Grammy Award-winning recording artist Smokie Norful recently stood at the crossroads, with a weighty decision at hand. The path he chose — to further embrace the call to ministry and plant his own church –– has been overwhelming and joyful. Smokie, Gospel music’s “Voice of Inspiration,” says that choice renewed his passion for singing and songwriting, and inspired his upcoming album, Life Changing, his third with EMI Gospel.
For at least six years, this pastor’s son from Pine Bluff, Arkansas, felt the calling to lead a congregation of his own –– but resisted. He had grown up in his father’s African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church in Oklahoma and Arkansas, and witnessed early-on, the weight of a minister’s responsibilities and the time away from family. Though Smokie had initially moved to the Chicago area in 1998 to begin work on a Master of Divinity degree at Garrett Theological Seminary, and had spent time as an assistant pastor at a large church in the suburbs of Chicago (where his work with Joanne Brunson, leader of Gospel’s famed Thompson Community Choir, launched his recording career), his successful music career soon began making tremendous demands on him, along with his role as a husband and father.
Though Smokie felt conflicted, he couldn’t ignore the fact that the routine of being a working recording artist—the grind of promoting your album, the constant travel—had grown monotonous. Though he loved his work, he felt disconnected. He knew he needed to make some changes. “Being a recording artist is a passion, it has to be. If it’s not, you’ll burn out,” says Smokie. “I needed to get back to the thing that made me who I am—and that’s serving in church. I’m a church kid.”
Besides, Smokie is not one to ignore God’s will. “And I heard God’s voice very, very clearly,” he recalls.
By 2004, he was fortunate to have had poignant conversations with his favorite preacher, the venerable Bishop T.D. Jakes, a man whose life and ministry Smokie has long admired. Smokie had even decided to relocate to join the 28,000+ member Potter’s House church in Dallas. Smokie and his wife even went house shopping there. “It seemed as though nothing was coming together, though,” says Smokie of that time. “Finally, I said, ‘I don’t know why I’m tripping. This is my will, not God’s.’ I was stirred by the power of God moving though Bishop Jakes’ ministry, and the awesome wisdom he was pouring into me. However, deep within I knew I was, like Jonah, running from what I knew was part of my destiny.
Smokie turned to another good friend and fellow recording artist, Donnie McClurkin. Smokie thought he would ease into ministering and told McClurkin he was going to start a Bible study. The two embarked on a conversation that Smokie says changed his life. “By the end of that conversation, I was in tears,” Smokie recalls. “Donnie had walked me from Genesis to Revelation, pointing out everybody who had avoided God’s call— and the consequences. I wrote a song that day, I’ll Say Yes.”
Smokie’s choice was to birth a new ministry, Victory Cathedral Worship Center, which is thriving in the suburban Chicago communities of Bolingbrook/Romeoville. In less than a year, his congregation has blossomed to nearly 1,300 members. Smokie’s concerns about the time this newest vocation would take from his beloved family have been assuaged. His wife, Carla, works by his side as Victory Cathedral’s executive manager, overseeing the church’s daily logistical operations. Smokie says his two young sons have embraced the church family as their own, and are always eager to see daddy in the pulpit. “When it comes to big decisions like this, you close your eyes, hold your breath and jump,” says Smokie. “Trusting God in the process, knowing He’s not going to tell you to do anything that He hasn’t equipped you to handle.
For Smokie, being pastor of Victory Cathedral has brought about a renewed passion for his singing and songwriting. “Being a recording artist has been remarkable and I’ve enjoyed every moment, but I’ve learned that you have to be both insulated and isolated because people are drawing from you. It will take all that you have,” says Smokie. “I found that being a pastor brings you back to the people. I have mechanisms in place so that I know what’s going on with every member of my church. I have a pastoral care team that reports to me every week on the status of every member. Not only do I know what’s happening in people’s lives, I’m totally accessible. Dealing with their joys and tragedies gives me new zeal to write.”
That zeal shines through on Smokie’s latest release, Life Changing, which he describes as a celebration. “I’m celebrating the changes in my life and the changes that God will bring to anybody’s life,” says Smokie. “I hope that people come away from this album with the understanding that connecting with Christ is life-changing. We have to plug into the source in order to stay recharged.”
His renewed love for his recording career has given birth to exciting opportunities, new business, and creative endeavors, such as One Wordd Productions, formed with new business and writing partner Jason Tyson. In 2005, the “Voice of Inspiration” rang throughout the halls of this nation’s most powerful address — 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue — when Smokie joined President Bush, First Lady Laura Bush and a host of Cabinet members, Congressmen, White House Officials and African-American leaders for a private celebration of Black Music Month. That same year, Smokie also journeyed to South Africa for a five-stop tour in support of the “Save Africa’s Children” campaign founded by Bishop Charles E. Blake (of West Angeles Church of God in Christ) in support of children infected and orphaned by AIDS.
The most significant development, however, is Life Changing’s ten new tracks. The new album’s mix of praise and worship, traditional and urban pop builds on Smokie’s legacy of music and ministry.
Back in 2002, Smokie burst onto the Gospel music scene as one of the few artists in the genre to strike gold with his debut release — the chart-topping I Need You Now. He came back in 2003 with his first ever EP, Limited Edition, which was recorded live at a church in Chicago. The release bowed at #1 on the Billboard Gospel chart and #3 on the Billboard Contemporary Christian chart –– the first time ever that a Gospel artist occupied two of the Billboard Gospel Top 5 positions with a non-holiday release.
In 2004, Smokie’s sophomore effort, Nothing Without You continued the singer/songwriter’s stellar tradition debuting #1 on Billboard’s Gospel chart and#4 on Billboard’s Contemporary Christian chart. He followed that success a year later with the release of his first DVD, Nothing Without You, which featured live concert performances, in-depth interviews and a bonus feature –– the artist’s I Need You Now video.
More than 103 weeks later, the CD Nothing Without You remains among the Billboard top 25 Gospel. In fact, since his powerful introduction in 2002, Smokie has never left the Billboard Gospel charts. This streak, unprecedented for a Gospel artist, has been accompanied by a raft of awards and honors, including: a 2004 Grammy Award for “Best Contemporary Soul Gospel Album;” three of gospel music's Stellar Awards (“New Artist of the Year,” “Male Vocalist of the Year” and “Contemporary Male Vocalist of the Year”); two of Christian music’s Dove Awards (“Contemporary Gospel Album of the Year” and “Urban Recorded Song of the Year”); three Gospel Music Workshop of America (GMWA) Excellence Awards (“New Artist of the Year –Contemporary,” “Album of the Year – Contemporary” and “Song of the Year – Contemporary”); the American Society of Young Musicians (ASYM) Award for “Favorite Gospel Artist;” the first ever ASCAP Rhythm & Soul Music Award for “Gospel Artist of the Year” (2005); and many other awards and nominations –– including a 2003 nomination for the BET Award for “Best Gospel Artist” and a 2004 NAACP Image Award nomination for “Outstanding Gospel Artist;” (for a complete list of awards and nominations see attached document). Smokie was also named “Gospel Artist of the Year” for 2003 and 2004 by the industry’s top trade publication, Billboard magazine. Also, This year, he was also featured along with 25 of messengers of God (including Bishop Noel Jones, Pastor Donnie McClurkin, Kirk Franklin, and others), in Messengers: Portraits of African American Ministers, Evangelists, Gospel Singers and Other Messengers of the Word (Doubleday, 2006), by award-winning music writer David Ritz.
So what is it that connects this former high school history teacher to his fans so powerfully? He believes it is passion. “It is my passion for Christ, the passion to inspire people through ministry, and my passion for music” Smokie says. “What comes from the heart reaches the heart. I believe that.”
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