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.
Whenever I give a master class, I always tell people that. As the salt of the earth, you are also responsible for shining your light. You have to make sure that you are representing God in the right way. Christ cannot be preached on stage and then acted foolishly elsewhere.
Yes. It just doesn't make sense. I know that we're all human but at the same time, we have to strive daily to do and be better.
That's beautiful and absolutely on point. It's no secret that "falling in love with Jesus" is one of my favorite songs. The first time I heard it, I cried. The song is filled with such anointing. I played that song so much that the melody almost rubbed off! (laughs) What was your experience with the Lord when you wrote that song? I have told this story over the years. Going for hikes was my favorite past time because it provided me with a place where I could pray and spend time with God without being distracted. I used to love going to the Santa Monica mountains because the trails were so beautiful. In the picturesque streams, rivers, and rock formations, I found a place to just sit and be still. So, one day, while hiking on the trail, I began to sing this song and it didn't take me long to realize that I was singing a hymn. From the beginning of my hike until the middle, words kept flowing so I turned around and walked back to the car. I kept singing the words in my car so that I wouldn't forget them. As soon as I got home, I went to my studio and recorded what I was singing immediately. I just wanted to put the idea down on tape.
That same day, I get a phone call from Kirk Whalum, who was doing “Gospel According to Jazz,” and he wants me to be on his record. He told me that he had a song for me, and I said, no, I have a song for you that I just wrote right now. He then told me to bring it. So, we go to Bishop Blake's church to rehearse the song, and it was the first time that I sang it, but we recorded it that night. It never occurred to me that the very song we recorded that night would have such an impact on the world. What an experience!
Even now I sit on the phone listening to people singing the song to me. Sometimes I hear people singing that song on Facebook and Instagram. But the song was really a testimony. Besides, how many times do people really get a chance to share their testimony about how they got saved or how their life turned around, right?
Right. It is important to share our testimonies as often as possible, as they are powerful. This song to me is a reminder of my testimony and we should be allowed to share it. See, as a child, I attended this little church that would allow people the opportunity to share their testimonies on Mondays or Wednesday nights. I used to love that because that is powerful. So, that’s what that song really represents to me. It's my testimony, yes.
Well, it is both powerful and anointed. That was song is God-ordained. Thank you
Thank you for being obedient to God and not being afraid to declare your love for our Lord and Savior Christ Jesus publicly. Thank you.
That's just awesome. Thank you! What is the Lalela Foundation? Can you tell me about that? The Lalela Foundation is a foundation that supports children that come from high-risk communities. These children are gifted artists writers and poets. So, with this foundation, our primary goal is to stir up entrepreneurship within them. So, they've created scarves and designed my Christmas album collectively. So as a board member I work closely with the Lalela foundation to provide resources for the children as they develop.
Also, some of them may even eventually come to the states, but these are high-risk children that we are harnessing and directing their energies and talents to inspire them to become entrepreneurs so that they can one day provide a living for themselves when they’re adults. We also encourage them to get their degrees and go to college. So, it's really a special foundation
Awesome! Now, I've listened to your latest single, “Our Voices Matter” which speaks about the new generation of social activism. I think it's phenomenal. They’re so many amazing artists on this project. Thank you.
You're welcome. Can you tell me about the project? I was inspired to write this song because the America that we've been experiencing, reminded me of growing up in the 70s during the uprising of change, freedom, and equality. I couldn't believe it! I saw a man be murdered in broad daylight! It was devastating to me, and not only did it impact my life but the entire world. Seeing my 14-year-old granddaughter marching and protesting in support of George Floyd, along with her friends, made me aware of the music industry as well. I thought to myself, I'm surrounded by a lot of white musicians who probably don't even realize how privileged they really are and what systemic racism is. So, they had to be reeducated. I found that rather strange that they had to be educated about their own condition.
So, I rallied around my white musician friends and spoke with them. I literally had conversations with them about racism, systemic racism, white privilege, and how much harder black musicians have to work just to be played on white radio stations. That's how the conversation started. Then, I told my friend Dave Coz, I said, “you know, Dave, musicians, artists' voices matter.” We matter and what we say matters because we have a platform to say something. If we don't, we aren't being responsible, right?
Yes. God is just and righteous. He said, “Blessed are those that hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be filled. So, I spoke what was in my heart, and out of that came this song. So, I began writing this song and I literally called everybody that I knew. It's amazing how everybody rallied around the song. So many talented people came out to support the message of the song. My hope is that in this conversation, our voices matter. Hopefully, we will continue to have conversations about racism and inequality within the music business. Also, having conversations about how the music business is not only categorized but systematically categorized. I hope that people will continue to build on the, Our Voices Matter” conversation.
Yes. They're a lot of white artists with black musicians. I mean, the entire band is black, and the artist is white but, none of those artists stood up during those times. That infuriated me to the point where I felt that I had to write this song. When I wrote this song, I said to myself, I'm going to have to talk to them about this all the time. This conversation needs to continue, you know?
Yes, I did speak with someone not too long ago about the inequality in the music industry. This artist spoke about how he noticed that caucasian artists were being paid more than the artist of color. They also spoke about receiving fewer promotions resulting in less success. But we're still fighting for equality in the entertainment industry. From the beginning, Black music sets the trend. Then artist does the same thing causing a lot of black musicians to go to Europe just for success. So, a conversation is necessary and is important. I feel like I must speak truth to power for myself when it comes to these things because I feel that these white artists have all these black musicians in their band and there must be some level of guilt or something. I find it interesting that something as powerful as what we've witnessed, George Floyd dying and then not being able to say something just blew my mind. I got fired up by that!
Even as Christians, I love what Archbishop Desmond Tutu fought for. The Church in Africa was involved in the struggle for change and the church in America should do the same. Don’t just preach Sunday messages. What reward do we have in just being born again? What about the sheep that I lost? What about the injustice of other things out there? So, I'm a little caught up in that stuff!
I agree. So many people didn't speak up they had the platform to speak up regarding that which is wrong and unjust a disconcerting to me as well. You're not alone, trust me, my wife and I have friends that we've had to confront. I mean we had to really make it plain that this is who we are, and this is who you are and that they probably never had to think about how privileged they are because they are. You have to speak truth to power. If you're not ashamed to be a Christian, then don't be ashamed to speak the truth.
Well said, I’m with you on that. So, do you have any new projects coming out? Yes, I'm very excited about my new record that's coming out. I'm in the process of mixing and mastering it. It will be out this year. The records were produced by none other than the legendary great Box Miller who produced Miles Davis and Luther Vandross. So, we have a great record that’s going to be released this year, so that's very exciting for me.
Do you have a name yet or is it a little too early to tell? We don't have a name for it yet.
OK. There is a title that we like though, and that is, “When Love Comes In.”
That's a tile that my manager seems to like.
On this project, I did a lot of co-writing with a lot of people, so it's going to be beautiful and amazing. I'm extremely proud of this record And I can't wait for people to hear it. Of course, I'm constantly touring. With COVID, it's tricky and challenging but at least we're able to get on the plane and go do a gig. So, the touring continues.
Well, I'm excited for you! Thank you!
You’re welcome. So, Jonathan what's your dream? First, God inspires these dreams in me. I'm 60 now and I'm thinking about my life differently. It's a dream come true to even be 60 years old. I have two granddaughters; one is 2 and the other is 14. I have two beautiful daughters and an amazing wife who's I call my girlfriend because she really is my girlfriend.
Oh, how sweet! I love it!
It’s true, She’s the best friend I have. My dreams are to wake up every day and see their faces. I want to become a better cook because I love cooking. I love to cook dishes that I enjoy that have influences from around the world. My taste is global, but my love is the food from South Africa, my home. Anything that's curry. I love lamb curry, chicken curry, and shrimp curry. I enjoy anything roasted and I love pasta. I also love Indian, Nigerian, Cuban, and Brazilian food. Yes, I cook them all.
My dream is to one day find myself back home in South Africa and continue to inspire young people through my experience and my knowledge of the business. Maybe slow it down a little bit and do more things. My dream is to have the Jonathan Butler Museum in South Africa where people can come and learn about my life when I'm gone. I want to give until I can't give at all.
That’s beautiful, you know, I was listening to an interview with Cicely Tyson just right before her passing and she says something so profound when they asked her what her last words be. I'll never forget, she said “I did my best.” So, what would you say if these were your last words? Wow! I echo her because, I think she said that for everyone, not only the ones who have walked in her shoes, but also for me, I always wanted to be a good son, good husband, good father, and a good friend. But even in all that, nothing compares to what Cicely Tyson said. That’s what I would want people to know as well. I did my very best. I came from nothing, now look at where I'm sitting and who I am meeting every day.
I came back from the archbishop’s funeral. I was invited as a special guest. I had the honor of seeing him lay in his wooden box. I had a private viewing, just me, him, and my wife. Out of all the people that I've known and met what an honor it was to be requested by his family to be at his funeral.
Yes. I can't even describe the feeling. Here I am, this little South African kid, growing up in apartheid, was given the keys to the prison cell where Nelson Mandela was incarcerated for 27 years. When the prison guard handed me the keys to his prison cell. I tell you, Gina, that was just the most powerful moment of my life! So, I hope she doesn't mind me saying it, but I too did my very best.
Wow! Awesome! I think that statement is so profound because it’s packed with power and humility. To say I did my best is to say I live this life and I maximize all that God taught me to do to my very best ability, but the statement also acknowledges in my humanity that I have missed the mark many times. I think that statement will resonate with me throughout my entire life. Yes, that's very true. I don't think you can say anything else. What she said is loaded with pain and struggle. It's loaded with whatever she had to endure, and it's so weighted. So, I’m going to steal that statement and say the same thing and that is that I did my best.
Yes, it's almost like she's saying, you must give your all, but you don't have to be all. It's not necessary for you to be everything because God is! Just focus on what you can do and let God be all. Yes, and I will finish it by saying, having done all to stand, stand therefore. Even when the winds blow, the mountains fall and the rivers and oceans dry up, stand. You know Gina, I'm the last of 12 children. I'm grateful to God that I was selected to be here at 60 years old. I will remain determined to persevere despite all the obstacles that will come my way. Overall, I am grateful to have been chosen by God despite the hardships and pain I had to endure.
I'm good to my brothers and sisters. I care about them, so I try to help them whenever there's a need. These are the people who are close to me and my heart. They are my family.
Awesome! I love your heart, Jonathan! What an honor and privilege to speak to you today. A man of such wisdom and talent. A man who's been through so much yet has given so much. I feel truly honored. As always, I pray that God will continue to bless you your family, and your career. I pray that God will give you wisdom as you journey through your life. I pray that God will keep you safe and your family as well. Have a happy 2022. Thank you. God bless you. I appreciate it.
All photos are courtesy of Jonathan Butler
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Jonathan Butlers photos: photographer Raj Naik for Mack Avenue Music Group
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