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Jonathan Butler on his jazz album 'Ubuntu'

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

It's not every day that you wake up to a message from Stevie Wonder.

JONATHAN BUTLER: I heard his voice say, Jonathan, this is Stevie. I love everything about the song. I love the way you sing it. I love the way you tell the story. And he said, you know, I would love to give you a gift.

RASCOE: Jonathan Butler, who's been inspired by Wonder for years, was thrilled. The South African musician has just released his 28th album. It's called "Ubuntu," and it begins with a tribute to his hero, covering Wonder's 1972 song "Superwoman."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SUPERWOMAN (WHERE WERE YOU WHEN I NEEDED YOU)")

BUTLER: (Singing) But tomorrow will reflect love's past. (Vocalizing). Come back to me, baby.

RASCOE: Jonathan Butler joins us now from Los Angeles. Welcome to the show.

BUTLER: Oh, I'm so excited to be on your show this morning.

RASCOE: Well, thank you so much. So, I mean, Stevie Wonder called you up. Like, what was that like to get a message from him? Because this is someone who you've always looked up to.

BUTLER: It's very surreal to me still. You know, in South Africa, we didn't grow up with music school. I'm self-taught. And Stevie Wonder - I always dreamt and imagined what it'd be like to actually meet him in person. And so I met Stevie a long time ago. Long story short, we kept the conversation going, and he said, meet me at my studios. And Stevie pulled out one of his harmonicas, and he began to play on the record.

RASCOE: Oh, my gosh. Tell me about growing up in South Africa, and then how does that come to play on this album?

BUTLER: Well, you know, in South Africa, we had vinyl records, you know, and a lot of our homes never had electricity. So whoever had electricity, we would go there, and we'd go listen to the music. If it's McCoy Tyner, if it's Herbie, if it's George Benson, if it's Aretha Franklin, Donny Hathaway, Roberta Flack. Those are all people that kind of helped us kind of find the strength to write our own music because under the apartheid system, you know, our music was not played on the radio. As I was growing up, I began to realize that, you know, I'm a boy from the Cape Flats in Cape Town, and I have my own vocal sound that I needed to develop.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RAINBOW NATION")

BUTLER: (Singing) From the place you meet your very edge, your thoughts held together all alone. So beautiful, so beautiful.

RASCOE: Ubuntu - it's a school of Zulu philosophy, right? Can you talk to me about what that meaning is? And that's the name of your album.

BUTLER: To show humanity to your brother is what ubuntu in South Africa meant. I am because you are. You know, I am because we are. It's the humanity towards others that matters even in the face of apartheid, even in the face of racism, the wickedness and stuff, the hardships that we've seen.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RAINBOW NATION")

BUTLER: (Singing) All of us affirmation, fountains of fire, holy survivors.

It's really interesting because when Madiba came out of prison, even the prison guards were people that he showed his humanity to. You know, he never - he addressed them like human beings, even though he was incarcerated.

RASCOE: You're talking about Nelson Mandela, just for...

BUTLER: Yes, I am. Yes. Yes.

RASCOE: Yes. Yes.

BUTLER: Yes. Yes. And you know, I found my truth in ubuntu as well, you know, because I live in the United States. And during the pandemic, the killing of George Floyd triggered so many different emotions and different feelings and fears that I had growing up. You know, therefore, songs like "Our Voices Matter" was actually written and inspired by George Floyd.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OUR VOICES MATTER")

BUTLER: (Singing) Our voices matter. They matter. What matters to you, it matters to me. Our voices matter. They matter. We're all part of this great melody. Like tone and time...

RASCOE: In this song, you have the lyrics, if we look within, we won't go without in this house. What does that mean?

BUTLER: That there are blind spots in white society when it comes to white privilege, racism, segregation, prejudice. And we should have messages that can speak of the times that we're living in. And if we can address what's within us, you know, I mean, what happened to George Floyd - something happened to all of us. And you can't forget that - like me, as a kid growing up poor under apartheid and singing in white clubs and whites-only establishments and stuff like that.

I think it's a bigger message. If we look within, we won't go without. It's perhaps a cry. That's why ubuntu is a movement towards a humanity state of mind where you see yourself in others. You wouldn't want that thing to happen to that person. With the song, I'm trying to send that message that what matters to you matters to me. That's what I'm trying to convey through the song, you know?

RASCOE: Do you see any parallels between the struggles for racial justice in South Africa and the struggles for racial justice in the United States?

BUTLER: Well, to be Black is to be Black. You know, I'm grateful that I now own a home in my country. Our mothers are still domestic maids, you know, raising their kids, economically not free. You know, what you call projects we call townships. A township is where the guys that work in the mines - there's about 12 guys sleeping in one room, you know, and with just a stove to cook. They have different facets. But I guess we transcend through our spirit, through ubuntu. We transcend all things through our spirit of entrepreneurship, our tenacity to keep going. We are gifted. We are strong. And, you know, we are rich in so many, many ways. But I speak for all the children that look like me in South Africa.

(SOUNDBITE OF JONATHAN BUTLER SONG, "UBUNTU")

RASCOE: This album - it's so sonically rich, you know, just gorgeous. Do you feel like, ultimately, with this album, that what you are bringing is a piece of your life in South Africa and bringing that to the world?

BUTLER: This record is a big milestone for me because every bit of my desire, my ambition and my love for my country was put on this album. And everything that I cried over in my life, you know, as a Black artist from South Africa - this record really allowed me to become the person that I've always wanted to be.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "UBUNTU")

BUTLER: (Singing in non-English language).

RASCOE: Jonathan Butler is a South African jazz musician and has a new album out called "Ubuntu." Thank you so much for joining us.

BUTLER: You're so welcome. Thank you so very much for having me. Great conversation.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "UBUNTU")

BUTLER: (Singing in non-English language). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.