One Sunday in April, Aquilla Butler’s sharp soprano soared about the quintet Voices of Praise at a Baptist church in Marshall. When Butler sang solo, the glass of the minimalist yellow, orange and white windows seemed to shake, barely able to contain her notes. The congregation clapped, swayed and praised God, tapping their feet against the pine floors. When the group finished the set, “amens” followed the members back to their pew.
For Butler, these performances are everyday things, the backbone of her ministry, The GoodNuz. The chief executive officer and owner of GoodNuz Entertainment, Butler has her own show, “GoodNuz with Aquilla,” on Columbia Access Television, which she hopes will get national syndication. A Web site, magazine and book are on the way. The GoodNuz, or the Gospel, is what she says she was put on this earth to spread. Her foundation is the Lord, her support beams are her songs, and she is confident that she will be able to take The GoodNuz to its outer limits.
Butler, the youngest of five children, was born premature on Sept. 4, 1968. Her grandparents tell people she was so small when she came home that she had to be fed with an eyedropper. Doctors called her survival luck. Butler says she was blessed.
Butler’s mother was mentally ill, so her grandparents claimed and took care of her. It’s clear to Butler that things could have been a lot different for her. That’s how she knows she was blessed from the beginning. After all, it’s her grandmother who prepared her for The GoodNuz.
From a young age, Butler remembers having to stand up straight with her shoulders back in her grandmother’s turquoise living room. The older woman would sit in the floral lounge chair and play the ukulele for her granddaughter’s singing rehearsal. One of the first songs Butler learned was “I’m a Soldier.” After going through it a couple of times, she hoped to go play with the rest of the neighborhood children.
“That was good,” her grandma would say. “Now, let’s do it again.”
Performing in public started early, too. One of her first events, she remembers, was at the African Methodist Episcopal Church, four houses from where she grew up in Mexico, Mo. She was ushered to the podium as the eyes of the congregants followed her. She was small, in pigtails; the world was big. She doesn’t remember being nervous though. No instruments or background singers were needed. Her voice bounced off the walls of the church and commanded the attention of the congregation. Hands rose in thanks and praise for the little girl with the big talent, big passion and big dreams. All that practice had paid off, and now she knows she was being prepared to be, as the last line of “I’m a Soldier” reads, “in this army of the Lord.”
Butler continued performing through high school. After graduation, her grandfather sat her down and laid out her options. She could find someone to settle down with or go to college.
In September 1986 at age 17, Butler headed to Central Missouri State University. She left with a bachelor’s degree in broadcast film and with a minor in speech communication. From there, she went to Kansas City and landed a $14 per day media internship through the Full Employment Council. Funded through the Department of Labor, the project gave hands-on experience in commercial radio, television and print media.
Professor Lloyd Daniel, a visiting professor on the project, remembers interviewing her for the job. It wasn’t until the end of the meeting that he found out she was only recently a student.
“When she told me, I said, ‘Oh really.’ I was so shocked,” Daniel says. “She looked and sounded so professional. When she got the job, she didn’t disappoint.”
After the internship, Butler set up a makeshift studio in the coat closet just behind the front door of her one-bedroom apartment off Eighth Street in Kansas City. The two-foot-wide door would sit ajar. Inside, the young woman would squeeze in with borrowed equipment, a VHS player she bought at a pawnshop and a Radioshack microphone, and broadcast “MoNuz,” a popular Afro-centric public access program that she produced, wrote and edited.
Even with all these successes early on, Butler knows what it’s like to make sacrifices. There have been times when she would have to ask herself, “Do I go to the grocery store, or do I buy tapes for the show? Do I pay the electricity bill, or do I put it toward the ministry?”
Butler’s health has suffered, too. While living in Jefferson City in 2003, she began having severe stomach cramps. She was referred to a specialist. She had tests, colonoscopies, X-rays. At night, she researched medical terms on the Internet, studied the side effects of certain drugs and combed through her medical records looking for inconsistencies. In the meantime, she had to hold down a full-time job, do her ministry and sing. The rest she left to prayer.
After 3½ years, she had gallbladder surgery, and today, she says she feels as good as she ever has.
For Butler, the experience was an equalizer in her mind. It’s what makes everyone more alike, she says.
“Pain is pain, but where you are right now, it’s only temporary,” she says.
This is a time of transition for Butler and GoodNuz. She has a new underwriter and a new set designer. She’s expanding. She gets so many invitations these days that she just can’t make it to everything.
She’s pushing The GoodNuz forward with three prayers. She prays for her own digital equipment so she can take her show on the road; she prays to meet good people to help her with the GoodNuz ministry; and she prays to go national. Although she works full time in the Crossroads office at AAA Insurance in Columbia, if these three prayers are filled, she might not have to.
Her first prayer is probably the furthest from her reach. The two digital cameras, two tripods and full editing system she wants are expensive, but they are necessary if she wants to reach the world.
In the meantime, Butler is thankful that CAT allows her to do her show and borrow all the things she needs. And her ministry in Missouri is growing. She is now bringing “GoodNuz with Aquilla” to Jefferson City. With help from her sponsor Sami Beauty Supply, which has stores in Columbia and Jefferson City, the ministry is rising.
The second prayer, finding good people in good spirit, has brought results, too. In March, Butler’s friend Vivian Evans, owner of Jes-Us Three restaurant and catering in Columbia, introduced her to Andrea Tapia. She told Butler that Tapia was sharp and professional, someone she had to meet. A week later, the two were discussing their plans while eating their Chinese food in the Columbia Mall food court. As Butler ate, Tapia gave her a vision of how to cover more people in the community. The two clicked, and today, Tapia is executive producer of GoodNuz Entertainment.
The third prayer made a leap two months ago when Butler and Robert Houston, an old friend, reconnected through e-mail. He invited her to tape a performance of his group, Voices of True Spirit, in Kansas City. Then, in April, he called again.
“Aquilla, what are you doing Memorial Day weekend?”
She had no plans.
“Well, my group is going to Orlando. Do you want to go?”
“What are we doing there?”
“We’re going to the Bobby Jones gospel retreat.”
Butler jumped up and down. Bobby Jones is one of the top figures in the gospel world, and the Orlando date is one of the biggest national events of its kind.
“He just picked up the phone to call me,” Butler recalls. “I don’t think he’s ever even heard me sing.”