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The Incomparable Smokie Norful

Pine Bluff native Smokie Norful is a world-renowned recording artist, musician, composer, pastor, and entrepreneur who has launched the extremely successful Victory Cathedral Worship Center in Chicago, won numerous music awards, including two Grammys, and performed at the White House for President George W. Bush in celebration of Black Music Month.

Willie Ray Norful was born on October 31, 1975, to Reverend Willie Ray Norful Sr. and Teresa Norful. Norful’s father gave him the nickname “Smokie" in memory of his best friend in college. The name stuck. Norful spent his early years in Muskogee and Tulsa, Oklahoma, before his family relocated to Pine Bluff, Arkansas. During his formative years, he attended Jack Robey Junior High and Pine Bluff High School while nurturing his musical talents at church. 

After graduating high school, he attended the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff where he earned a bachelor’s degree in history. Norful received his formal training in ministry by attending Trinity International Seminary in Deerfield, Illinois. He later earned a master’s degree in Divinity at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, Illinois. 

After teaching history at Jack Robey Junior High School and Pine Bluff High School for seven years, Norful moved on to Evanston Township High School in Illinois where he also taught for seven years. While teaching in Pine Bluff, Norful was an active community member serving as educational director for the Pine Bluff Housing Authority’s after-school program, historian for the National Park Service, and congressional aide for the Fourth Congressional District.

In 1997, he was ordained as a church elder and became a licensed minister. He served as minister of music, youth pastor, and associate pastor under his father at Pine Bluff’s St. John African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church until he relocated to Chicago.

In 2002, Norful released his debut album I Need You Now. The title track became the track for which he is best known. The album was certified gold by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). In 2004, he released his second gold-certified album Nothing Without You, which also won him the Grammy Award for Contemporary Soul Gospel Album of the Year. In 2015, he won his second Grammy for his song “No Greater Love” in the Best Gospel Performance/Song category. As a world-renowned musician, composer, and recording artist, Norful has received many other accolades for his musical talents including three Stellar awards, four Dove awards, three Gospel Music Excellence Awards, an NAACP Image Award nomination, a Soul Train award nomination, and two nominations for the BET award for gospel music. 

In 2003 and 2004, Billboard magazine named him the number one selling gospel music artist. He performed at noteworthy events like the Trumpet Awards, Save Africa’s Children Event in Soweto, the BET Awards, the Stellar Awards, Soul Train, the Parade of Stars, the Essence Music Festival, and the New Orleans Jazz Festival. In 2005, he even performed at the White for President George W. Bush in celebration of Black Music Month. In 2009, Norful was inducted into the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame. Additionally, Norful has written for numerous major gospel recording labels and contributed as a writer to five platinum-selling compilations.

On September 20, 2005, he officially launched Victory Cathedral Worship Center in Bolingbrook, Illinois. Since its launch, Norful’s church has experienced unprecedented growth. Consequently, on September 28, 2008, he launched a second campus on the south side of Chicago. 

In 2017, he published his first book, Take the Lid Off: Trust God, Release the Pressure, and Find the Life He Wants for You. In 2018, he received a Master of Arts in Leadership from Trinity International University in Deerfield, Illinois. He also serves on the Board of Regents for Trinity International University. 

Today, Norful and his wife, Carla are entrepreneurs, with business interests in real estate, entertainment, and publishing. They have three children, Tré, Ashton, and Ashley.


Written by: Ninfa O. Barnard

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