Israel Houghton Interview
Israel Houghton: The International Worshipper
Challenges Believers on A Deeper Level
By Shamerra T. Brown
Refreshing. That’s the befitting word to illustrate what Israel Houghton and New Breed
have become to the world. As he travels the globe re-presenting the joy of Jesus Christ to
the nations, Grammy award-winning Israel has brought a unique sound that introduces to
some and reminds others of the value of being on God’s winning team and — often
overlooked — the concept that He’s on our side.
What began as a divinely inspired dream for more heartfelt worship and service to God,
has rapidly erupted into a monumental mission heard ’round the world. His multicultural
music has crossed racial and generational barriers, lending to Christ’s call for unity among
His followers. Although his praise and worship anthems like “Again I Say Rejoice,” “Friend
of God,” and “Not Forgotten” becoming standards in churches in various countries, Israel
has made an impact beyond the Christian music sect. He and his group of racially blended
singers and band members have achieved a synthesis of music and message that is
electrifying audiences inside and outside church walls. And thank God for that.
Gerard Henry of BET’s Lift Every Voice said: “His sound cannot really be categorized … it’
s a Kingdom sound that is really intergenerational. I can play his music in my home — I
have little children and they don’t necessarily like Gospel or some of the other stuff I have
access to, but when it comes to Israel and Sound of the New Breed, we all enter in.”
In his latest project, A Deeper Level, Israel goes beyond worshipping God through music
to address another form of worship — giving ourselves to serve the urgent needs of
humanity, when the melody ends. In a book of the same name, he and band members
detail the days of fasting, preparation and ministry that led up to the live recording.
Perhaps his ability to be used as an instrument and agent of the love of God is due in part
to Israel’s personal trials and triumphs. Before he was born, Israel’s family advised his 17-
year-old mother, who is white, to terminate her pregnancy (from a black man) or they
would disown her. Determined to keep her baby, she ran away, and into the arms of
Jesus; and a better life. Relying on the strength of God and the spiritual guidance of his
mother and stepfather, young Israel survived the often-bitter hostility he suffered from
family members (they eventually made peace). He soon learned that he and his life had
significance and purpose.
With his past resolved, Israel Houghton is equipped to continue fulfilling his role in
restoring light where tragedy, disappointment and sin have darkened hearts. Now, listen
to his heart, on a deeper level …
Shamerra T. Brown: Let’s take a step back. When you were singing with RFC [Fred
Hammond’s Radical for Christ], did you already have the vision for New Breed? Were you
developing your unique style and sound back then?
Israel Houghton: I think the conversations around New Breed had been going on prior to
going to Fred. I even shared with him what I was looking to do. One of the reasons he
made me a part of his team was to kind of assimilate to their style, because he had an
idea for me to become an artist on his label.
Shamerra: Oh, when he started Face to Face.
Israel: Yeah, and at the time, the more we talked about it, the more I really felt like I didn’t
want to just be an urban artist, but that I wanted to focus far more on praise and worship,
and focus a lot more on a multicultural expression. So the more we talked about it, the
more we realized that we might be better off going to a different label and that’s how we
ended up at Integrity [Records].
Shamerra: OK. You have quite a blend of nationalities represented in your band and
singers. Is that intentional? Do you kind of pick them up as you trot the globe?
Israel: The short answer to that is, yes. You know what’s funny? We’ve never had an
audition in this group in the eight years that we’ve been together. It’s always been
relationship-based, chemistry-based, and word of mouth, that sort of thing. We’ve gotten
a lot of people who’ve wanted to audition for the group, [but] it’s just never been our
approach. And so it’s been intentionally comprised of people from different walks of life. A
couple of our people were born and raised in South Africa; there are people [in] this group
who have been all over the world; and people who have just been raised in the good ol‘
Gospel church. But everybody’s story just kind of comes together. Our group is really
made up of leaders that I get the opportunity to lead. And it’s a fabulous life in that
Shamerra: I like that your message and lyrics are very clear in intent, whether you’re
describing expressions for worship, social issues, or even declarations over our lives.
Does it always come to you as vivid and heartfelt as listeners receive it?
Israel: Um, pretty much. I’ve made a point of surrounding myself with really good
songwriters and I do a lot of cowriting with them, just to get the distinct message out and
avoid being one-dimensional. I’ve been a big fan of ‘just say it the way you feel it’ and
don’t couch it in a lot of poetic stuff, just say what you want to say … but still make it
accessible so that people can sing along, make it [with a hook] so that people can
remember it. It’s a tweaking process that’s always going on.
Shamerra: It comes across quite well.
Shamerra: Being biracial and going through the family rejection … do those things kind of
acquaint you with the pain that people feel … do you connect with and relate to listeners
through your songs?
Israel: You know, Shamerra, if I’m doing my job, yeah. We look at life, and many of us
have cursed our past crises and said, “Well, if I hadn’t gone through that, I’d be better off.”
And it really is a different way of thinking; thank God I went through that. I am better for it
because I have a far greater appreciation and gratitude for the fact that I’m alive today.
I have a greater sensitivity to the people that I’m attempting to encourage and lift up. Take
Jesus, for instance, He’s the perfect example for us. He was well-acquainted with our grief,
a Man of sorrows, He took all of our sins and all of our pain and all of our doubt and fear
on His back (Is. 53). If He had said, “Nah, I don’t want to do that,” or “I have to do this for
these ungrateful people who couldn’t care less,” we’d be in a mess today.
Shamerra: You’re so right. Israel, you’re not afraid to speak out on very specific issues.
You talked about social injustices, homosexuality, identity struggles … I see many
“prominent” believers skating around topics that really should be addressed by leaders,
beyond the walls of the church. What gives you that boldness? Because you go there with
this project …
Israel: [Laughs]I think a lot of it has to do with how I was raised. I was raised by an
incredible father who just didn’t mince words, and yet was very diplomatic and
compassionate in how he addressed issues.
Shamerra: That’s a good mix.
Israel: Exactly. So the things we address are not just pointing the finger from the
mountaintop down to people in the valley going, “Well get your act together and stop
doing that …” It’s always sort of presented in a question: “What if we, as the body of
Christ, came together and did this?” “What if you weren’t created for living beneath your
privilege as you are right now?” “What if you were created to experience the fullness, the
abundance of who God is?” So I’ve always approached it that way, but never have been
afraid to [say] it, because frankly, I have a problem when the church won’t address stuff,
but every other part of society will.
Shamerra: Yeah isn’t that crazy?!
Israel: It drives me nuts. So for me, when you just talk about social justice issues, as
much as I love rock stars who are kind of leading the way, I’m saying, “This is the church’s
job!” The book of James says true religion is the practice of seeing after orphans and
widows (James 1:27). This is not some Hollywood-driven thing, this is a Kingdom of God
thing. … I appreciate people like Bono who has really looked at the church and [basically]
said, “Come on, do what you’ve got to do … here I am, lending all my credibility and
acclaim as a rock star, to this cause in Africa … where is the church?” And I’m saying on
behalf of the church, “We’re right here and we’re going to do something about it.” I mean,
you can’t talk about my mama that way, and not get a response.
Shamerra: On that note, you were saying, in the song “Deeper,” that we’re not getting
close to God’s heart just so that we can have another great church service. Talk about
how it’s actually for us to serve and help the widows, orphans, those who are sick, hurting
… and the church is actually asleep on some of those issues. I think there was something
you got from [the book of] Amos.
Israel: Yeah Amos 5, The Message [Bible] translation is an incredible translation, and
paraphrased, it essentially says that all these conferences, conventions, fundraisers and
all these great things you guys think you’ve done … God is saying He’s not even hearing
it. And then He says to let justice take priority, get excited, get mobilized about giving a
voice to those who don’t have a voice in the earth, then, you’ll understand why you were
blessed. To me, lately, it’s hard to stomach these big ‘let’s show each other how
prosperous we are’ moments … thinking we’ve had church and that we’ve done something
significant. The thing that I’m attempting to show my children and people who will listen is
that this is not normal. What needs to become normal is that the church of God, the
church of Jesus Christ, stands up and says, “Where there’s pain, where there’s hatred,
where there’s unrest, where there’s injustice, you’re going to see us making a difference.”
What I never understood before was the connection of that to worship, but when I read
Amos 5, I really got it. [God is saying] “I’m not even hearing these songs, sing to Me, and
you don’t have to do it with a melody, do it with action.” … and that is what has really
changed our whole approach.
Shamerra: So you’d say service is seen as a form of worship.
Israel: Oh absolutely. The moment we think worship is just music or singing, we’ve lost the
whole idea. Worship is life in response to who God is and what He’s done.
Shamerra: Wow, and you said something so great … “We’re not here to just salt the salt
and light the light …”
Israel: [Laughs] That came out of an unpremeditated thing. Someone had asked me what
I thought about Christians going into the secular world. I said well, the whole purpose of
the church is not to be the four walls on the corner that come together on Sunday, into
our “country club” kind of atmosphere, where we know the language and the secret
handshake, but we never do anything beyond salting each other, lighting each other, and
telling each other how great we are. When I said that, I just said I’m tired of salting the salt
and lighting the light. I guess at that time I thought well maybe that means this music is
supposed to crossover. And there may be an element to that, but that’s not my focus. My
focus is, there’s plenty of good music out there, but the music is so secondary to the real
purpose of being the hands and feet of Jesus.
Shamerra: That’s wonderful. You were saying that when you write a song, you have to
sort of check yourself to make sure you’re not writing for people or the charts, rather for
or to God, and that will affect people by default.
Israel: Yeah I mean, I still write songs that speak to people, that are for people. And not
every song is a worship song. But the focus of any song I’m involved in writing, ultimately
is that it brings people to a fresh discovery of who God is … rather than having the motive
of, ‘Wow, if I write this song, I’ll get more acclaim for myself.’ I think when that’s the
motivation, then it’s a slippery slope.
Shamerra: Tell me how you met Meleasa.
Israel: To make a long story short, I was leading worship in Pittsburg, Pa. and she had
seen me a month before this particular time and when she saw me leading worship she
just started to cry and she said, “Lord, that’s the type of person I want to meet, and I want
to marry.” And what she really meant was somebody who has that kind of passion [for
God]. And when I met her, I was far less spiritual [about it]. I just said, “Wow, Lord, she’s
beautiful, that’s who I want to know [laughs].” What was amazing was that the night I met
her, I just knew beyond the shadow of a doubt that she was my wife, and five months later,
we were married. And that was 13 years ago. We have three children, Mariah, Israel
Shamerra: What do you want to say to the world about Jesus?
Israel: I think people are tired of the talk, and tired of the Christian television version of
who Jesus is. And I’m trying to be really kind.
Shamerra: Oh I hear you. Please say what needs to be said.
Israel: You know, when the church starts showing up at Hurricane Katrina before FEMA
or the Red Cross can get there, and the body of Christ starts saying, “This is what we do”
… I think the world will start taking on a different mind-set. I think we can sing about Him …
and we’ve sort of been relegated to Hollywood’s version of who Jesus is, a lot of that is of
our own doing. At the same time, in the body of Christ, there are some really consistent,
powerful, influential ministries that are making a sizeable difference. So I feel like I want to
say, in this day and age, various scandals and what not, I’d say to the world, just give us
some time, let some people emerge who really have the Jesus-mind and approach to
Shamerra: What Scriptures are relevant for you in this season?
Israel: Certainly Isaiah 1, Amos 5, James 3 have been very big for me as of late. A lot of
things about purpose, Jeremiah 29, Psalm 139 seem to be ringing true more than ever for
me. And Psalm 139 is easily my life’s message.
Shamerra: Yeah, that one does fit you ... well, all of us! In your book, A Deeper Level,
you talk about being one who actively resists change. How do you overcome that when
you have an understanding or idea that God is taking you through necessary shifts in
your life for growth, or just stretching you to be a better Israel Houghton?
Israel: You know, there’s a passage in Scripture, I believe it’s one of the Gospels, but it
basically says: “Fall on the rock and be broken, or the rock will fall on you and crush you
…” It’s a heavy word, but it’s a compassionate word at the same time. It just says, fall on
the mercy of God and allow change to take its natural course. The more resistant we are
to change, the more we prolong the outcome. So, the older I get, the more wise I want to
be and I want to work smarter, not harder. I’m one of those guys who kind of learns the
hard way, but when I learn it, I learn it. … I’ve come to find that change is not all bad. Most
change, especially when it’s at the hands of God, is a very, very good thing ...
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