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Israel Houghton: The Person Behind The Praise

  2006-01-13
 

By Rene Williams

Live Worship
Israel Houghton, leader of Israel & New Breed, is one of praise and worship’s most respected and celebrated artists. Garnering two Stellar Awards, two Dove Awards, a Soul Train Award, a GRAMMY Award nomination, and a gold record (selling more than 500,000 units), he’s become a favorite among fans of gospel music and contemporary Christian music alike. Along with his counterparts in the genre like Byron Cage, Stephen Hurd, William Murphy and Fred Hammond, he’s helped to place praise and worship squarely within the confines of the black church.

Delivering such powerful cuts like Who Is Like The Lord, You Are Good, Again, I Say Rejoice, Friend of God and Not Forgotten, Houghton’s songs have become ingrained in the fiber of the African American worship experience. Taking elements of traditional gospel, contemporary Christian music, Latin and Caribbean influences and most recently melodies and rhythms from “the Motherland”, he’s been able to craft tunes that are God directed, excellently orchestrated and easily sung. In addition to being a nationally-known recording artist and songwriter, he is the National Director of Music and Worship for Champions for Christ and has worked with the Young Messiah Tour. Touted as a great producer as well, he’s helped to guide the careers of artists like Martha Munizzi and twin sister Mary Alessi and has lent his musical skills to notable artists such as Crystal Lewis, Karen Clark Sheard, Anointed, CeCe Winans, Marvin Sapp, Darwin Hobbs, Donnie McClurkin, Yolanda Adams and many others.

Israel and New Breed Performing
Houghton, currently the minister of music under noted pastor and author Joel Osteen at Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas, regularly ushers thousands of worshippers into the presence of God. The exuberance and energy he exudes on stage – regularly flanked behind an awesome band and a wailing set of dynamic backup singers – allows Houghton to bring even the staunchest traditional Christian to the stance of lifted hands. Whether in a live performance or a recording, Houghton seems to have an uncanny ability to grab at the heart of the worshipper and pull them into the throne room with him. He’s able to make the casual audience member an active participant in worship. But where does his passion for God come from and what’s the story behind the man?

Houghton’s story begins with a teenage girl. Born in Waterloo, Iowa, she ended up getting pregnant at the tender age of 17. Already in a delicate condition, her situation was compounded by the fact that she was white and the father of her unborn child was black. She also struggled with a drug addiction. As things went from bad to worse, the unwed mother-to-be was tossed out of her parents’ house when she refused their suggestion of a back-alley abortion. Somehow, she ended up in San Diego, homeless and living on the streets. Although she didn’t know it, God had his hand on this young girl’s life. When she was 8 months pregnant and walking down the street one day, a woman in a Volkswagen stepped out of her car and approached her. The woman pulled out a Bible and started sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ with the young pregnant woman. Before she knew it, right there on her knees on that corner in San Diego, the young pregnant woman received Christ. The woman gave her that Bible. As she thumbed through it, she repeatedly saw the name “Israel”. It was at that point she decided to name her unborn child Israel.

Israel Houghton
Israel and Aaron live
About a year after her son was born, she met and married a pastor, a man who Israel considers his real father. Even now, Israel’s mom and stepfather continue to pastor and lead others to Christ. Knowing “it could have been another way” fuels Houghton’s passion in praising God. He says, “I’m often asked why I’m as passionate about worshiping God as I am. The answer is simple for me. In this age of disposable relationships, I could easily have become a statistic and, at best, a distant memory of a youthful mistake. Instead, a Sovereign God rescued my mother and me and gave us hope, a future and a testimony of the providence of God. The very least I can do is enter into His gates with thanksgiving, His courts with a passionate praise and eventually bow before His throne in intimate worship.”

It was those humble beginnings that set Houghton on the path to becoming one of the most popular praise and worship leaders of the day. Houghton reflects on the time when music shifted from a hobby to a calling. “When I got around music in church, I enjoyed it. But it was when I realized that I wouldn’t be a major league baseball player that I pursued music. When I went to college in Arizona, I attended a church and started playing in the band there. Shortly after arriving, I ended up leading praise and worship. That’s where my full-time ministry started. My regional ministry – over a ten-year period – began there. By being faithful and telling God ‘I’ll do whatever you put in my heart to do and wanting to do it in a genuine way opened doors for me,’” says Houghton.

Israel Houghton
Israel Hughton Worshipping
After that heartfelt surrender, he recalls a moment when the Lord confirmed that music was indeed his calling. “It was a very private experience. I remember I was in my kitchen,” says Houghton. “I would put my piano in the kitchen because the acoustics were great in there. It was a place that I would regularly meet with God. I would play and sing and cry. And one day, I remember feeling like I had received an invitation from God. He said to me, ‘I’m going to take you to the ends of the earth and use what I put in you. But I need to know that you’re okay with never getting the credit for it.” Houghton said “yes” and continued to remain steadfast in his relationship with God.

Houghton also realized that God was going to use his unique background as well. His life experiences gave him distinctiveness and allowed him to incorporate all the cultures of his life in ministry. Houghton declares, “Because my mother is white and my stepfather is black, my situation was different. I was a black kid in a white family in a predominantly Hispanic church. For me, there were multiple streams of influence, and it shaped the sound of my music. Quite frankly, I enjoy diversity and variety. I never, ever got into this business to talk to one specific group of people, but I wanted to reach people globally.”

His regional ministry continued to flourish and eventually, Houghton hooked up with legendary producer and songwriter Fred Hammond. A long-time fan of Hammond, Houghton studied all of his music and considered him a “long-distance mentor” prior to actually meeting him. Houghton credits Hammond with the wave of praise and worship in the black church. He says, “Fred revolutionized gospel music. He certainly brought worship music to the Urban church in America. I was so intrigued by that”. His fascination piqued when he finally got the chance to meet him by working with Christian artist Angelo & Veronica. He ultimately began working with him when Houghton was tapped to pen a tune for Marvin Sapp. Nothing Else Matters, the title track to Sapp’s third project, was produced by Hammond and was the start of a long-lasting friendship. From that point, Houghton got a chance to work in the studio and tour with Hammond. Eventually he became a member of Radical For Christ.

Israel Houghton
Israel Hughton
But it was his singing aggregation New Breed and their debut project that catapulted Houghton’s career. The live praise and worship CD entitled New Season introduced Houghton and his gifts to the world. The critically-acclaimed project floored the gospel community and was the start of a phenomenal ministry. The CD spawned the tracks There’s A Lifting Of The Hands, You Are Good and Trading My Sorrows. New Season was followed by Real, a studio, almost retro praise and worship project, with a strong Andrae Crouch influence. But his following 2-disc CD, Live From Another Level, a riveting live worship experience, put him “on the map” garnering numerous awards, including a Grammy nomination, and a gold record. Songs like Again, I Say Rejoice and Friend Of God helped to propel the project to #1 on the Billboard Top Gospel Albums chart.

He’s recently released a new 2-disc project called Alive In South Africa, a live praise and worship encounter with the Dark Continent. In addition to providing meaningful songs and the excitement that live worship offers, Houghton incorporates the rhythms and the texture of the continent on the CD. He has a special affinity for Africa. “When I went there in 1994., the visit was so powerful to me - so defining. I felt like I was at home. I’ve never been anywhere where I felt that way. I fell in love with the people there - the country, the culture. The dream to come back and eventually merge with the country, and specifically with Cape Town, was born then. And this was the year that it came to pass. Actually, I’ve been there once a year for the past 12 years. I feel that there’s a spiritual inheritance connected to it,” says Houghton. He also feels their passion for God is different than here in the States. “It doesn’t take a whole lot of prodding, pushing and convincing for them to enter into worship,” he comments. “I think they’ve been taught well and understand the dynamics of the Kingdom and their role in worship. And beyond that, they understand that He’s not all you need until He’s all you have.”

Israel Houghton
Israel and New Breed circling the globe and ministering
Circling the globe and ministering during turbulent times have reinforced the focus of his ministry. He feels that with the influx of natural disasters including tsunamis, earthquakes and hurricanes that worship’s role hasn’t changed. “I think in its very nature the message of praise and worship is life and hope and joy and celebration. I think the source of all life and strength is God. So if people can get past theological differences and doctrinal differences and agree that Jesus is Lord, there is so much we can do together. We’re to bring hope to the world. As songwriters and singers, that’s our goal – to bring hope through the music,” says Houghton.

Although Houghton is honored with all he’s been able to do - the places he’s traveled to, the accolades he’s received and the audiences he’s touched, he’s quite certain where his true ministry lies. He’s the proud husband of Meleasa, who is in ministry with him, and father of Mariah, 9, Israel Duncan, 4 and Milan Lilly, 2. “My first ministry is to the church that I pastor. It has four congregants. Everything else is something that I get to do because the priority of home is covered.”

Feedback - Rene Williams is a freelance writer for Gospelcity.com, GTM Magazine and Charisma Magazine. She also is the author of the Gospel News Update, a bi-weekly e-zine about what's happening in the Christian music industry, and the D.C. Gospel News Update, a weekly newsletter about gospel events in the Washington, D.C. area.