Jonathan Nelson: Hit gospel songwriter steps up to the plate as artist

Sunday 6th April 2008

Tony Cummings reports on how gospel songwriter and now artist JONATHAN NELSON used hard times to kick start his creativity

Jonathan Nelson
Jonathan Nelson

The release, through Integrity-Provident, of the 'Right Now Praise' album by Jonathan Nelson brings into the artist spotlight one of the most successful of the new wave of gospel composers. For Jonathan has penned such huge gospel smashes as "Healed" recorded by Donald Lawrence and a Stellar Award-winning Song Of The Year in 2006 and co-wrote "The Struggle Is Over" which, when cut by Youth For Christ kept the number one spot on Billboard's Hot Gospel Songs Chart for most of the summer of 2007.

Jonathan was one of six children born in Baltimore, Maryland and very much grew up rooted and grounded in the Church. "Everybody in my family works in ministry," he said. "My father, James Nelson, was pastor of Greater Bethlehem Temple Church for over 30 years and my mom served as first lady." Nelson's family was also musical. "My grandmother played piano. I had two uncles who were musicians. We just grew up playing and singing in church."

Nelson's musical abilities were further cultivated while he was a student at the Baltimore School for the Arts and Morgan State University where he studied under noted choir director Dr Nathan Carter. Nelson was soon travelling the globe and conducting choirs and also working in the music department at his father's church. About 15 of his friends and he would get together and sing at church. When Karen Clark-Sheard was coming to perform at his church, she needed some backing singers and his friends stepped in. "It wasn't a formal group," Nelson explained. "It was just something we did and after we did that service with Karen, we really enjoyed working together and that's when we became Purpose."

At the same time, Nelson had found a lucrative and comfortable income as an executive with a computer software company. Then, something happened to fuel Nelson's writing abilities. "Around 2001 when all of the dotcoms went down I was unemployed and that's when my passion for writing came alive. I began to write all these songs because I was living off unemployment. That process took me through a whole thing because of my experience. The song 'Healed' definitely came out of that."

Jonathan's group Purpose had recorded "Healed" on their own self-financed CD in 2002. Nelson had met Grammy-nominated choir leader Donald Lawrence at a Washington, DC workshop in 2000. Remembered Jonathan, "When Donald heard 'Healed' he said, 'I'm gonna record that song.' He felt that message was what God was saying to the Church at the time." Lawrence's words proved prophetic and his rousing rendition of "Healed" became a Top Ten gospel smash in 2005. The song also won Nelson the Stellar Award as Songwriter Of The Year in 2006. He was presented with the award by the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin. "I was so shocked that I won," laughed Nelson, "that I didn't even realise that it was Aretha who gave me the award."

Jonathan Nelson:  Hit gospel songwriter steps up to the plate as artist

Suddenly, gospel acts were lining up to record Jonathan Nelson songs. Recalled the songsmith, "I met Troy Sneed at a Gospel Music Workshop of America convention. He said that he had heard a song Purpose recorded called 'The Right Place' and that he wanted to record it." Sneed produced the song on Pastor Rudolph McKissick's album and it became a Top 5 Billboard gospel hit.

It was through Sneed that Nelson would enjoy his biggest song yet. "Troy called one day and said that he was coming to Baltimore to record a group of youth," Nelson recalled. "He called me on a Tuesday and I didn't have a song that night. I wrote 'The Struggle Is Over' in about 10 minutes. The Scripture for it comes from Deuteronomy 1: 6-8 in the NIV version. In that Scripture, the Lord spoke to Moses to tell the children of Israel they could now come out of the wilderness and possess the land that God promised them in Canaan. So, for them, the struggle was over. So, during the recording that night, the kids were crying and Troy said, 'This will be the single.'" Released in the winter of 2006, the congregational ballad by Youth For Christ became the surprise hit of the summer when it spent 12 weeks at number one on Billboard magazine's Hot Gospel Songs chart. "I never thought it was single-worthy," commented Nelson. "It didn't sound commercial to me but I apologise for that because obviously the song has resonated with many, many people and touched them."

It was that spirit of touching hearts and minds that permeated Nelson's self-financed concert recording 'Right Now Praise' in December 2006. Said Nelson, "I undertook that whole project without even knowing if any recording label was going to release it. I took a risk." The risk paid off. Troy Sneed's publicist introduced Nelson to Integrity Music consultant Stacy Merinda who took Nelson to the successful Mobile, Alabama praise and worship company. One of the most powerful songs on 'Right Now Praise' is the title track. Jonathan explained, "I wrote that during a difficult time in my life back in 2003. I was on the verge of losing my home and my car. I was working as a substitute teacher. I was in a very low place. My car is my meditation place. I was crying down the road and started singing a melody to the Lord and that's when 'Right Now Praise' came to me. I had to rush into school and get to my tape recorder and put it down before I forgot it. Everything with this project is timing. I feel like it's time for whatever God has for me to do right now. This is my God ordained time for my life."

Jonathan expounded further about the songwriting process. "Most songs I get from sermons. It comes from divine inspiration. The speaker might say one word but that one word goes into a whole thing. The song 'Capacity' came during a service. My father was preaching and while he was preaching, I started writing that song." There was another time when Todd Hall was prophesying in a church service and "he said to turn to your neighbour and say, 'My praise causes things to look bettah,' and instantly every word of the song 'Bettah' was written right there in the service."

The only song on 'Right Now Praise' that Nelson and his frequent songwriting collaborator, Justin Savage, didn't write is Chris Tomlin's "How Great Is Our God." Commented Nelson, "I heard it at a worship service and it spoke to me. It's an intoxicating song. A whole church, no matter what race, creed or colour, can sing along to it. It became an anthem at my church."

Today Jonathan lives with his wife Christina and his two children J Andrew and Princess Julianna in York, Pennsylvania. He is the director of fine arts at Empowerment Temple in Baltimore, Maryland. At the close of a recent interview with Alicia Carson Jonathan articulated a principle which has stood the songwriter and now artist in good stead down the years. "Difficult seasons are not death sentences. Just tell yourself, 'Things are already looking better.' Believe it and watch what happens!" CR

The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.
About Tony Cummings
Tony CummingsTony Cummings is the music editor for Cross Rhythms website and attends Grace Church in Stoke-on-Trent.


Reader Comments

Posted by Inspiredtowrite @ 13:36 on Jan 30 2012

Recently I had a conversation with a mentor in London regarding sharing our gifts and conflicts in the church.
Unfortunately whilst there is a huge harvest of people waiting to hear something from the Lord the enemy runs rampant causing division etc.
As it were the truth of the matter is once we have established a sense of the messages God wants us to share we should use the wisdom of knowing who is hungry. Now in retrospect and refrshing, I can see you only share 2 fish and five loaves with hungry people. Jesus said you feedem... hungry souls need food foor the soul. To bind up the broken hearted restore sight to the blind encourage and strengthen. If we were to focus on that there wouldn't be such an issue.

Posted by Barbara Harden in Fort Lauderdale Fla @ 15:09 on Nov 1 2010

I'm so greatful to have heard this young man sing in Fort Lauderdale Fla at Greater Faith Church of Christ Holiness Unto The Lord on October 30, 2010. I was so encouraged by the song " Victory " My husband and I as ministers of god are going through something with people who we thought was our friends in church because when god calls you sometimes people can't accept it , but this song really encouraged us. I'm a gospel singer myself trying to get my feet off the ground but the church people sometimes seems as though they're your worst enemy. I sat on the front with the pastor from another church named Pastor McCluthion whom I met that night , they were beautiful people of God. I just wish the church I attend could accept changes they are set in there ways. I'm somewhat like Johnathan a pastors daughter trying to find myself but the song " Victory " really encouraged me. Great artist !

Posted by Tawanda in Taylorsville, MD @ 22:05 on Mar 17 2009

I know Johnathan and his family. I attended his fathers church and the recording of his first CD. He is a great man of God, whom truly loves the Lord. Johnathan I pray Gods blessings upon you and your family.
Your Friend in Christ

Posted by Joel Jean-Baptiste in Queens, NY @ 10:34 on Dec 15 2008

While driving home from a birthday weekend of celebrating my 30th. i heard this song on 98.7... "I am Victory", "I know what my name is"!... I ran staight to my pc and googled it and i'm here now. Bless you all!

Posted by Devon Calliste in Brooklyn, NY @ 16:01 on Nov 12 2008

I would love to write a song for him and any other gospel artist that out there. if youre in the Ny area, e mail me so I can write some gospel songs

Posted by C. alexander in Statesboro GA ( Georgia southe @ 01:38 on Nov 7 2008

I met Johnathan in the Georgia southern University area, actually at spirit & Truth Worship center. It was a very impactful moment. I used the word impact because it reminded me of the Impact Conference trip; college road trip to Atlanta, when I traveled with close friends as well as dozens of other college students across the country. And we had to raise the money for the expense of the trip. That was a very pivital point in my life, so much was imparted into me spiritually, it was similar to the encounter with Johnathan Nelson. His style of worship, pentacostal background, and his willingness to "shout"dance and encourage dance being that he was a so called contempary artist. But he is very routed and grounded in traditional gospel which is hard to find these days-an young contempary artist rooted in traditional church but not pretending to be so. I was also impressed that he is a song writter and that he had written such popular songs as "Healed" and "the struggle is over." I am certain that we will be hearing a great deal more from Johnathan Nelson. I would like to get back in touch him because I may be able to connect him with someone he might be interested in networking with in the area of the media.

Posted by Karol Ann in Florence SC @ 23:18 on Aug 25 2008

I LOVE what the Lord has done in giving us Jonathon Nelson for the kingdom. My sister told my other sister on last Saturday that she knows what my favorite song is right now and she was correct, "My name is Victory." The song speaks to my spirit! I also have the CD's with 'The struggle is over" and "My Destiny" and at first didn't realize it was Jonathon Nelson but I do now and appreciate his ministry so much. I heard him on the Yolanda Adams show say to contact him if we wanted him at our church to minister so I hope he gets to read this and will contact me so we can get him in Florence SC, we willed be blessed. God bless you Jonathon Nelson, keep singing for Jesus!

Posted by Asia B. in J.C, N.J. @ 04:49 on Jul 22 2008

It was a normal day for me, while sitting in my sister's car going for a ride with her, there was a song playing. I didn't hear it before, began listening and it touched me in an instant. Tears began to roll down my face as I took a glimpse back into my past and my many, many trials. This song became sort of like, well my anthem, singing the little words that I knew everyday. Then came a Sunday at my church and the youth choir began the 1st verse of a song, it sounded familiar, but I wasn't too sure. They got to the part that says "I know who I am, god wrote it in his plan for me...oooooh my name is victory," after that I jumped up and began to sing along. I must say that I fell in love with this song.. It certainly touched my soul..
"I know who I am, god wrote it in his plan for me...oooooh my name is victory....
I know my name is victory...
Victory that's my name...victory, I know who I am."
I still don't really know the name of this song, but it will stay with me
~ Jonathan Nelson, this ones a definite soul toucher

Posted by Calvin R. Long in Pontiac, MI @ 17:30 on Jun 25 2008

I first heard JONATHAN NELSON song one Sunday morning while i was perparing for church, as the song started playing, it instantly touched my heart.

I'm not sure what the name is but i think its called victory

it gose like this,
I no what my name is, i no my idenity, my name is Victory.

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