If you think gospel great Smokie Norful is a Holy Roller, think again. Yes, the former history teacher and pastor of Illinois’s Victory Cathedral is a servant in the army of the Lord through song and church. But that doesn’t mean you won’t catch him riffing and scatting to an Alicia Keys or India.Arie tune. Fortunately, his diverse musical tastes has enabled the Grammy-winning artist to make music that has a cross-generational appeal, including his latest effort, “Smokie Norful Live,” which features Tye Tibbet and Heather Headley. ESSENCE.com caught up with the proud member of Kappa Alpha Psi to have some real talk about his pastoring, holding steadfast in his faith, and homosexuality in the gospel industry.
ESSENCE.COM: Mr. Norful, you went all the way live for your fans with this album! What was your inspiration?
SMOKIE NORFUL: It’s really Sunday morning, because I spend most of my time in church and feel quite comfortable singing live as I grew up doing most of my life. My whole ministry is about empowering and introducing people to the love of God through song. My albums are very well-rounded so I don’t have one theme and it’s impossible for me to choose a favorite song and that’s a great problem to have.
ESSENCE.COM: Indeed it is. As a minister, has there ever been a time that you lost your faith?
NORFUL: No, there has never been a time that I’ve lost my faith. I don’t know what that feels like. I have to minister to people all the time who have lost their ability to believe. This doesn’t mean I don’t have challenges, but I’ve never stopped believing.
ESSENCE.COM: As a pastor, do you ever feel pressured to carry the weight of that title?
NORFUL: I have never given a lot of thought on the title because I’m not a title-oriented person. I do believe that titles are appropriate because they bestow upon a person his or her responsibility, but it’s not so much so that it changes the humanity of a person. I feel the same way about my music which empowers, encourages, uplifts and delivers a powerful message. Now some people might categorize my music as inspirational, another gospel, so any religious jargon might be appropriate because, again, that’s the core of my ministry, but my message, whether in the pulpit or on tour, will always be based on the word of God despite my different musical influences.
ESSENCE.COM: So does that mean you listen to secular music?
NORFUL: Yes, I do. I know some might think I need salvation, and I’m a firm believer of what you pour into your body, mind and spirit will ultimately come out and manifest in the worst way. That’s why I’m extremely guarded about the message in any R&B song I might be listening to, so I like artists like India.Arie, Alicia Keys and Steve Wonder.
ESSENCE.COM: Folks hold Christians and gospel artists to a higher standard and often forget they are human and make mistakes. Was there anything you discovered upon entering the gospel industry that left you reeling?
NORFUL: Well, I don’t think it was an unrealistic expectation, but I was very naïve and green in the biz, so I expected those individuals whom I looked up to as people with impeccable integrity, therefore, being candid and transparent about their humanity. However, I was disappointed when I realized that their public persona was just that and when you’d see them behind the scenes and their lifestyles didn’t line up.
ESSENCE.COM: Can you share one of those eye-opening experiences?
NORFUL: I had a fellow male gospel artist make a homosexual pass at me through a text message, which was very inviting and inappropriate. I thought he was joking but I was thinking, straight brothers don’t joke like that. It devastated me because he was like a hero to me. As a man you always say what you would do if another man was to approach you in a manner, but I was stunned. Finally, I talked to him like a big brother checking his lil bro and said don’t you ever, ever, ever… and then I told him, “I always prayed for you, but now I know how to pray for you and that’s for deliverance.” Honestly, I didn’t take offense because you can choose whether or not to be offended and I decided not to be. Till this day I never outed the individual nor do I treat him any differently and never will. I don’t know where he is in his struggle today but he’s still a phenomenal artist. That’s exactly why you should never put your trust in any man and always bet on God.