Gospel Star Smokie Norful Sings Of Hope Gospel artist and pastor Smokie Norful is back on the gospel music circuit with his fourth album Smokie Norful Live. Reverend Norful joins host Michel Martin for a performance chat. The Arkansas native shares some of his work and discusses his life as a pastor and an acclaimed recording artist.
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Gospel Star Smokie Norful Sings Of Hope

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Gospel Star Smokie Norful Sings Of Hope

Gospel Star Smokie Norful Sings Of Hope

Gospel Star Smokie Norful Sings Of Hope

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Gospel artist and pastor Smokie Norful is back on the gospel music circuit with his fourth album Smokie Norful Live. Reverend Norful joins host Michel Martin for a performance chat. The Arkansas native shares some of his work and discusses his life as a pastor and an acclaimed recording artist.

Smokie Norful
Clay Patrick McBride


I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. He is a preacher's son from Arkansas, and he spent his early years listening to the classic gospel stars like James Cleveland and the Mighty Clouds of Joy.

When he grew up, Smokie Norful decided to live in both worlds. He stepped behind the pulpit and in front of the choir, preaching and singing his own songs of praise. He's won a Grammy and also the top gospel honors, the Dove and Stellar awards, and he pastors a church, Victory Cathedral Worship Center.

He's currently on tour, promoting his latest CD, "Smokie Norful Live," and he joins us now for a performance and conversation right here in NPR Studio 4A. Welcome, Smokie, thank you for joining us.

Mr. SMOKIE NORFUL (Singer): Thank you for having me.

(Soundbite of applause, cheering)

MARTIN: And we have to say the CD is already a hit. It debuted at the top of Billboard's gospel chart, congratulations.

Mr. NORFUL: Yay. Thank you.

MARTIN: Why did you want to do a live album?

Mr. NORFUL: I'm a church kid. Let's start right there. And, of course, I'm very kindred to the live element in that whole dynamic. This is my fourth CD. I've never done a live one, and for me, it's like putting a fish back in water. It's just my natural habitat.

So I really wanted to capture the energy and the excitement of a live environment and be able to present that, you know, and present the music and ministry to the world in that way.

MARTIN: How would you describe your sound?

Mr. NORFUL: I try not to describe the sound because I don't like to be confined to one area or another. But, you know, I know that there are certain influences that probably come out and come through in my music, you know, the Donny Hathaway, the Stevie Wonder, the Vanessa Bell Armstrongs, you know, the Tremaine Hawkins, even.

And so all of these have been great influences musically upon my career and my musicianship. So, you know, sound, inspirational, encouraging, uplifting. I know those are not sonic qualities, but they are the embodiment of what I would hope are the attributes of my sound.

MARTIN: I've heard it described as urban inspirational.

Mr. NORFUL: I've heard that many times, too.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: What does that mean?

Mr. NORFUL: You know, I'm still trying to figure that out. That was a phrase that was coined when I first came into the market. I've been called inspirational, urban inspirational, R&B, pop, gospel. I think at the core of it, you know, it just means that it's approachable. It's accessible. The sound is whatever you desire out of this gospel message.

MARTIN: One thing I would say about that - and we've been fortunate to speak to a number of artists like Cece Winans, the Blind Boys of Alabama - and just to put in a little plug here, if you want to hear those interviews, you can find them on our Web site. But a number of artists have told us that sometimes when they move from the traditional gospel sound, however that is defined - you know, the hand-clapping and the, you know, minimal musical accompaniment -they're criticized that you're straying from the core message. Has that happened to you, or are we over that?

Mr. NORFUL: No, not as much. It hasn't happened to me. I don't think that we're necessarily completely over it, but the dynamic of my whole career has been that I have intentionally included some of everything musically, you know, the sound of everything to make sure that my ministry was able and my music was able to reach a broader audience. And I do concur that there is some backlash at times, you know, when you are presenting a style that's not the customary style of that individual that grew - that sect, whatever it is, you know, section of the gospel community.

So, yeah, you do get backlash. But I think that we have become a long way since Bebe and Cece started, you know, many, many years ago, introducing this nuance, you know. So I think we've very - we've come a long way, and people are more accepting of creativity.

MARTIN: Speaking of coming a long way, why don't we hear something from the new disk?

Mr. NORFUL: Okay, all right.

MARTIN: How about "Don't Quit"?

Mr. NORFUL: Sounds good to me.

MARTIN: All right, "Don't Quit."

Mr. NORFUL: A great message for this time.

(Soundbite of song, "Don't Quit")

Mr. NORFUL: (Singing) The economy's down, and prices seem so fat. All I ever do is try and try. Trying to make ends meet, trying to pull myself above so I can see. Every now and then it seems so helpless, hopeless.

But I'm a living, breathing testimony of what God can do. Oh, if you hold on long enough he will see you through; even when the enemy says this is it. Oh, oh, oh, whatever you do just don't quit. I've got my own set of challenges yes, yes. And my friendships sometime they wear a little thin. Every now and then oh, I got wonder if my own family is countering(ph). I'm trying to make sense of my life, trying to overcome all that's not right. Oh, oh, oh, sometimes it seems so helpless, hopeless. But even when things don't go my way, I've got to hold on to my faith. Oh, I wasn't made to be defeated. Even when the enemy says this is it, oh my brother, my sister, what ever do just don't quit. Oh, oh, whatever you do, just don't quit.

(Soundbite of applause)

(Soundbite of cheering)

Unidentified Man 1: Yes.

Unidentified Man 2: Yes.

MARTIN: That was "Don't Quit."

(Soundbite of laughter)

Reverend NORFUL: "Don't Quit."

MARTIN: We're visiting with Smokie Norful and he's talking about his new CD "Smokie Norful Live." And he was kind enough to join us here in Studio 4A at our NPR studios in Washington.

What inspired that? I think it's pretty obvious what's going on right now...

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: ...but just in case it's something I haven't thought of.

Reverend NORFUL: No. Trust me, it's very self-explanatory. People are looking for hope. They need encouragement. They need to be reminded that despite what our circumstances and situations may appear to be God is still God, and there's no reason, no need for you to quit.

Unidentified Man: Well.

MARTIN: Speaking of which, one of the songs I think people appreciate of yours the most is "I Need You Now." It was from your debut CD, which was released in 2002, very big hit for you. And as I understand it, that it was inspired by...

Reverend NORFUL: Personal. Yes.

MARTIN: ...the tribulations in your family.

Reverend NORFUL: Absolutely.

MARTIN: If you don't mind telling a little bit about it.

Reverend NORFUL: Sure. Sure. Sure. You know, my wife was diagnosed with tumors; this is her second time. She was 24 years old and then actually, before that my father had gotten ill. He had open-heart surgery and it was really really stressful on me. And then after that my grandmother was ill. They were threatening to amputate her leg because of her diabetes. And then right after that my mother became ill. She was paralyzed on her whole right side. And, you know, I realize now in hindsight that all of those things that I was dealing with were not just for me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Reverend NORFUL: It was just so that God could show through me what he was capable of doing. Because the end to that testimony is that I have two beautiful baby boys, my wife and I, despite what the doctor's diagnosis and prognosis was. It was not cancer. My father's healthy. He's still preaching and pastoring. My mother's one hundred percent asymmetrical - never tell she was paralyzed. My grandmother, she's since gone on to be with the Lord, but she left here with both legs and she would be dancing now if she was still here.

(Soundbite of cheering and applause)

Reverend NORFUL: So, in that time I sat down at the piano and crushed, literally, like life had crushed me, the trials that I was, they had crushed me until I felt like, God if you don't so something now I'm going to go crazy.

Unidentified Woman: Right.

Reverend NORFUL: I need you now. I can't take this. That's what inspired the song. And again, it was for me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Well for those who might be feeling that way now.

Reverend NORFUL: Yes.

MARTIN: I can't speak on it but...

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: ...ample reason why folks might. How do you feel about playing it for us?

Reverend NORFUL: Let's go.

MARTIN: Let's hear it. "I Need You Now."

Reverend NORFUL: (singing) Not a second or another minute. Not an hour of another day. Lord, Lord at this moment with my arms outstretched God we need you to make a way as you have done so many times before. Sometimes through a window or an open door, Lord I stretch my hands to you. Come rescue me. I need right, right away. I need you now. I need you now. I need you now. I need you now. Lord I need you right now Lord. I don't want to wait. I don't want to wait another second or another minute. Not an hour of another day. Lord, I need you. I need you right, right away.

(Soundbite of applause)

Unidentified Man 3: Halleluiah.

MARTIN: "I Need You Now." Smokie Norful. He's here with us at NPR's Studio 4A in Washington, D.C. And if you're just joining us you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

I think that song's bringing up a lot for people here. I think...

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: ... I think it's bringing up a lot. Yes. I think so. Might I ask though, in addition to your singing career, you are minister of Victory Cathedral Worship Center in Illinois. You're a husband, a father, as we've discussed, a son. You know typically we ask women this, you know, how do you do it all?

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: But you know pastoring is very hands-on...

Reverend NORFUL: It is. Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: ... in the way being a mother is or a father is.

Reverend NORFUL: It is. Nurturing.

MARTIN: Nurturing.

Reverend NORFUL: Hovering(ph).

MARTIN: And, of course, the singing and recording career, very demanding. And so how do you do it all? How are you faithful to all these responsibilities?

Reverend NORFUL: You know I say prayerfully, carefully, strategically. That's the three principals I think that are absolutely essential for me to be able to do all that is on my plate. You know, one of the things that I've done is prioritize, and I have had to do that since I first came into the music industry. I did not want to be a recording artist who barely knew his family, and whose family barely had, you know, access to him. So priority for me first and foremost has always been my family. I want my sons, and my daughter, and my wife, I want them to know you know me in the home.

MARTIN: How do you keep yourself humble?

Reverend NORFUL: Taking...

MARTIN: I mean you are in a position where people could be kissing your you know what all day long.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: And the more successful you get the more that...

Reverend NORFUL: Yes.

MARTIN: ... becomes true.

Reverend NORFUL: You're right.


Reverend NORFUL: It's attributed partially to being parented well. My mother and father, they did an exceptional job because they knew that I was a gifted child, of making sure that remained normal and that I had a normalcy in my childhood, and that also that remained humble. And nobody humbles you like your family. You know, when I go home it's not, you know, oh my god, it's Smokie Norful, the recording artist. It's daddy, I'm hungry. You know I want a new bike. Where you been? Did you make enough money? My son asked me that on the phone last night. Did you make enough on the new CD? Did you sell enough CD's to buy my dirt bike yet? You know, so...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Reverend NORFUL: ...there's no stardom with them at all, none whatsoever. Take out, honey, take out the trash. Honey, did you do this? Honey, did you do that? You know you go out of town in two days. Do it now that it'll be done.

MARTIN: Now if I call Mrs. Norful.

Reverend NORFUL: Oh-oh.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: And I ask her are you taking out the trash?

Reverend NORFUL: Oh no. She, no. I cook. We have an arrangement. You know, I'll cook if she cleans. So she cleans and when I'm at home you know, I'm always in the kitchen and I'm doing my thing because I'm country like that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: What can go out on? What song shall we - that we play to say goodbye?

Reverend NORFUL: There's a new song. There's a new song on this project and it really, you know, it was a result of me sitting down a writing a letter to God. You know, I didn't want to do a piano number on this project. But they said you got to; you have to. So I sat down and simply told God my heart' wrote this letter. And so the name of this song is "Dear God."

MARTIN: "Dear God" by Smokie Norful. Smokie is promoting his new CD, "Smokie Norful Live," which is available now. You can find more information about Smokie at our website, the TELL ME MORE page at NPR.org.

Smokie, thank you so much for joining us today.

Reverend NORFUL: Thank you. Thank you for having me.

(Soundbite of applause)

MARTIN: And now "Dear God."

(Soundbite of piano)

Reverend NORFUL: It feels so good to make it this far. And I didn't think I could take it so long. There were days I wanted to quit. And I said surely this is it. But I held on. And I've watched so-called friends turn and walk away. It hurt so much I didn't have words left to say. But even when my day turns to night and nothing seems just right, Lord I thank you for, for my life...

MARTIN: And we've just gotten word that Smokie Norful has something new to celebrate. Yesterday he earned a BET Award nomination for Best Gospel Artist. To watch a video of Smokie Norful's performance here at NPR, and listen to more studio sessions by a wide range of artists please check out our Web site, the TELL MORE page at NPR.org.

And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

Reverend NORFUL: (singing) ... for, for my life. And I watched you take my family from there to here. And when times where a little rough God I know you were near; thank you Jesus. At the moments I thought I had failed I was reminded of your nails. So I held on. Oh and if I never live to see another day. There's nothing I would change or take away. I've had so many ups that they far out way my downs. Lord I thank you for my life. I realize that some didn't make it. I could've been one of the ones who lost my way. And there were times God I know I almost went crazy. Oh but I'm still here, I'm still here with my life. Oh for my life Lord I say thank you. For every victory in you I've seen. And for moments I know, I know you kept me. Lord it was you who kept me...

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Watch a video of Smokie Norful's performance chat.