Truth to Power – richmondmagazine.com

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Jonathan Butler, a multiple gold record-earning performing artist from South Africa, says the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police was similar to the grim injustices witnessed in his home country under apartheid, a policy of racial segregation ended less than 30 years ago.

“The George Floyd moment, that was big for me because I’m from South Africa, and I’ve seen horrific things happen in my country at least 27 years ago,” Butler says. “It’s been [only] 27 years since democracy.”

The 59-year-old acoustic guitarist and vocal talent was recognized throughout South Africa at the young age of 13 in 1975 when he won a Sarie, the nation’s Grammy equivalent. He was the first Black artist to be played on white radio stations during apartheid. And in 1987, his R&B and pop hit “Lies,” loved worldwide, peaked at No. 5 on the U.S. Billboard chart. 

Butler, who will perform at the Science Museum of Virginia on Sunday, June 20, says when “George Floyd echoed around the world,” he was compelled to speak against racial injustice through music. His recent song “Our Voices Matter,” recorded with modern jazz icons Candy Dulfer and Rick Braun, encourages peaceful action against inequitable policing. Butler says the lack of awareness many of his white friends and fellow artists had of systemic racism’s impact and the meaning of Black Lives Matter also moved him to write the track.

“I’m not saying white lives don’t matter and that other people and other races don’t matter,” he says, “but today, in this moment in time, Black lives matter, and they haven’t mattered for centuries.”

Butler’s Richmond performance will be one of his first since the pandemic, as COVID-19 gathering restrictions continue to lift. Butler has performed virtually on occasion, notably for Nelson Mandela’s birthday on July 18 last year, but says he prefers to “be selective” about reaching his audiences through screens.

“It has to have meaning, so people can look forward to it,” Butler says. “You’ve got to think of taking people and helping them through the pandemic and this political and racial journey. You’re not just a musician who’s an entertainer, you can speak truth to power.”

Before Butler received multiple Grammy nominations as an internationally known R&B, jazz fusion, and gospel artist, he played for segregated audiences in South Africa, at venues where he couldn’t legally use the restroom. Now a resident of Los Angeles, in the 1980s Butler left his country for England, where he lived for nearly two decades. Repulsed by apartheid, Butler told CNN, “I only wanted to go home if I could perform for everybody in the same room.” He stayed away from stages in South Africa for over a decade, but says he’s proud of improvements by his country.

“Even to this very day in the United States, I’m acutely aware of where I am and who I’m performing to because of those experiences when I was a kid,” he says. “It was real; your life was threatened.”

As the youngest of 12 children living in extreme poverty, Butler’s musical gift opened the world to him. But being on the road and the stress of earning an income for his family drove Butler to abuse drugs and alcohol. At 20, he changed direction and became a Christian. Butler’s faith and his varied life experiences continue to influence his music.

“God has given me the boldness to speak the truth,” he says. “I’ve been blessed in that way, to just be able to speak my heart, and that’s it. That’s all I got.”





Atlanta Black Star | Africa

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