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Interview: Israel Houghton – Singer, Songwriter and Producer

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Every Sunday, the musical compositions of Israel Houghton fill houses of worship across the world. Among the most popular are "Again I Say Rejoice," "Not Forgotten," and "Turn It Around" — "praise and worship" songs that bolster an impressive repertoire that has received six Dove Awards, two Stellar Awards, and two GRAMMY Awards.

Through Houghton's lyrics, one can feel the presence of the Lord; and when these lyrics are transformed into song, one immediately feels the warmth and security of the Holy Spirit. Thus, the inescapable reach of Houghton's ministry is a testament to the favor God bestows upon those who walk in accordance to His will.

Since Whisper Out Loud (1997), Houghton's catalog has defied categorization. And with each subsequent release, social constructs, like race and religious denomination, have had little impact on his influence within the contemporary gospel genre.

Upon review of The Power of One, Israel Houghton managed to squeeze some time out of his busy schedule and settle down for an interview with Clayton Perry — reflecting on New Breed, Ephesians 1:18 and his journey to Joel Osteen's Lakewood Church.

From the very beginning, God has shown tremendous favor over your life. Do you ever wonder why you were chosen to lead the life that you lead?

All the time, man. I don't spend too much time dwelling on why God chose me. Many are called but few are chosen. I think the real hinge to that statement is acceptance by the one who's called, actually answering the call. A lot of people are being called who are not answering. The phone just keeps ringing, so to speak. For me, early on I know this is what I want to do so I'm going to take this call. It gave me a platform that allows this thing to perpetuate and keep going. I'm going to keep taking that call very seriously.

For me, it's more than a calling now; it's a cause. I think there is no chance of me doing anything else ever in my life because I realize that I was born for this. I realize that in whatever avenue I've been given, in whatever lane I'm in, I'm going to maximize my time here on earth. I don't ever want to look back and go, "Man, if I really should've taken that part of my life more seriously then maybe I would've had more impact." It's sort of an Oscar Schindler moment when he realizes, "Okay, I've freed a bunch of these people. But man, look at this watch on my wrist. If I had sold this watch, that could've been three more people free, you know?" I don't ever want to have that regret. At the same time, you look at that moment with Schindler and you go, "Dude, you did great!" But it was such a passion for him that he realized, "I could've done more." So everyday I'm saying I want to do more. I want to maximize every day in what I'm called to do.

That was a very interesting analogy. When you look back at your life, is there a particular string of events that led you to Lakewood? For many years, you have served as the church's worship leader.

You know, if there is a string of events it's really a string of relationships. I've always emphasized relationship over opportunity. I don't know how that has happened. It hasn't been like, "Make sure you emphasize relationship." I love people and I love structure that comes with honoring people and honoring relationships and putting those first over opportunity. There are a lot of things that I've done relationally that have been at the expense of opportunities, but I always felt you're going to get a lot more longevity out of having a relationship than a one-time opportunity. In those things like that, six degrees of separation happened with different relationships that sort of culminated into a friend of mine – the worship leader at Lakewood – say, "I need you to come here and consider helping us on the worship team." Out of that has come eight years of being there full-time.

Having been in the music industry for almost two decades now, what's the biggest lesson that you've learned, either spiritually or professionally?

Wow, man. I think for me it's sort of what I said – relationships are key. Secondly, you'll find really quickly that I draw a lot of my analogies from movies. I love going to movies. Remember the scene in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and he's at that final pinnacle moment where he's about to get the Holy Grail and he's got one more little puzzle to put together? The line was, "Only penitent men will pass." His father's outside the cave but he's dying and Indy was trying to figure out what it means to be a penitent. Do I punish myself? What is it? Just at the last second he realizes by looking at these skulls at his feet that the higher you get, the lower you got to be. So penitence in this instance is humility. The bigger the platform gets, the greater the accolades are, the more influence you have, the lower you got to be. The higher the stage, the lower you got to be in humility and just being a humble person.

I've seen a lot of people willing to step on people's heads and burn bridges to get what they need to get. In climbing the stairs to success, they're stepping on people who are also on their way up. I heard somebody say a long time ago, "Be careful who you step on on your way up because you're bound to see them on your way back down." So for me, it really is hand in hand: valuing relationship and keeping a humble heart because I think that's what enables you to be respected and have longevity. I never got involved in this for a quick shot at greatness. I never wanted to be the gimmick guy and do one song. I never wanted to be Ice, Ice Baby. I wanted to have a long career and longevity at what I'm doing. Whether I was onstage or off of it, I love what I do and I love helping other people accomplish their dreams as well. I think those characteristics are what makes for a long life.

Few gospel acts cross racial, generational and denominational boundaries, and over the years, you have defied being labeled as a purely Gospel artist or a black Gospel artist. What obstacles did you have to overcome for your music to be judged solely on its content?

Whisper Out Loud was very challenging because it came out at a time where – I hate to use the word segregation – but that basically was what was going on. I sat across from executives who said, "Man, you're not white enough for this." I sat across from other executives who said, "You're not black enough for this." I found myself in the middle very, very confused. At the same time, I'm watching Carlos Santana put out the Supernatural record and I'm going, "You got a hip hop artist, black artist, country artist on this one record. Why does MTV get it and the church and the kingdom of God which I love being a part of doesn't get it at all? Why are we still 25 years behind the times?" I found myself very frustrated, very hurt sometimes, terribly disappointed in the way people looked at what we do.

For me, I was very happy – and still am very happy – when worship music really started to take center stage because worship in its truest sense has nothing to do with us and has nothing to do with color and has nothing to do with style or culture. It has everything to do with honoring God and putting our hearts in the right place and connect with Him. At that point, suddenly we started becoming more and more relevant in the times that we're in because the emphasis now is not "What would you prefer we play today?" It's "God, what would you prefer that we offer up to You?" When people get on that page, suddenly we found ourselves far more effective and far more relevant. Frankly, we're just getting started. We feel like in that context, we've got a long way to go.

I'm relatively young and I'm concerned that a lot of people my age have just stopped attending church. What's one way you get youth excited about church and create a ministry that really empowers young people?

I think what's happening is you're seeing a true generation gap right now especially as it relates to the church. I'm going to wax philosophical here for a second but anytime you make a copy of a copy – you know back in the day when you had a double cassette machine, a dubbing machine and you take a cassette and you'd make a copy of that and give it to your friend. Then you use the copy to make another copy. When you do that philosophically, they say that you lose a generation of quality. I think that's part of what we're dealing with at church right now. We've lost a generation. We have not necessarily rejected God but we have sort of rejected the God of our parents, the God of our parents' church, the traditions.

I think there is now this stronger group of people who are coming up and saying, "No, man. We want to create church." I have a friend who pastors a church in Iowa and it's called Re-church which I think is brilliant. Their whole idea is we're going to rethink the concept of how we do church. The goal is to connect with the younger generation and help them realize that we can establish not necessarily new traditions because we don't want this to perpetuate to the next generation but we can establish a way of doing church and a way of connecting people to God that is not so steeped in tradition that isolates another generation coming up.

In the past, you have quoted Ephesians 1:18 as a personal and professional motivator for your music. [KJV: "The eyes of your understanding being enlightened; that ye may know what is the hope of his calling, and what the riches of the glory of his inheritance in the saints,"] Since your songs are generally classified as praise and worship, what kind of challenges are you facing in bringing that kind of music to the mainstream audiences?

Well, I've never deliberately said I want to go mainstream. Even in our conversations with people that make those kinds of decisions, they've said you really have something here that has the ability to reach outside the four walls of Sunday morning; let's make sure that we pursue that. I'm just saying, "Hey listen, I'm writing what's coming out of my heart and I'm finding a lot of disillusioned people who aren't going to church anymore and sometimes, we got to take church to them." I've met a lot of Christian people who were at such a crisis in faith due to the hypocrisy that they've experienced in church, due to the abusive power in leadership that they've experienced. Somebody's got to re-right those things and reclaim hope for people who have been disillusioned. It is disillusionment to people, not to God.

I'm saying, "Don't blame God for the human condition." Let's get back to God and realize that He is good regardless of the mistakes that human beings have made. So musically just in the message of hope that we're trying to write in these songs, we're trying to reach outside of traditions to just getting down to where the heart of where people have been. Every one of us, regardless of our affiliation, regardless of our theological understanding, regardless of our political biases, we could all use hope and encouragement and compassion. Everybody needs it. My goal is to embody that in the lyrics and the music that I'm writing to help people walk away with hope and light and encouragement.

On the Power of One, you step away from New Breed momentarily. Did it feel awkward performing without your fellow group members?

New Breed is not that on-call group of people that I call upon from time to time. They're my family so there's no way I could or would do a record without some semblance of what I'm used to doing with them. Even though it's a solo record, the truth is it's a New Breed studio record. Even in the branding of how we approached this. Again, I've been able to use people outside of New Breed, too on the record so it takes away the entitlement of the idea of, "Well, I'm a part of New Breed and I'm not playing drums on this record," or "I'm not singing on this record." Everybody's excited about it. I really did it – from a branding perspective – I really did it this way to give greater platform to New Breed as a whole. New Breed was never designed to just be my backup group. It was always put together to form a group out of it and give platform to them. They've done a record that I executively produced that I'm not singing on and I'm not producing. They're producing it internally. It's a live recording called Generation Love. For them to take what they've learned and bring their own expression to it, to do a record on their own is amazing, just amazing.

The Power of One rests upon the belief that worshipers need to have a heart for social justice. What led you to shift the message of your music to social and global concerns?

From my own life, from my own connection, I began to realize that worship doesn't end when the last song is played. If anything, a life of worship – a lifestyle of worship – begins when we leave the church building. So for me, worship and justice go hand in hand. A life of worship and being that close to God should inspire and challenge us to pursue what is in God's heart and that is a heart for the least of these. Jesus Christ said, "Whatever you've done toward the least of these, you've done to Me." There are passages of Scripture that said, "Those that give to the poor lend to the Lord." I sit there going, "God doesn't need anything." Yet, He's saying when you give to these people, you're doing that to my very, very heartbeat. I'm after the widow, I'm there with them. Bono said one of the coolest phrases I ever heard. He said, "God is with us when we are with them." For me, it means God is not just with us when we are in comfortable buildings with the nice carpet and the VIP seating. God is with us when we get out and get our fingernails dirty. Changing the world and being where God is doesn't mean we get on a plane and get a passport and cross the ocean and end up in India somewhere. There are a lot of hurting people outside the walls of the church and frankly, there are a lot of hurting people inside the walls of the church as well. So I think it is just about pursuing a life where God's heart is a heart that's drawn to the broken, whether they are believers, unbelievers, inside the church or outside the church. God's heart is drawn to them.

I really enjoyed The Power of One—from beginning to end—and there are three songs that I really, really liked: "Everywhere That I Go," "Every Prayer" and "Moving Forward." I have a few lines that I pulled and I would like for you to give some insight into the inspiration behind the lyrics. The first set of lyrics comes from "Everywhere That I Go": "You promised me, you'll never leave. You promised me, I'm never forsaken. I believe goodness and mercy will follow me—surrounding me—where I go—everywhere that I go."

Lyrically, a lot of what I draw from – especially for songs that are congregational and everybody singing along – come directly out of Scriptures. You'll see that I borrowed from different things. You know, Peter said, "I'll never leave you nor forsake you." My response to that is, "I believe what you're saying here." The goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life reference is out of Psalm 23. A lot of it is taking familiar passages that we all grew up hearing in different context, in different psalms and finding that sort of attachment for people. Then maybe adding to it a little bit more, just making it a little bit more updated in its melody and in its concept. But it always borrows from something established as well.

The next set comes from "Moving Forward," where you state that "I'm not going back / I'm moving ahead / Here to declare to you / My past is over."

"Moving Forward" was written going into a new year, just that beautiful concept that you get a fresh start, you get a clean slate. But it's not just an annual thing; it's a daily thing. The Bible says that His mercies are new every morning so the concept there is that every day you wake up, you get a fresh 24. You get a chance to experience life all over again. You get another opportunity. None of us really have a say on whether we're going to wake up alive or not, you know what I mean? Tomorrow's never promised to anybody. All you got is today. When you wake up and you got today, you can basically say, "I'm not going to waste today and the currency of today on looking backwards," or "I should've done this yesterday," or "I wish last year I would've done this." At some point, you got to say, "I'm moving forward." That part for me is kind of self-explanatory. I see a lot of people hemmed up and in jail in their lives because of past mistakes and so instead of going into tomorrow, they sort of going into their future backwards because they keep looking back at what might have been and what wasn't and that sort of thing. It's just one of those challenges and encouragement to stop all that and move forward.

The last set comes from "Every Prayer," which features Mary Mary: "There is an answer on the way – My God has done so many great things – Hold on!" Did that come from a particular life event?

Not really. I think I enjoy most the part of my life and music that gives encouragement to people. Gospel music in its definition is good news. The fact is that right now there's a lot of bad news everywhere; you don't have to look real hard for it. You can turn on any news channel right now and hear what's wrong in the world. To be able to say listen, there are people who are praying – who got a bad report from the doctor, mothers who are praying every night hoping their sons don't get shot and comes home alive – a lot of people needing real answers in their lives, finances, relationships. This is just one of those hey, don't give up. Whatever you do, keep hanging on to the fact that God is a good God. He's always been a good God. There's an answer on the way.

For more information on Israel Houghton and New Breed, visit the group's official website.

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About Clayton Perry

  • David

    In reading this article I am deeply touched by the words of both the journalist and My Favorite Gospel Artist Israel Houghton. I’m always wondering what’s the next agenda, idea, goal, passion. I have the place where GOD wants Me to go in Life, that much HE has shown Me, yet I’m not there and so I’m constantly saying to Myself what can I shed to lighten My load so that I can get there…not necessarily faster because the race is not given to swift, but what can I do to lighten My load to make the journey easier? More conducive to the terms in which GOD has set for Me to reach the Destination, that mark that We all so desperately press toward. Am I even desperately pursuing the things of GOD like I would like to confidently say I am desperately pursuing? The question still remains, how…

  • Dianne Knowles

    Just to let you know….your article is very good, however it was difficult to read because it is covered with half-naked women. I am supposing that you are unaware of this and am bringing it to your attention.

    Thanks to Israel Houghton for all the great worship music.

  • Jordan Richardson

    Dianne, I assume you mean the advertisements? None of the writers can do anything about the ads here.

  • Brian aka Guppusmaximus

    Diane, you should try surfing the web with Firefox instead of Internet Explorer. With Firefox, you can either use NoScript or AdBlock Plus. Trust me, you’ll never see an ad again!

  • Kawanzaa King

    Wonderful interview! I was clinging to every word :-). Thank you Mr. Perry and Israel for sharing your hearts. The Power Of One is just, (sigh), right on time! Like you Mr. Perry, the track “Moving Forward” is one of my favorites and the song just gets right to heart of my own matters, just like- “Rejoice”, “Rise Within Us”, “Another Breakthrough”, “You Are Good” and so many more. Again, thank you both Mr. Perry and Israel for sharing your gifts.
    Abundant Blessings~