tobyMac has no problems confronting attitudes about his brand of Christian music — both from within and without that community.
The singer, songwriter and producer’s brand of faith-based music has raised secular and religious eyebrows since he was part of the rap, rock and R&B-blending group D.C. Talk from 1987-2001. He’s continued that path as a solo artist, with strong results; three of his four albums have gone gold, while “Tonight,” which came out in February, debuted at No. 6 on the Billboard 200 and was his second consecutive release to top the Christian music chart.
He’s also run seven singles into the Christian Top 10, with “City On Our Knees” and “Get Back Up” from “Tonight,” each hitting No. 1.
He still takes some flack for his secular sonics, but tobyMac feels that’s been outweighed by acceptance.
“I do think people are there,” says the Virginia-born, Nashville, Tenn.-based artist, whose real name is Kevin McKeehan. “I think there might be some people still a step behind it all, but generally speaking, we’re there.
“I don’t think it was ever the music; I think it was the sound of the music, you know? People usually associated vulgarity or explicit lyrics with the kind of music we do, but I think you can use any music to guild anything you want. In our case, we’re putting the lyric in there that hopefully inspires people, that makes them aware of hope, peace, love and even God.”
But, tobyMac concedes, there are still those who can’t get beyond the sound and hear the words. He’s toured frequently with Christian hard rockers Skillet — whose John Cooper guests on the title track of “Tonight” — and has been greeted by picketers accusing the acts of a kind of blasphemy. It rankles, but he’s learned to take it in stride.
“It’s one of those things you’re going to face from time to time,” says the 45-year-old father of five. “I think it’s maybe just fear — ‘We don’t know what this is. We don’t know what’s coming at us.’ That’s usually when people lash out, when they’re fearful or not understanding of what’s coming at them.
“I just think that people now understand that they don’t need to fear the hip-hop beats and guitars and rhymes. When they realize you can say anything you want with that, they begin to open their minds. It’s probably not that different than the ’70s version of when people started singing about God with rock music.
“I mean, why should the devil have all the good music?”
tobyMac is putting that music in front of another potentially skeptical audience this summer, joining forces with fellow Christian artist Chris Tomlin for the “Hello Tonight” tour that plays this weekend at the DTE Energy Music Theatre. “We put together what people would think are two sort of opposites,” he explains, noting that Tompkins is a more traditional “worship leader” type of artist.
But, he feels, their two approaches are complementary.
“I think it makes total sense,” he says. “I think both shows are very audience reactive ... very crowd participatory. They’re both shows that engage the audience fully, whether they’re jumping up and down or raising their hands in worship.”
And, tobyMac says, the broader stylistic range of “Tonight” has allowed him to broaden his audience. The track “Showstopper,” for instance, hit the mainstream via the 2009 World Series and the NFL’s Thursday Night Football promotion, as well as the WWE’s Fatal 4-Way pay-per-view telecast. And, he adds, “we put a few midtempo ballads on the record, and A/C radio kind of reacted to those for me. So even though the rest of my record might have been a little more raucous, those songs led a bunch of people to my music, so I think I’ll have enough in my set.
“And if the other stuff drives them crazy, hopefully, they’ll put up with it, or maybe it’ll invite them into this big ol’ party we’re gonna have.”
tobyMac has an array of other shows booked through October and a five-day sea cruise slated for February. He’s also been “working on a Christmas song or two” that may grow into a full holiday album, and he’s also collaborating on a new book — “City On Our Knees,” titled after the first single from “Tonight” — that he says will focus “more on other people’s stories, inspiring stories about people who stepped across the line and made a difference.”
As for DC Talk, tobyMac says he and bandmates Michael Tait and Kevin Max Smith remain on hiatus and still get asked to re-form “a few times a year.” It has yet to happen, but he doesn’t rule it out.
“I think the truth is when it’s right for all three of us, I’m sure we’ll be willing to do something,” tobyMac explains. “Why wouldn’t it happen? The timing just has to be right for all three of us.”
tobyMac and Chris Tomlin perform at 7:30 p.m. Friday, June 25, at the DTE Energy Music Theatre, Sashabaw Road east of I-75, Independence Township. Tickets are $35 and $25 pavilion, $15 lawn. Call 248-377-0100 or visit www.palacenet.com.
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