Israel Houghton: Bridging the black/white worship music divide

Friday 2nd October 2009

Mike Rimmer went to Nashville to meet up with one of the giants of modern worship music, ISRAEL HOUGHTON

Israel Houghton
Israel Houghton

The Hilton Hotel in Nashville is a pretty standard hotel in the chain. The rooms are nice without being too posh and the lobby area is busy with GMA delegates wandering about. Integrity Music have taken a suite of rooms where their artists are doing interviews and over the years I've made friends with some of the label staff. Walking into their suite, Kari Jobe is relaxing between interviews so we chat lightly while I'm waiting for Israel Houghton to arrive. He's late. But then he's allowed to be late these days because there are so many demands on his time and in the last few years his gospel/pop/R&B synthesis worship music has really taken off to unimagined heights.

The release of Israel's solo album 'The Power Of One' in many ways brings things full circle for the singer and keyboard player from Oceanside, California. As a worship leader he is now a co-senior worship director on staff at Joel Osteen's 43,000-member Lakewood Church in Houston. As an award winning frontman for Israel & New Breed he has enjoyed huge hits with a string of live worship albums. As a mixed race musical innovator, he has helped bridge the scandalous chasm between white and African American churches. And now with 'The Power Of One' he has recorded his first solo album since his 1996 debut 'Whisper It Loud'.

His most recent album is the first he's released under his full name. While I'm on the subject of his name, it's actually pronounced "hoe-ton" not "how-ton" although in Europe the wrong pronunciation is so widespread he's given up correcting people! He says, "The new record starts with my son saying, 'Hello, my name is Israel Houghton ['hoe-ton'], so hopefully those who listen to the CD will get it."

Calling the album "The Power of One" isn't simply a statement that the album is a solo project. Israel explains why the title is so important. "I think the last time we spoke, I talked about [that] what I was sensing happening in my heart regarding worship doesn't end when the song is over, or when the doors of the building close; worship really kicks into action at that point. This was one of those songs that I actually had been asked to write for a mainstream artist. I wrote it and played it for my wife and she said, 'Man, I think you need to hold onto that and record that yourself.' It's one of those songs that just provokes anyone who hears it. It's not just a church song, it's a humankind song, where whoever hears it could say, 'You know what? I CAN make a difference!' It's about overcoming that dread that says, well what could I possibly do, I'm just one person?! It really says, no, if it all depended on you to change the world you could and you can join with others who feel the same way."

The obvious question is to wonder which mainstream artist is missing out because he's recorded it himself, but Israel is particularly coy on the subject. He laughs, "I knew you'd ask that but I won't tell you! They were actually quite upset with me because they were sitting in the studio waiting. I will say this, it's a female and she is from Britain!" His lips are well sealed so we'll never know! But it's fun having a guess.

Flashback to 2007. I am on BBC WM as a guest on Nikki Tapper's Sunday evening gospel show. It's a regular slot where I review new releases as part of a panel of industry professionals and I always speak my mind. Nikki plays a couple of songs from the Israel & New Breed live album recorded in South Africa. I listen carefully and observe that the tracks are well produced, they're lively, they're positive but I get a niggling frustration that I've heard it all before from Israel and the live albums are beginning to sound formulaic. I share these thoughts on the radio. I get accused of heresy. Israel had recently played in Birmingham and the opinion of those who witnessed the show was that it was one of the best live gospel events ever. How can I then be allowed to criticise the new record? The switchboard lights up with people disagreeing with me. But I rate Israel as a creative force, I want him to make music that inspires the spirit of the listener but also music which pushes back the frontiers of creativity. When we meet up to talk, I ask him if there is a reason why he's stopped pushing boundaries? "Well, I would push back and say I don't think we've ever stopped pushing back the boundaries. I think you are drawn to having to compare and, even as a journalist, to critique, and I expect that. These kinds of conversations fuel me. They stir me and they're great. I don't have anything to defend except I will never turn in a record and never complete a project that I don't feel I gave 110 per cent to and that I delivered what God put in my heart to do."

He continues, "Now what I do with the band many times is say, 'Okay, I love that you guys are having a blast in pushing the lines out. At the same time I also understand that a big part of what I'm called to do is to equip the Church. There are a lot of churches and a lot of musicians and a lot of volunteer bands at churches that frankly like what we do but they go, 'There is no way we can duplicate that, at all. We love the message of what's going on. We love the lyric. We love the melody but it's inaccessible to us.' So at the end of the day, am I making music that Mike likes and he'll say nice things about me on the radio? Or am I making something for that guy in Bradford, England, who just wants to be in the presence of God and can take something we put on tape and go, 'I can do that tonight at church. I could teach that to my worship team and we could watch the exponential growth of three or four hundred people in this room tonight experience God in a new way'? Frankly, it's easy for me. I want to equip the body of Christ.

"Now if I want to just go do music that makes me feel good or makes my musician friends feel good and I sell 800 copies of those to my buddies, that's cool! And this is not even commerce motivated. It's all about impact, how can I affect the local church. I mean at the end of the day I want to see the local church become the answer to the world. What I don't believe is that the local church in its current state is the answer to the world; we got a long ways to go! We just at least got to unify and come together on the things that we do agree on.

"In the meantime, if I can become part of a soundtrack to that, part of a fire being lit to that, part of a motivation to see people come together and at least find what we do agree on. It may be boring to my music journalist friends. . . And again, when I get in the studio I want to stretch every boundary. That has never changed about me. But at the end of the day I'm thinking, who am I trying to affect and who am I trying to put this into the hands of? Our music is always about taking you on an experience, you know? The idea is somebody puts it in their car and they're not just looking for their next favourite song, but it really walks them through a journey with God. Part of our challenge always is we are deliberately and intentionally cross-cultural, so as badly as I want to just go all out in a certain area I also understand that I have several genres that I want to be effective to and accessible to. But I always appreciate your input! And I'll always put that in the mix of what we're trying to do."

I can't argue with his desire to want to equip the local church but at the same time, I explain that I want to provoke him to also carry on pushing the edges of creativity to make music we've not heard before, not just in terms of a song or a melody or a lyric, but to make music that sounds unlike anything we've heard before rather than just repeating what we've already heard. "If ever we start carbon copying and formulising what we're doing I'm gonna be bored anyway," he responds. "Again, if I was just a musician I would probably have a different take on a lot of things but I also understand my place in history as a worship leader, and as a songwriter, and as a musical theologian to establish truth and to put something in the hearing of another generation coming up, that they understand the Scripture. I want them to understand who they are in Christ, and as a result they gain some identity. And a lot of times they're not gonna go read a Bible but they'll hear Scripture in music. So it's always a fine line to try and carry all of these various levels of responsibility and still be effective in my generation. My assurance though to everybody listening right now is that we are not at all sitting back and living off past formulas but we're always trying to go, 'God, what can we say? How can we say it musically, vocally, lyrically, the beat, everything? How do we stay relevant and effective and interesting?'"

I spent a large part of our conversation challenging him about his albums, specifically that the albums he'd recorded with New Breed - 'New Season' (2001), 'Real' (2002), 'Live From Another Level' (2004), 'Alive In South Africa' (2005), 'A Timeless Christmas' (2006) and 'A Deeper Level' (2007) - had become formulaic. But one thing I can't deny is that the albums have been pivotal in bringing closer the different styles of worship in black and white churches. For far too long the Church has done little to address the scandalous division between churches on racial grounds. Now with his trad gospel/pop/rock/R&B synthesis Israel is blurring the stylistic divisions and in the process challenging the racism that still exists in many white majority and black majority churches. Recently Israel was honoured with a cover story in the influential Charisma magazine. In that article Israel spelled out his thoughts on the black and white church divide to journalist Chad Bonham. "I want to see the American Church break down the last of the walls that divide us culturally and racially. The colour barrier that still exists is just bewildering to me. You're going, 'Why?'"

Israel Houghton: Bridging the black/white worship music divide

Houghton knows more than a little something about that colour barrier. He has hurdled it all his life - beginning in his own family, where he grew up the only biracial kid among white siblings. In the 1970s, Houghton's mother, Margaret, was an aspiring concert pianist living in Waterloo, Iowa, and growing up in a white, Midwestern home. At age 17, she dropped a family bombshell with the revelation that she was pregnant by a black man. "My biological father also lived in Iowa and he was a black guy," Houghton explains. "Waterloo was very, very separate [racially]. When she got pregnant, it was highly advised for her to have an abortion. She chose not to and I'm certainly grateful for that." Margaret's father, especially, was opposed to her pregnancy. "He basically said [to her], 'You're out.' He couldn't deal with the shame."

For the eight months' pregnant teen, the rejection prompted a cross-country move to California, where Margaret soon became a Christian. Reading her Bible one day, she came across Genesis 32. It resonated with the mother-to-be for its description of a dramatic struggle and subsequent peace between Jacob and God that led to a new identity for Jacob. "When Jacob's name was changed to Israel, she said, 'Okay, that's my son,'" Israel relates. "That's how I got my name. She saw the imagery of that story and how it related to her whole life."

After Houghton was born, his mother moved to Phoenix with a relative. Margaret soon met a new Christian there, Henry Houghton - the man Israel says gave him his personality and "a lot of the moxie." Margaret and Henry married and were eventually called into a pastoral ministry, moving to Santa Fe, New Mexico, where they've led the same independent charismatic church for 25 years. Growing up, Houghton knew he was different but didn't understand why. "I was one of the only black people I knew," he quips. His siblings explained their brother's darker skin tone to friends by saying, 'It's because he's the eldest."

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Reader Comments

Posted by patricia kalungi in uganda @ 14:47 on Oct 14 2013

am a worshiper and encouraged through Israel's story. God bless you

Posted by Joshua in Gaborone, Botswana @ 11:38 on Sep 13 2011

Thanks for the article Mike, great interview, I'm studying Israel Houghton and wanted to know of his background, Wow! i'll be listening to more of him, hoping to incorporate his work in our worship service's, by the grace of God i'll catch on. Bless you Mr Houghton for your work and your response to your calling.

Posted by Dan H. in Los Angeles, CA @ 14:30 on Nov 15 2009

Dear Mike, I would be honored to know your thoughts on how to create worship albums that equip others to grow in their own ministry, but are not formulaic. The very essence of organized religion is formulaic to some degree (not necessarily a bad thing!). I guess one could say: "hey, let's sit around and create a new version of John Cage-esq worship music that our critiques sip their bourbon glasses to!". But remember, worship music needs to be accessible, as Israel so passionately described. Not tryin' to hate on you Mike, but perhaps the answer lies in the often formulaic questions from our beloved critics.

Posted by JonnyP in Oxford @ 23:28 on Oct 28 2009

Great article! I hadn't heard Israel's story before or his take on songwriting, really fascinating. I'm also a bit shocked to find you think Israel's albums are formulaic.. as a musician who's played in lots of worship bands I know ALL about formulaic, and his/new breed's music is definitely not that in my book!!

Posted by Julie in United Kingdom @ 23:25 on Oct 4 2009

awesome article Mike! i love that statement that Israe, makes that we are given this strength to do the work of God and not to big up ourselves....great to be reminded of that and to be humbled by this Biblical statement, good to hear every once in a while don't ya think! so looking forward to hearing more from Israel but also to seeing what God is going to do in the lives of our modern day worship leaders....i hear mighty things are coming and I wanna see it, experience it, live it and be a part of it for myself.

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