Ever since Jonathan Butler was a child growing up amid apartheid in Cape Town, South Africa, music has carried extra significance.
It crossed racial barriers. It served as an escape from the hatred he experienced. It also brought happiness.
“I was refused entry in many, many, many places during apartheid,” he said. “Music was a source of healing. Music was where I could feel safe.”
That was four decades ago. Eventually Butler became a Christian — despite the segregation he observed in churches in South Africa — and he learned to sing about the God he loved.
Today the 58-year-old Butler is known within the music world as a talented jazz artist who isn’t shy about his faith.
His latest release is a Christmas album, “Christmas Together,” that includes other artists, including Sheléa, Dave Koz, Keiko Matsui and Kirk Whalum.
Butler’s music career began when he joined a traveling stage show. He recorded his first album at age 12. In 1988 at age 27, he was nominated for two Grammys, including for best R&B vocal performance for a single for his song “Lies” (Smokey Robinson won that year) and for best R&B instrumental performance for “Going Home.”
Many of his 25-plus albums over the years have been faith-centric.
“When I got to the point where I could embrace who I was and I didn’t have to be ashamed to express that through my music — my love for God, my love for Christ — I felt so free,” Butler said. “I feel like I’m just a channel for which God can play through me and reach people through me.”
Butler grew up in poverty and says Christ saved him from a life of “sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll.” But it didn’t happen overnight.
He had to overcome tough questions about racism and segregation. He eventually realized that “the God that I serve is not involved in any of that stuff.” He was saved at age 19.
“It was through love that I realized my own inability to save myself,” he said, referencing a friendship with his wife’s late brother.
Butler lives in southern California, although he travels back to South Africa once a year. He founded the Jonathan Butler Foundation for at-risk South African children. Part of its purpose is to reach children through music. Butler’s foundation recently became part of the Lalela Foundation, a larger organization with a similar purpose.
“Giving back, to me, means everything, because the opportunities that I received over the years — I’d like to pass that on.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: Michael Foust covers the intersection of faith and entertainment as a media reviewer for The Alabama Baptist. He also is the husband of an amazing wife and the father of four young children.