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The story about a journey: Jonathan Butler and Marcus Miller bring the concept of ‘Ubuntu’ to life

Jonathan Butler
Jonathan Butler

Jonathan Butler and Marcus Miller have been friends for a very long time and that friendship is now cemented by a new collaborative project called Ubuntu, which in Zulu literally means humanity but is loosely translated as "Because I am, you are.” It’s about a lot more than a collection of songs, though the effort has resulted in some pretty compelling music. Jonathan, Marcus and I talked about this global concept and the experience of working together on this engaging new record.

Listen to our conversation, above.

Interview transcript:

Pat Prescott: Jonathan, here you are with your good friend, Marcus with this beautiful collection of songs called Ubuntu which is sort of a love letter to your African heritage. It’s a kind of celebration for your culture. Let's talk about that first. Explain the meaning of Ubuntu which is really more of a movement than just a word, isn't it?

Jonathan Butler: It's always been a movement. I learned all of this stuff when meeting Desmond Tutu on several occasions. I've seen Ubuntu in action. He personified and walked this language of Ubuntu and showed me how. I remember he was in LA and he invited me to a gala in San Diego, early in the morning. I got up, got dressed and drove to this gala where the chairman of Princess Di’s foundation.

We get there and it's a big room full of people, with all sorts of food coming. These kids and grandkids are all sitting at the table. They're going to pray now, before the dinner. I'm getting ready to hold hands, and pray. He gets up and looks around the room and tells his grandkids, “No, get up and sing.” These kids start singing, a real happy song in Sesotho and the room was just light. We were like a bunch of kids in the room, you know? Things just automatically changed with these.

That’s the way he was. Ubuntu means humanity to others. It means, “I am because we are.” It could be a biblical meaning of grace, of having to show grace to other people, to the world we are living in. When Marcus and I started this record, the world was in a hell of a different crisis.

Where we met and made this record was in the bush in Africa, and it's just an amazing story of how it all really came together. Throughout Africa is a philosophy that you feel and see it when you're there. Everything that happened after the safari when Marcus and I first met, and then we had three days in Johannesburg to record and that studio was packed with Marcus Miller fans.

I thought I had fans until Miller walked in the studio and it was like these guys were just in awe of the moment. It was an experience. I have a 20, 30, 45-minute jam session which is still on my hard drive capturing the moments that we've had. But that's what it means, Pat. It’s a real movement, which I'm discovering is also around the globe, in DC, in LA, in San Diego. Since Marcus and I started doing the cruises and when we did “Sublimity,” like we played on Marcus's record.

I just really believe it's God ordained because I met Marcus in the eighties doing a record called Heal Our Land with Loris Holland producing it. Marcus played on Heal Our Land and a bunch of other songs. The song “Heal Our Land” was Ubuntu. There was this message that came through the music that I was trying to make, and trying to make a statement to South Africa where there was political uprising, violence and death and killings. People being burned by tires, by the police.

Marcus and I have a kind of a preordained situation that happened here and he had nowhere to run, Pat. He had nowhere to run. When I asked him, “Can you drive the car because I want to be a passenger. I need to be a passenger in the car.”

Well, he's a pretty good driver. When you talk about humanity, the two of you would certainly come to mind, so I think it's a perfect pairing. Marcus, why was it so easy for you to embrace this whole Ubuntu philosophy? What does it mean to you?

Marcus Miller: Well, it took me a minute to really, really understand, but Jonathan said a phrase and it all came together. He said, “I am because you are.” I started thinking about music. If you're on stage and you're playing and there's nobody in the audience to receive what you're putting out, it doesn't work. As a musician, as a performer, as an artist, you realize you exist because there are people out there to receive what you're doing. We're really kind of codependent and we exist because the other exists. When I started to look at it like that, it started to make sense.

Jonathan Butler - Ubuntu (Official Audio)

We were talking a little bit ago about Roberta Flack and there's a song that she does, called “Trying Times,” and there's a line in there that says, “People always talk about man's inhumanity to man.” You could say that this project was born in a period where that has become so heightened, the inhumanity we witnessed through the whole George Floyd experience. We saw how people just became so angry and so divided, and there was such a large gap between people. I would imagine that a lot of great music came out of that period, during and after the pandemic. This is kind of a reaction to a lot of that, isn't it?

Jonathan Butler: When you mentioned George Floyd and the last four years of the Administration that we came out of and how divisive this country became. It struck a nerve with me, that in the music world, how do artists express and share what we feel is wrong about the situation that we find ourselves in. Until it happened to me in LA and in Napa Valley then it really became real to me as well. As much as I've escaped South Africa and apartheid and segregation, I was discovering it actually existed here. For me, it was a real jerking experience.

Jonathan, for people who don't know what you're talking about, I find it so interesting, first of all that South Africans embrace philosophies like this so much. You look at someone like you and Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu, some of the kindest and gentlest people. I don't think I ever saw you, Jonathan, in all the years that I've known you, become angry as I did when I saw what you posted after that incident in Napa. I think it speaks to your intolerance with injustice. But speak just a little bit about what happened and the response, when really that statement that you made kind of went viral.

Jonathan Butler: Well, I was playing in Napa Valley at the Blue Note Jazz Festival, and I took the band out for dinner. We had a great dinner and a wonderful time in the restaurant which was highly recommended by a good friend of ours who lives in Napa. When we left, we gave the server a handsome tip. He was so grateful with his hands in a prayer thanking us for the tip. He wandered off and we took pictures of the place as a memory for us to all have. As we all got into the van, (I was the last to get into the van) and I saw a man running up to me.

When as he came close to me, I said, “Can I help you?” He said, “Yeah, I just wanted to make sure that you people took care of my people.” So I said, “Your people, what do you mean your people? Did you speak to your server?” I said, “Excuse me.” I was still being polite, standing in the middle of the road where I could have been killed. But I'm standing there, trying to assist this guy. And I could see that Ron Otis, from Detroit, was fuming in the car. After Ron, others started to boil up and I started realizing, “Let's turn this car around. Let me go back inside.” So I went back inside and I called him out outside, not to make this conversation in the restaurant, and explained to him, “I grew up in South Africa, under apartheid and segregation. No one has ever chased me down for a tip.” I said to him, “What you did was very wrong and offensive.” But he was such an angry man so I said to him, “You know what? You need to really calm down and you need to get some help. You just don't understand what happened here and what is really going on here.”

I didn't win the argument, just got in the car, posted which went viral. I had no idea it would be so crazy that people's anger rose even more, which is what I was not hoping to see, but it was there. In a way, I felt kind of alone because when you're dealing with truth, when you want to have a conversation about truth, you are kind of on your own. You see who's with you. You’ll notice who's with you, and you'll notice who's not standing with you. The same thing happened to me at Whole Foods here in LA was the first time I heard white people telling me to f off to my country in Whole Foods. I had the choice to make, continue shopping or just leave and go home before I get arrested for wearing a George Floyd T-shirt. That's where their argument with me started. I just humbly and gracefully bowed out of that situation.

Coming back to the record, Marcus helped me find where I could just perform and tell my story. I heard “Coming Home” two days ago when I got in my car yesterday and turned on SiriusXM. I took a snapshot of “Coming Home” on the radio. I haven't heard myself on the radio in a while. I usually just listen to talk radio and news all the time. To hear my song on the radio and see it come up on my screen. I was like, “Oh, this is awesome.”

Well, let's talk about that music. It's a wonderful record. It's got everything on it. It's got the flavor of Africa. It's got some funky grooves on it. It's got some love songs because Jonathan Butler does love songs very, very well. There's also a message in many of the songs. Spirituality is always woven through everything that Jonathan does, but I really love the title tune. I want you to talk about that, Marcus, because I think it's a perfect marriage of what you do and what Jonathan does. It's all in there, including a little bass clarinet, singing.

Marcus Miller: Well, as Jonathan said, he takes groups of 30 or maybe 35 people, regularly on tours of South Africa around Cape Town. My wife Brenda and I decided to go in 2019, I believe. We had a great time, discovered how beautiful Cape Town is to visit, including Robbin Island. We did all sorts of incredible things. At the end, Jonathan Butler takes you on a safari. Pat, you go out in the middle of the jungle in a Jeep with no roof. You see rhinos, giraffe and lions. It's terrifying and incredible at the same time, but it really kind of puts you into another place. Every night we'd all end up at our lodgings on the campsite. That’s when Jonathan said, “Hey man, I want to do an album and I want to reconnect with my roots, and I'd like you to help.”

It started off as a joyful homecoming. You asked about the title tune on the album. There was a ton of musicians and we would jam. We had a couple of songs we knew we wanted to do, but we would also just jam. Ubuntu started off as just a jam. Jonathan had some chords and we just played. When you get into the groove, especially with people who were connected to African rhythms, it becomes hypnotic, sometimes going on for 20 minutes. We finally got the tapes (I call them tapes even though there was no tape involved in this new digital age).

I listened to what we were doing and I started grabbing pieces of this jam session and trying to shape it into a piece of music. Afterwards, I presented it to Jonathan. Pat, I know you've been listening to the tune but you’ve got to listen again because Jonathan is singing. You know how somebody will play the guitar and sing along with it? Well, Jonathan was doing that, but he's doing the South African click thing at the same time. It sounds like somebody's playing percussion, but with the guitar. Instead, it's Jonathan. I don't know how he does it. I walk around the house all the time getting on everybody's nerves, trying to figure out how to click and talk at the same time, let alone sing and click at the same time.

It's really fantastic because the album has the essence of a jam. Very spontaneous, but it also reflects the way we shaped it. I'm really proud of it because like you said, it has the funk and it has the African thing, which aren't that different as far as I'm concerned. Jonathan is doing his thing and he just really shines on it.

Jonathan Butler - Superwoman (Where Were You When I Needed You) (Official Audio)

Yeah, you’ve got some really special guests on there. How did the Stevie Wonder thing happen? You do a beautiful version of “Superwoman” and I must mention not only do you have Stevie on it, but you also have an amazing violinist, your beautiful wife, Nadira, who's like at the top of her game. This lady's amazing.

Jonathan Butler: You should have heard it last night. We did a show last night and she goes, “How did it go?” I said, “Well, it went great, you're great.” I said, “Just be still and watch these people coming up saying, “I played violin and I wish I didn’t stop playing.” She's very unique in her sound, in her style. When she plays, I kind of just step back and just listen. It's elegant. It's just, it's very elegant. She’s not trying to do a showpiece for you. She's really just really amazing in her way.

Reaching out to Stevie came about with a conversation with Marcus, a conversation over dinner at the hotel. Marcus brought up Stevie, asking “Do you know some old Stevie songs?” We were going through a list of songs and of course, the lyric from “Superwoman”—where were you when I needed you—came up. I said, “I know the song. I knew every Stevie record because I had Music of My Mind. I had Fulfillingness, I had Inner Visions.” I had all the records growing up, so talk about shaping something. Marcus is a genius in shaping something because I had no idea that was going to be “Superwoman” because it starts out like something completely different.

It's beautiful, how it evolves.

Jonathan Butler: I was like, “Okay, you drive the car, I'll just keep quiet. I'll just sit on my iPhone and just listen.”

Marcus Miller: Jonathan is such a spontaneous, reactive human being that is really fun to throw stuff at him and let him react, because he's going to come up with something special. Make sure, Pat, that you got the microphone on and that you're recording what he's doing because he won't remember what he did, five minutes after that. You don't want to miss it. So make sure the engineer knows, “Dude, keep the thing on and record at all times.”

Jonathan Butler The shaping of it is amazing. The shaping of all of the songs on the whole album. I have my favorites. I was playing “Peace and Shelter” the other night, and I was like, “This is a little bit involved. I've got to stretch my fingers here.” I better go learn this music all over again if I'm going to play it. But it's just such a great new chapter.

Marcus Miller: You asked about Stevie. We finished the song and it had this African feeling to it, but it was very much clearly Stevie's song. So Brenda, my wife, said, “Why don't you have Jonathan send it to Stevie? He knows him.” While Jonathan knows Stevie, it's not like they hang out together all the time. Jonathan was like, “Man, it's kind of intimidating to present Stevie with a version of his song, you know?” But to Jonathan's credit, he sent Stevie the song.

Jonathan Butler: I was playing golf when Marcus called and said, “You’ve got to get to Stevie and ask him to bless the record, bless the song.” I'm like, “Right, just call him.” I'm at the golf course and I'm like, I’ve got to call this man, which to me is like calling Jesus on the phone. I'm just not ready to call God right now. This is crazy. So I text him, “Hey, Stevie, Marcus and I recorded a record while in South Africa and I'd love to send you the song.” I leave the golf course and I'm picking up my granddaughter from school. It's like three o'clock or three thirty in the afternoon.

Stevie calls right on that spot as my granddaughter opens the door. Stevie calls. Now we’re in a long conversation, while I'm shocked that he's calling me back. I'm just absolutely shocked because I don't even know how to speak. I'm just like listening to my hero just talking to me about changing the world.

He’s saying, “We have to make things better,” and I'm listening and then I finally got a word in. I said, “Stevie, I would love to send you something that I recorded – one of your songs while in South Africa.” He said, “Yeah. Cool, cool.” I sent it that night, and the next day, at 7:30 am in the morning, I got a voice text. I sent it to Marcus and Stevie outlined everything about the song that he loved. He loved Nadira’s violin, he loved the instrumentation. He loved Ntokozo who does the chant. He loved the song and who played on it and the way the story was told. “He said, “I love your sincerity.” He outlined everything to me, and then he said, “Thank you for the gift. I'd love to give you something, to give you a gift as well.”

I'm not thinking, “Where does this go right now?” Then he says, “Can you meet me at the studio at nine o'clock?” I called Marcus because I was terrified. I called Marcus and said, “I guess Stevie Wonder wants to meet us in the studio at 9:00 pm tonight. Are you ready to come out?” Marcus said yes and we were there an hour early. As Stevie walks in and sits down, his assistant brought out his little suitcase with all these harmonicas. He tried a couple and looked at Marcus and me and asked, “Which one do you guys like?” I'm looking at Marcus thinking anything, whichever one you want to give me. It doesn't really matter. He was in the studio playing for 20 minutes, just playing.

Well, the results are marvelous. It's really just lovely and he's not the only guest. Keb’ Mo’ is also on “This is Where the Love Comes In” which is a fantastic song—a wonderful piece of music. There's one other thing I really wanted to talk to you guys about. Well, two things actually. We know that art is here, not just to entertain us, but also to challenge us to think and to feel and to help us face the challenges that life serves up for us. I think the bottom line with Ubuntu is a message about healing and just returning to living with each other in harmony.

It's also about our relationship with not just each other, but with nature and with the planet. I know you recently met my friend Denise Fairchild who has a whole Ubuntu climate initiative that's going on. The synchronicity of all of this with what you're doing was kind of stunning. But I think “Rainbow Nation” is a song that really says all of it so beautifully. Before I ask you one final question, I would love for you all to talk about that song.

Jonathan Butler: Marcus and I were in the studio in Johannesburg working on some things and I was stealing a little time away just to kind of write something. The two of us started putting this together musically. Then we got to LA and, while I felt a certain way when I'm home, everything there makes me feel optimistic, because of where we've come from, how far we've gone over 25 years. When I'm home, I'm just optimistic and that song means optimism in so many ways. Optimism in my perfect world, in my space. There's no South African whites, there's no South African coloreds, there's just South Africans.

Jonathan Butler - Rainbow Nation (Official Audio)

We are a rainbow nation. We are the equalizers. We are not the dividers. I just felt like what we were doing in that studio in Johannesburg made me feel optimistic. I felt a lot of hope. The musicians that we were playing were young guys that spoke to us in respect – Uncle JB, Uncle Marcus - in such a beautiful way. I told Marcus, “I'm actually singing in falsetto, which I never sing in falsetto.” I told him I had to lean in and I said, “Marcus, listen. I don’t know how I'm going to sing because that's my practice voice, that's not my singing voice.”

He said, “Hey man, just do it.” When I heard the final thing and Marcus added a little thing at low end, I was like, “Oh my God, this is right. It's really different.” That's what we were going for because Johnson said I need to break my mold.

Marcus Miller: A lot of artists go through that. You've been making music a certain way, you've been making music in a certain place, in a certain studio or in your house, and sometimes you have to change the channel completely so you can find something fresh. Jonathan singing in this really high voice that he sings. You know how great singers were in their car, they're just singing to themselves and they're singing in a high note.

Luther [Vandross] used to do that. He'd say, “I’m going to go to Marcus and I'm going to sing.” I'm like, “Okay, when you get to the mic and try to sing that with your real voice.” You might make a different decision. Anyway, JB sounded so good and Nadira said, “I would really like to hear you singing in the voice that you sing around the house.” So we figured we'd give it a try. The worst thing that'll happen is we decide it's no good and put it on the shelf somewhere, but it came out beautifully.

The last thing I want to say is that this album is really a story about our journey. It started in South Africa with all this hopefulness that Jonathan was talking about, and then maybe two months later, COVID hit. We went into a creative slump for a second because that was a very heavy thing as everybody knows. Then JB called me and said, “Marcus, I'm feeling like the stuff we did in Johannesburg isn't really relevant anymore because there's so much heaviness going on, and we got so much positivity in this music. I want to take a break.”

He took a break and that's where “Love Comes In” was born because that song really addressed that period of time in COVID. We did a couple of things that addressed the mood that everyone was in. But then the veil started lifting. The darkness started lifting. Jonathan lifting the stuff we did in South Africa and said, “I changed my mind. It's perfect. This stuff is wonderful. It's perfect. Let's finish it.” You hear us going through that whole journey and coming out on the other side, and that's what this album represents.

It took a couple of years to do because of all that was going on. I'm really proud of it. I'm really proud to see an artist like Jonathan react to everything that was coming at him and somehow distill it into music. That's just an incredible thing to witness.

This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Pat Prescott is a native of Hampton Virginia and a graduate of Northwestern University. After 5 years teaching middle school, she started her radio career in New Orleans, Louisiana at WYLD-FM. After a brief stint at New Orleans legendary rock station WNOE, she moved to New York to host the midday show at former heritage jazz station WRVR. During her 23 years on New York radio, Pat worked at WBLS, WLIB, The National Black News Network and contemporary jazz station CD 101.9.