Joseph Butso: Dreamer, Evangelist and the Performance that Went Viral

Two months ago, a young African American performed guest talent John Park’s Thought of You in fluent Korean — a nearly perfect performance on Mnet’s I Can See Your Voice that dropped the jaws of John Park, the show’s detective team and the rest of the world.

Shocked, someone immediately responds, “Is it possible that a foreigner can sing like this?” Another member of the show yells, “I love it! I love it!”

Amid an unfettered flow of popularity— a feature on NBC 4, YouTube views climbing well over five million in one month alone and an overwhelming bombardment of Facebook messages and texts, many from media outlets and people he has never met — Joseph Butso told me “street worship” was his main logistical concern.

On Season 3 of “I Can See Your Voice,” Joseph Butso stuns John Park, the show’s celebrity guest, and the members of the show’s tone-deaf detective team with his performance.

Like anybody who wants to interview an up-and-coming artist, I mumbled a nervous prayer — along the lines of, “Dear God, please let me talk to him” — and sent Joseph Butso an interview request over Facebook.

Immediately, I regretted the lengthy message. Barring the fact that my interview request competed against hundreds of Facebook messages, particularly from media outlets, my plebeian gesture was like a third grader’s bold attempt at making new friends on the playground.

To my surprise, he responded the next day.

“I would love to but before i say yes, I ALWAYS PRAY ABOUT EVERYTHING i do… Trust me when I say God will remind me to talk to you. When he does that I will hit you up. Because timing is an important thing and He will let us know. You pray too Andy.”

Immediately, his faith affected me as we prayerfully waited on “God’s timing” — which for all I knew could have been anywhere between the next day to literally the last day of my life.

Because he applies his faith to every corner of his life, many others who desire to enter into his life are unintentionally invited to do the same.

I accepted the invitation into his world, the world of faith.

Although Skype would ultimately close the 6,900 mile gap between our homes, our faith closed the larger gap between our personalities, experiences and vocations — and the discomforting excitement that cloaked my nervous smile and his unmentioned desire to finish the interview and return to sleep.

It was early morning in Seoul and I clearly startled him. Wanting to clarify his statement, my voice boomed into his earbuds as I shouted, “What? You hated K-Pop?”

Five minutes into our conversation, the soon-to-be K-Pop star told me that he “hated” K-Pop when a friend introduced the genre to him in high school. He explained, “When I first heard that song, I stereotyped all Asian music… at that time, I was like I don’t know how people listen to it.”

By a whim, he encountered Asian pop music again.

Searching for the artist who sang the ’90s hit single Step by Step, he told me, “I saw Asians singing this song on YouTube and thought this song was sung by an Asian group.” (He later learned that it was sung by a caucasian group, New Kids on the Block.)

Continuing to believe this Asian pop group sang Step by Step, he browsed suggested videos of related Asian Pop bands that populated his YouTube sidebar. His browsing led him back to K-Pop. It also led him to Korean dramas where he eventually fell in love with Korean culture.

“It all started from believing an Asian group sang “Step by Step?” I asked.

He replied, “Mmhm. Crazy, right?”

During his senior year, he applied to Asian studies programs alongside the musical theater programs he originally intended to apply for. By chance, he ended up as a Korean major at Ohio State University; this choice would alter the course of his life forever.

“Ahnyung…Morago?

For a brief moment, Joseph casually spoke with his room mate in Korean.

One time, he even helped international students order coffee. As they gathered around the cash register, Joseph translated their orders one by one to an amazed barista, who processed his orders as well as the shock of seeing an African American speak Korean more fluently than his Asian counterparts.

For fun, I asked him to teach me his secret of learning Korean. He replied:

“Number one, you have to pray. And when you pray, you have to believe it. How God works in everyone’s life is different. You pray… that doesn’t mean you’ll instantly be good (speaking Korean in this specific example). Sometimes, it’s going to take a while because in that process, God has a plan. You know? For you and to also show his glory and in order to show his glory, he will use you for other people… So pray, have faith, forget about your pride and just stay in the Word. If you seek his kingdom first, he’ll definitely give you the desires of your heart.”

As I learned more about him, I realized that Joseph spoke his Christian aphorisms directly as a result of experience. His intention was not to preach to me; many times he was merely paraphrasing passages in the Bible — words, stories and themes that made such a definitive impact on his life that he naturally remembered these portions of the Bible.

This was the last time Joseph yawned during our interview. I could see a flame of excitement as he began to testify of his journey. Out of his bed now, he was awake and was about to awaken a sleeping passion within my own heart as well.

Around 1900 BC, a seventeen year old boy also by the name of Joseph, the second youngest son favored by his father, awoke with a dream.

He ran to his ten older brothers who were working in the field. Like a heavily embellished ornament in a bucolic setting, his colorful robe blew with the countryside wind as he spoke: “Behold, we were binding sheaves in the field, and behold, my sheaf arose and stood upright. And behold, your sheaves gathered around it and bowed down to my sheaf.”

Joseph, known as the “good” son who did not engage in troublesome affairs, was divinely ordained from a young age to become a ruler of Middle-Kingdom Egypt, a civilization that would begin to enter into a pinnacle of power and prosperity about sixty years later.

However, in an unfortunate series of events, Joseph’s brothers sold him to slave traders. If that wasn’t gut-wrenching enough, an innocent Joseph was falsely accused of being a rapist by his master’s wife and was thrown into prison.

His life went from 0 to 100; his reality was nowhere near his divinely inspired dreams or God’s promises.

Reverend Jae Park’s “Joseph” explains a fundamental connection between Joseph of the Bible and Christian dreamers who desire to become great and influential:

“Unlike God’s vision for the world, dreams these days are so individualistic and self-centered… Disguised in “Christian lingo”, it is often selfish ambition iced with “the name of Jesus.” God’s vision for us is not just to be famous singers, CEOs, and successful people… Like the fulfillment of Joseph’s vision in the end, his leverage as a governor wasn’t about his wealth and influence but rather about saving people and playing a role in God’s redemptive history, ultimately bringing him glory!”

Joseph Butso’s rise to fame slightly mirrored Joseph’s biblical narrative. In fact, Joseph Butso who never read Reverend Jae Park’s book ironically continued the book in his own words:

“When God tells you he’s going to do something, it doesn’t mean it happens instantly. When things are going bad in our perspective, that’s not God leaving you alone. God allows these things to happen in our lives to give us perseverance and to give us hope.”

Again, Joseph spoke from experience.

Like many seniors about to graduate college, Joseph Butso was torn between his dreams and reality. He said, “If God tells you something, people in the church tell you to follow it. But anytime we’re talking about money and jobs, pastors, parents and Christians say you have to be realistic.”

At the last second before he gave up on his singing aspirations, several people encouraged him to audition for a Korean talent competition called Superstar K, a major audition program in Korea.

As he prayed about the idea, a writer for Superstar K even contacted his student organization.

After listening to various sermons, praying and talking with people, the collective message he believed God was telling him was “to have faith.”

Confident, maybe too confident, he refused to apply for back-up jobs and visas because he wholeheartedly believed Superstar K was God’s will for him.

With visions of being on stage and his face on Korean billboards, Joseph said to himself, “O.K. I’m going to believe” and departed for Korea.

In Korea, he auditioned for the show while recklessly spending money. He was convinced that he would be accepted into the show and Superstar K would later finance his expenses.

Unfortunately, he was rejected from the show.

Completely devastated, he now realized his financial situation became dire. Because he spent his finances so freely while auditioning, he was even forced to forgo the subways that conveniently connected the major towns in Seoul. Instead, he walked if he had to go somewhere.

“I was in such a slump that I would just sleep the whole day,” he confessed to me. “I didn’t want to deal with anything.”

The difficult times led him to church. However, he explained, “the more I was seeking God, the more the devil would put negative thoughts in my mind.” Joseph’s internal battles weighed him down like anchors to a deep brokenness within.

His dreams utterly shattered, Joseph said, “I would be like… God what are you doing? I came all the way here for you! I believed in you!”

The Bible’s narrative continues as Joseph’s master angrily and unjustly threw him into prison. He was far away from his beloved father, sold into slavery by his own brothers, falsely accused of rape by his master’s wife and he was now alone on the cold prison floor for a crime he did not commit.

Yet, the Bible also says “the Lord was with Joseph and showed him steadfast love and gave him favor in the sight of the keeper of the prison (Genesis 39:21).” Reverend Park further explains in “Joseph”:

“God’s reward is God’s hesed, which translates in the ESV to ‘steadfast love,’ one that accompanies us forever. Scholars have a hard time translating this word in English because there is no equivalent for this. One scholar translates it as ‘wasteful love’ and one commentary explains, ‘It is not merely love, but loyal love; not merely kindness, but dependable kindness; not merely affection, but affection that has committed itself.’”

In the context of Joseph’s story, one could almost argue that God uses suffering to demonstrate his unwavering love for Joseph— a love Joseph “knew in his head” that became “real in his heart” when he turned to God in the desolation of his suffering.

Broken, Joseph Butso’s crushed dreams led him to a journal, a graduation gift from his mother’s friend; as he attempted to journal for the first time, he was surprised to read a bible verse on the cover.

“For I know the plans I have for you”, declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”

(Jeremiah 29:11)

He was in awe. The words spoke to him in his darkest hour.

Desperate, he began to consistently attend saebyuk geedo, otherwise known as early morning prayer. (Later he told me, “I learned to pray from the Korean church.”)

One saebyuk geedo, he said, “God wasn’t answering me… so I just decided to busk.” He continued, “And literally I heard someone say wait.” He was struggling financially yet Joseph obeyed God’s command.

As he waited, Joseph’s heart softened for others afflicted by financial poverty. Joseph lacked money but would still buy food for these friends.

“I saw a lot of…” and he paused to explain something to me. “I don’t like to call them poor people. I like to speak what I’d like to see in peoples’ lives so I actually call them my rich friends.”

He told me, “God was changing my mindset. Listen, you’re not supposed to wait to become financially stable. It’s in whatever situation you’re in that you’re supposed to help your brothers and sisters in need.”

In his waiting, his understanding of finance and poverty changed.

During the same time, his hyung, or older friend, returned from a mission trip to America. In America, this hyung received a desire to worship on the streets. He thought of Joseph.

With another friend, he invited Joseph to busk with them in their worship ministry.

Humbled and tried, Joseph told me: “I knew that this was God telling me I can start now.”

This video went viral on Facebook and was the first video I saw of Joseph Butso. A recently released version with English subtitles can be found here.

Compassionate, trusting and humbled, he finally began his journey: the same one that God promised him when he was in America. Eventually, someone recognized Joseph’s talents and featured him in a video. People around the world saw the video and they invited him to participate on various interviews and TV shows. He has performed on some of the most renowned stages and biggest platforms.

“Eventually,” Joseph told me, “God started to provide one day and I was just crying…”

He continued, “This God is for real.”

He tells me that “it’s a different life now.” Experiencing rapid growth in opportunities and contacts, he told me, “if I didn’t know God guides me in everything, it would be overwhelming.” Yet he also highlights how his hardships played a crucial role in preparing him for fame.

He says, “When I was stretched that year, it taught me to pray about everything.”

This is why he prayed about every decision: agreeing to my interview request, eating with his friends at restaurants when he struggled financially, and testifying at different churches. Prayer, even for the most basic needs, became a part of him.

Sovereignty is defined as supreme power or authority. Regardless of dreaming about being a leader, only to be sold into slavery by your brothers, or dreaming about becoming a singer, only to lose multiple singing competitions, we eventually reach our destination. Whether someone saves Egypt from famine and economic collapse, or whether his or her testimony is shared through a musical talent with the entire world, God establishes his ultimate purpose.

It’s exciting. Nerve-wrecking. Humbling. Adventurous. But through it all, we are taken care of.

As I shut down my laptop to go to sleep, I think about what my head pastor said about Joseph Butso at one of our prayer meetings. He was addressing a complacent yet complaining generation— one that “needs another vacation immediately after taking one vacation”; one that “loses their health to make money, and then loses their money to restore their health”; and “one that lives as if they will never die and die as though they had never lived”— with such loving tenacity that a couple teardrops slowly trailed down his face. Using Joseph as an example of someone living life to the fullest, he said, “I don’t think his life is boring and he speaks better Korean than some of you!”

I left with the idea of interviewing Joseph Butso after that meeting; every day I spoke with Joseph thereafter, I was reminded of such amazing grace in living life to the fullest— faithfully, as a merest yet precious child of God.

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Was Interviewing “Ordinary People Doing Extraordinary Things.” Am Currently Working @ Forbes. Will Continue This Project In The Future.

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Andy Jung

Was Interviewing “Ordinary People Doing Extraordinary Things.” Am Currently Working @ Forbes. Will Continue This Project In The Future.