When she was in the fifth grade, Celeste Butler said she could feel it already — although she was cast as “Indian Number Four” and had no lines, when the choreography brought her to the front of the stage she thought to herself: “This is my calling.” Butler, a 2019 USC graduate, recounted her “breakout” moment in a youth theatre production of “Peter Pan” lightheartedly, attributing the not-so-super-star moment as the start of her foray into musical performance.
Now, audiences worldwide can see Butler experience another on-stage breakout moment, this time with the classic blue “American Idol” logo in the background. In the trailer for the show’s season four premiere, Butler appears belting in a bright purple outfit, with silver heart earrings rather on brand for the love-abundant way she carries herself as an entertainer, advocate and entrepreneur.
“She’s the kind of person who will bring positive energy to a room and that shows not only in her work ethic but in her performance,” said Ron McCurdy, professor at the Thornton School of Music and lifelong mentor to Butler. “I’m so proud of what she’s done and what she’s doing right now. I think we’ll be going to her shows and buying her CDs and watching her on television a lot here in the coming years, I’m sure.”
At just 24 years old, Butler’s resume reads like someone who has already lived a seasoned career. She has performed at the Hollywood Bowl and sung alongside renowned artists such as Diana Ross and Chaka Khan. She has produced a multimedia stage show that debuted at the GRAMMY Museum, acted in an award-winning short film and founded her own multi-branch entertainment company called Creation Against Barriers.
Throughout all of her work, themes of social justice and love are apparent — such as in a single she released with recording artist and producer Jacob Martin, following the police killing of George Floyd. Layered on top of steady funk beats, a gospel-esque backtrack and jazzy instrumentals, Butler repeats the refrain “no justice, no peace / no racist police.” She wanted to create a song that people could listen to while fighting for racial justice, whether that be while marching in a protest or donating to the cause, she said.
“I do talk a lot about social justice issues or community or identity,” Butler said. “At the end of the day, I do want it to be a source of love, as opposed to something that I’m putting out to be divisive or add fuel to the fire. I’d rather it be something that opens the door for conversations to be had, to increase understanding.”
Butler’s passion for music and creating art imbued with advocacy goes way back to her roots, she said. Namely, her faith, her family and her experiences and mentorship found at Thornton, where she received both her bachelor’s in popular music performance and her master’s in arts leadership.
The youngest in a musical, faith-based household
The youngest of three children, Butler grew up in Oceanside, San Diego, in a musical, military and Christian household. Kathryn Butler, Celeste’s mother, said growing up in this type of household helped further foster Celeste’s naturally kind and caring personality. Values of love and respect for everyone were central to the raising of Celeste and her two siblings, who are also musicians.
“She’s always been happy, loving, kind — even from a small child,” Kathryn said.“She’s always been this way. But of course, as parents, we nurture those gifts … the love and the radiance that you see in her, that’s the type of atmosphere she grew up in. That’s the type of atmosphere she lives in now.”
From a young age, Butler’s atmosphere has overflowed with music — whether that be at home or at church, where she sang in choirs, praise teams and ensembles. She said having both her church and theater experiences as foundational music moments helped her realize how powerful music is.
“In church, music is like this healing agent,” Butler said. “Although we’re having our individual moment with Christ through music, it’s something that we’re all partaking in. And I feel like that translated when I got on stage [for ‘Peter Pan’] … you’re still a piece of this bigger picture, and then looking out and seeing the audience … it’s something that we’re all connected to together.”
Most of her early exposure to music was faith-based, but Butler said she remembers a moment at a birthday party when she heard the song “Ain’t Nobody” by Chaka Khan playing, and it “literally” changed her life.
Years later, she would sing for Khan at a Thornton master’s class, but back at that birthday party she wondered, “Why has nobody told me that this exists?”
“I was very offended, but it’s okay because we rectified the situation,” she said, joking.
Butler’s professional career with music began when she was 16 and joined a girl group that performed live, created music videos and competed on “X Factor.” Then, at 17, she applied to just one school, deciding that if it was meant to be it was meant to be.
That’s when she found herself at Thornton as a popular music performance student.
Navigating USC and Gateway practice rooms
There are a lot of places Butler associates with her time at USC. There’s the Ronald Tutor Campus Center Ballroom and the basketball court outside of Cardinal Gardens, both places she performed with her band. There’s the Gateway practice rooms where she spent “hours, hours, hours” rehearsing and writing songs, such as “Prey Up, America” — which she wrote after finding out Trump had won the 2016 election.
“I feel like I should have a room named after me in there one day,” Butler said, laughing about how much time she spent practicing. “I will fund the room.”
But what Butler associates more with her time at USC are the mentors she met and still holds close to this day, such as McCurdy and Patrice Rushen — an award-winning musician and composer, the first woman musical director of the Grammy Awards and Emmy Awards and the chair of the popular music program at Thornton.
When Butler met Rushen, she was auditioning for the pop music program. Rushen said she was immediately impressed with how Butler possessed all of the qualities she looked for in a candidate. The selective pop music program only accepts 25-30 students each year, Rushen said.
“That idea of great intellect, great spirit, great talent, drive and curiosity — she seemed to have all of those things in place, always did,” Rushen said. “From her freshman days right up through graduation and post-grad, she continues to be that kind of person and has really grown into an artist who has many capabilities.”
When Butler started school, she said she was the only Black woman in the pop music program, so she looked to Rushen for guidance. Rushen, as a leading Black woman in a predominantly white industry, was no stranger to navigating that arena, she said.
“Being the only Black student and a woman in the department for a number of years, I know that she leaned into me being there, and I tried to use the experiences that I have had to offer ways in which [she could] find [her] way,” Rushen said. “I’m glad I had that kind of influence on her as she did me, because, you know, I had my days too.”
In the class “The Music of Black Americans,” Butler met McCurdy, the former chair of the Thornton jazz department who she described as a “walking encyclopedia.” Later on, in 2019, while getting her master’s degree in arts leadership at Thornton, he would invite her to produce his multimedia stage show “Harlem South: A View Through the Lens,” but at the time, he was another mentor who made her undergraduate experience memorable.
“She was one of those students who was very dutiful, did her work, excelled in the class, very personable,” McCurdy said. “It was a historical class that dealt with not only just the music but also social, political, economic, religious variables as well. And as you might imagine we had some very spirited discussions at which she was always very happy to partake in.”
Overall, Butler said her time at Thornton helped her look at music more holistically. Prior to coming to USC, she said she had only looked at music as a performer, songwriter and singer; through her undergraduate and graduate studies, she began to see how marketing, composing and musical directing were all aspects as well, she said.
“Having those different classes just opened my eyes to what could be,” Butler said. “That is the point in which I was like ‘OK, I’m taking it from this viewpoint and this angle, and it’s becoming much more expansive and I can see how many more people I would be able to impact with a message in my music, in these different spaces.’”
The next chapter: pursuing art in different spaces
Butler went to USC planning on making a career out of music. While she has done just that (just look for her released music or watch her on “American Idol” on Feb. 14), she has also found more spaces than singing to share a message through art.
Take Creation Against Barriers as an example. CAB, an entertainment company that provides creative and administrative services in music, fashion and events, was born during Butler’s time at USC, but it truly came to life in 2020 amid the pandemic, she said.
“It’s really about creating a space and a platform for people who believe in social change and believe in social harmony, to come together and to be creative and to have that impact that they want,” she said.
Along with using the time for CAB, Butler said she worked on an initiative called the Sugarhill Arts Revival Project. The project, in partnership with the California Arts Council and the School of Dramatic Arts at USC, pays homage to African American trailblazers of the Sugar Hill district in Los Angeles during the 1940s and 1950s and engages with and highlights current musicians and artists in the community.
Butler has also partnered up with Jae Deal, an award-winning producer and professor of music production at USC, to share messages of unity, equity and love through Use Your Voice Global Collaboration. Deal, who founded the project, said it was founded to highlight the support of non-Americans for Black and Indigenous people and people of color, using music as a tool for advocacy.
While the project was Deal’s vision, he said he realized that Butler would be the perfect leader and asked her to be the executive director of the project.
“Celeste Butler is hard to put into words,” Deal said. “She’s one of the most amazing people I’ve met in my entire life, and I don’t use that term lightly … She’s a joy to work with and a great team player. She makes everyone around her better. I wanted to envision what the collective would do. It just hit me that Celeste is the perfect candidate to be the leader to take us into the future.”
For Butler’s own future, she said she’s ready to focus on recording her own music — as she pursues a funk, disco and soul “feel good” sound — and spend more time working with community arts and youth organizations. Ultimately, she describes herself as “message-based,” driven by purpose, advocacy and her faith.
“I’m proud of her singing, I’m proud of her academics, I’m proud of all the things that she’s done,” Kathryn said. “But I’m most proud that she stands firm on her beliefs, no matter what it is. She is going to be who she is, based on that foundational principle, and that’s what I’m most proud of.”