Gospel singer’s faith overcomes racism, poverty
He may be one of the nation’s top gospel singers now, but Jonathan Butler was both one of the most and least likely persons to embrace Christianity.
Dirt poor and living with his family in a tin shack, the South African had plenty of reasons to seek help through prayers. At the same time, so-called Christians enforced the inhumane acts of Apartheid, which stripped blacks of their civil rights, segregated them and did everything imaginable to put them in territories much like United States’ Indian reservations or Australian aboriginal reserves.
“In the name of God they killed and tortured and murdered innocent black people because of the color of their skin,” said Butler, who through his music and spirit played a role in the 1994 dismantling of Apartheid. “It was a very disturbing notion and a belief that these people had. So for any kid like myself looking at the whole thing it was hypocritical.”
Despite societal repression, Butler’s talent put him on stage early in life. He won competitions and gained a reputation entertaining in public places. He became proficient on the guitar, progressing from a one-string his father had made.
“That’s the extent of poverty,” Butler said. “You only get one string at a time. I was always in love with the guitar. A lot of times when other kids would be playing I would sit in the yard and practice guitar.”
Being both an entertainer and a musician when he was so young reaped an unprecedented feat. Butler’s cover of the Burt Bacharach song “Please Stay” went all the way to No. 2 in the pop charts. He was the first black artist to have his music played on white radio stations in South Africa, and he was just 12 years old.
Butler came from a family of musicians. His success helped them all survive.
“When you are young and black in South Africa and you make a name for yourself, the money you make is not just for you – there is a community of people who are destitute and your family is one of them,” he said. Having a bank account, that wasn’t the kind of family I came from.”
As the teenaged Butler achieved success, he became involved in drugs. A persuasive fan and religion helped him get off of them, although he remained cynical about the church.
“I’m not into religion,” he said. “To me it’s all about a relationship with God and with Christ. Religion in South Africa has proven to cause more segregation and to have done more damage than good. Church was a place I didn’t find friendly, and it didn’t specifically speak about relationship with God and that we are equal according to God’s words.”
But things changed for Butler when he read Christ’s words, “Forgive them for they know not what they do.”
“That statement really pierced my heart because at the same time I looked at my own life and the things around me,” Butler said. “These people who enforce racism and segregation have no knowledge of what they’re really doing. In Christ, I learned the power of forgiveness, and that set me free.”
Butler signed with Jive Records and worked in England for several years. He brought his wife and two children with him, and eventually the family moved to Los Angeles.
He recently released his 15th album “Live in South Africa,” which includes a DVD documenting Butler’s return to Johannesburg and Cape Town. During the visit, he spent time with Ahmed Kathrada, who was held captive along with Nelson Mandella on Robben Island. The political prisoner was 24 years old when he entered prison and was 60 when he was released.
Kathrada said Butler’s music was inspirational to the prisoners, and the sentiment brought Butler close to tears.
“It was a big moment to be next to a guy who has been through so much,” Butler said. “It’s more about him talking than me talking. I was amazed we have come so far and so pleased that my music has brought some light and joy to these men.”
Butler will perform at the Hyatt Regency on Friday in the Dave Koz & Friends, A Smooth Jazz Christmas 10th Anniversary Tour. Koz is a saxophone player. Other performers will be “American Idol” singer Kimberly Locke and bassist Wayman Tisdale, who has recovered from cancer surgery in the spring.
“It’s going to be a great celebration to be around him,” Butler said about Tisdale. “It’s a good time to usher in some happiness and joy, and we are able to talk about hope again. We are entering 2008, and I’m an optimistic type person and I am grateful for the opportunity to share that with a lot of people.”
The feeling is mutual from Tisdale, also a devout Christian.
“Jonathan’s my big brother and he does everything like it’s supposed to be done,” Tisdale said. “He’s an inspiration to all of us.”
The optimistic Butler is an ideal frontman for a holiday concert.
“When people look at me they don’t see Apartheid,” he said. “They see a person who is free. A person who exudes energy and freedom and liberty and joy.”
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