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Jan31WedGospel musician Jonathan Butler sings God's praises around the world. January 31, 2018 by Christy Heitger-Ewing
From New Zealand to Brazil to Africa to Japan, singer-songwriter Jonathan Butler regularly hears fan testimonies that stir his soul.
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- Faith & Friends
“I was performing on a cruise ship and after the show, a woman and her husband approached me,” he recalls. “With tears streaming down his cheeks, the man told me that if I had a church anywhere near him, he would join it.”
Though the wife had never seen her husband break down emotionally, that day Jonathan’s music had moved him to tears.
“That’s the power of God’s work,” says Jonathan.
Enduring Tough Times
Born in 1961 as the youngest of 13 children in his family in Cape Town, South Africa, Jonathan was raised in poverty but uplifted by music.
He learned to play guitar well before he hit double digits. When times were tight and food was scarce, music fed both his soul and his body as the 10-year-old performed in villages to earn money for the family.
“Singing is all I’ve ever known since the time I popped out of the womb,” he says.
As a preteen, Jonathan landed a deal with a London-based record label, then moved to the United Kingdom in the 1980s. The multiple Grammy-nominee now resides in southern California, where he recently released Free—a difficult album to make in the wake of intense heartbreak, including the attempted suicide of his bipolar son.
“He had a gun to his head. The disease was intense,” says Jonathan, who was hit with an onslaught of back-to-back suffering as he endured a house fire that left him with second-degree burns on his arms and legs. He also suffered the death of his mother and two of his sisters.
“During those times, I didn’t run away from God. I ran toward Him,” he says. “Sometimes, like the story of Job in the Bible, we’ve got to go through hard times to come out refined and strong. During those tragedies, I knew God was standing right there beside me.”
Shaping a Spirit
Jonathan, a year-round touring artist, performs 150 to 200 concerts annually and has sold more than 1.8 million albums worldwide. His first single, released when he was just 12 years old, was the first by a black artist to be played by white radio stations in racially segregated South Africa. It earned a Sarie Award, South Africa’s equivalent to the Grammy.
At the time, he didn’t comprehend the significance of the recognition. That was due, in part, to the fact that he grew up during apartheid, when blacks were not allowed to stay in the venues where they played.
“I’m proud to be from South Africa, but growing up under an apartheid system shapes your life. It certainly shaped mine,” notes Jonathan. “It made me a more compassionate, understanding human. I know that whatever it is I’m going through in life will grow me for a better day.”
To that end, Jonathan supports the Still Hope Foundation, which equips single mothers with parenting tools that will enable them to become self-sufficient leaders of their households, and the Grammy Foundation, which encourages and promotes young, aspiring musicians in schools and communities.
“I love giving back to music education,” says Jonathan, who is committed to seeing youth grow as musicians. Partnering with D’Angelico Guitars, a company that has been around since the 1800s, Jonathan visits schools around the United States, gifting instruments to students.
“Every musician hopes to one day own a D’Angelico guitar,” says Jonathan. “It’s wonderful to see the faces of these young people when they are presented with one.”
So often the public wants to pigeonhole artists into a particular musical genre. Jonathan says, however, that God wants him to keep a foot planted firmly in both the secular and spiritual worlds so that he might reach a broader audience. This is why he intermingles jazz with gospel music at his concerts.
“No one has ever complained that I play too many songs about Jesus,” says Jonathan, who follows the advice he received years ago from one of his mentors.
“He told me that God had called me to be used in the house of the Lord and out in the world so I mustn’t be afraid to play at both,” Jonathan says. “He pointed out that God is not the God of confusion. He knows exactly what He’s doing and why He’s doing it.”
It’s a message Jonathan has seen unfold before his eyes time and again.
He was playing in Detroit, and after a powerful show, a gentleman confided that when Jonathan sang, his wife, diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer, felt God’s peace wash over her for the first time in her life. During the concert, his wife’s pain subsided. Jonathan found out later that she was in remission.
Jonathan says such stories are proof of Christ’s enduring love. “God will effectively work His will in your life—if you let Him.”