from America to Cape Town to show them the prison where he was in prison for 27 years. So, people get to know a lot more about South Africa, my background, and where I lived.
My birthday is October 17th, so you're my October birthday twin!
Thank you! So, how old were you when you began singing and playing?
I was probably around six or seven years old when I was first introduced to live performances. As a child, I played in the community civic halls in Cape Town, South Africa, and I haven't stopped since. So, it's been a while.
Yes, it has. Where did you receive your formal training? Were you taught by someone, or did you go to school? No, I was never formally trained, I was just blessed with the gift of music. That gift came from God. I come from a musical family. My mom was a singer piano player, and my father was a singer and guitarist.
My mother was from a very small town in South Africa called Woster and my father was a musician from Monrovia, Liberia. My mom and dad met in Cape Town. My dad came to Simons Town through slave ships, which is Cape Town, and my mom is from a very small town in Cato outside of the Carew. So, both my mother and father are musicians. My entire family is in music in some shape or form, and neither of us has ever had any formal training. It was just gifted to us that we would be able to sing and play.
Wow, that's so awesome! That must have been wonderful being raised in a musical family. I don't know how people can not realize that God is real. His hand is in everything that we see. That's amazing! Yes.
If music was nonexistent, what would you be doing now? It's an interesting question. I would probably have been a preacher or pastor. My life has been blessed by many pastors who have mentored, fathered, shepherded, and discipled me. I've come across many pastors who have poured into my life since the day that I've accepted Christ Jesus as my Lord and savior at around 19 years old.
Since that day, I’ve always had pastors in my life that helped me navigate through my toughest and most difficult times and days. Throughout my life, they've always counseled me, helped me, and spoken the word of truth to me. Yeah, so I probably would have done that.
It has always been my desire to share the ways of God with people and not just the things you can receive from God. Sadly, very few people are interested in learning the ways of God, because everybody wants things. Those men and women of God instilled that principle in me. Since we arrived with nothing, and we will be leaving with the same, I have no problem letting go when it comes to material things.
Yes! I totally subscribe to that way of thinking. Yes, and you know you're going to leave all that stuff behind anyway. For me, making people happy is the legacy that I want to leave behind.
I want people to be happy when they meet me and when they hear me sing. I want to encourage, inspire, and lift people through My social media post. And I aspire to bring joy and happiness to those who I meet along the way.
What a beautiful heart you have! Everything that you're saying is so true. My husband and I had that same discussion about, wanting to be pleasing to the Lord and in doing that how important it is to love and care for his children. Yes
Many people have said that they didn't care what legacy they would leave behind when they died, but that is a very sad statement. I believe that you should care. During your life on earth, any actions you take will have an eternal effect. When you stand before the Lord, you will be judged according to these things. We should strive to leave an incredible legacy after we leave this planet. I think that's so important. Yes, for example, about a week ago, I was getting ready to board the plane and wanted to buy some water, but the line at Starbucks was very long. So, I went to grab the water, but I had to put the water back because my plane was boarding. There was a woman with her daughter standing in front of me who said to me, "give me the water and I'll pay for it." I replied, "that's fine, don't worry about it." I hurried to get on the plane in order to make my flight. As I was seated on the plane, a lady walked past me and handed me a bottle of water.
Our God is a great God! Yes, He is! The world is filled with people who have been gifted with compassion and love, and they are gifts to us on this planet. Therefore, goodness is all around us. I found it fascinating that someone did that for me without knowing my name or even who I am. She didn't even ask my name; she simply provided me with a bottle of water for this long flight. For me, it's all about making the world a better place and making people happy.
Can you describe music from Jonathan Butler's perspective? In my youth, I used to call music my girlfriend before I got married. Because I spent more time with music than anyone else, I called it my girlfriend. My wife and I, like my parents, are both musicians. She is an outstanding violinist and pianist who teaches piano and violin. Both of us take great pleasure in bringing happiness to others. This is very important.
That's awesome! Speaking of girlfriend, you know B.B. King had a guitar that he named Lucille. Do you name your guitars? Yeah, I don't call my guitars Lucille (laughs). I imagine, B.B. King must have been very close to Lucille to name his guitar after her. Having said that, I do have guitars in my collection that have no names. (laughs) Yes, B.B. King was truly a boundary breaker. If you're a guitar player, and you love the Blues, you're going to have a Lucille in your closet.
Yes! (laughs) do you play any other instruments besides the guitar? I am but, I live by this philosophy, minimize your weakness, and maximize your strength. I'm good at singing and I'm good at playing the guitar those are my strengths. I love playing piano too. I compose on the piano. But my passion is for singing and playing my guitar and those two things are married to each other. You can't separate one from the other you know?
Do you have your own line of guitars or any endorsements? Definitely. In fact, I am glad you said that because I have now been endorsed by a guitar manufacturer known as D Angelico, which is a historical guitar company. So, I will have my line of guitars in about a year. We now have all the designs, and everything is sorted. The process of developing the model that I selected will take approximately four months. Yes, I will have my own line.
So how would you say that the South African music scene differs from the one in America? Although the two are very different, if you look at world trends regarding music changing all the time, it appears that Africa is having a much greater impact on hip-hop, R&B, and pop music than ever before. Africa's rhythms have influenced many artists around the world. Although Africa has its own distinctive sound and style, America's influences have impacted the entire globe.
Whether it is fashion or any other aspect of life, American influences are all around us. African American jazz music originated in the United States. From American jazz to R&B and especially gospel music, all have had an incredible impact throughout Africa, and will always. In the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, record companies promoted their artists with music videos, but today everything is done through social media. Nowadays, you can post something and have an immediate connection with that sound.
Yes. The web allows you to connect with people anywhere in the world, whether you are in Holland or France. Look out for Africa because its youth-inspired music is powerful and exciting. Recently, I just came back from South Africa, and I'm always blessed to hear the young musicians I work with when I'm in Cape Town. I've recently conducted a master class and worked with the Cape Town South African Youth Choir. I must admit, I was truly blown away!
There was a young man in my master class who has over a million followers. When we finished working together, he performed my song. After I researched him online, I discovered he had incredible talent. Therefore, my message to them was to make America come to us if we can't all go to America.
People who travel with me on my safari to Africa, particularly my African American friends, gain a deeper understanding of themselves. In addition, they gain an appreciation of South African culture and music. It will be interesting to see how music evolves over the next 10 years or so.
Yes, I agree. There is something very powerful about African music.
Yes, I can even see the African influence through some dances that the younger generation is doing at the present. It doesn't matter if it's Beyoncé or anyone else, they've got to have their finger on it. The world is so different now. Nowadays, people don't go to record stores to purchase records anymore; they buy them online instead. Any song they desire can be downloaded by simply picking up their phone.
Because music has changed so drastically, the world is becoming more receptive to South and Northeast West African music. That’s incredible because we’re creating stars and amazing musicians in our own backyard. Grant it, some are not as renowned as others, but let’s be honest, there's nothing new under the Sun. We end up circling the world, bringing back those old flavors from the yesteryears.
Do you cook? Oh yes, in fact, when I cook, I always tell my wife that I am channeling my mother's cooking. I cook with the flavors that I grew up smelling in my home. Those are the foods that I cook.
Have you ever met the father of South African jazz, Hugh Masekela? I know Hugh Masekela. We've been close friends for many years. He's one of the great icons and legends of our country who so faithfully and obediently shared our story wherever he went. Like him, that's what I wanted to do, tell our story through my music and as I travel the world. It is paramount that everyone who attends my concert experiences a South African artist with a rich background in apartheid and segregation. As a result, I must speak truth to power.
We were blessed to leave, but we didn't leave on our own accord, everyone had different circumstances. Some had to flee, others didn't have to flee, but regardless of why you left, you always desire home. A few nights ago, I was talking to some of my friends in South Africa and mentioned that I had been thinking about going home for a few weeks just to enjoy the time. I told my wife the same thing.
Yes. Back to Hugh Masekela, I wrote something for him back in the 80s. It was for a movie called, “The Jewel of The Nile.” the song is called African breeze.
That's wonderful! Yes, so I wrote that song for the two of us.
Wow! Who are your musical influences? My goodness, my musical influences will always be Stevie Wonder, Donny Hathaway, Earl Klugh, George Benson, and Al Jarreau. I think they're all incredibly talented people.
Yes, as a Christian man, what is your responsibility in this music industry? Well, you know, that's a good question. As soon as you accepted Christ, you were entrusted with the word. As a result, you must cultivate it, have it watered, and you must acknowledge God as the source of growth. I feel my responsibility is to live the exemplary life that I was called to live. I was justified, and through justification, I was called. Amen?
Amen! Everything that I do has to Justify the call. If I am doing something that does not justify the call, then I lack the discipleship to know the difference between justification and calling. But the responsibility is to know that those He called, He also justified. So, whatever I do, must justify the call that God gave me. And what is that? It’s to edify, glorify and magnify Him through my life and through my work, which is my music. God tells us to take up our cross and follow Him.
As I perform live and declare, "Falling in Love with Jesus," through my music and sharing my testimony, I then feel justified before God. I'm justified because he called me to do that.
Yes. The responsibility is to be a living example. Consequently, you are not intoxicated and falling out at a club, or you are not cheating on your spouse or showing reverse prejudice towards others. As believers, our job is to love others and show compassion. In the end, God alone is the final judge. Therefore, since we are all justified, whatever we do has to justify God's call. Because this is so important, I bear responsibility for it.
Whenever people say, “oh man, you’re anointed, that comes with a price. Remember, they had to wait in the upper room for the main anointing. These guys were just ordinary men and women. There may be times when you must endure persecution, criticism, condemnation, and struggle. But when God appears in the Holy Spirit and tells you that you've been chosen for something beautiful, that bears witness within you.