Whitman: A conversation with Christian recording artist TobyMac

TobyMac, born Toby McKeehan, has a solo career that includes eight albums and three Grammy Awards.
Now 30 years into his career TobyMac, born Toby McKeehan, continues to sell out shows. His solo career includes eight albums and three Grammy Awards. [Photo courtesy of CMA Media Promotions]
Now 30 years into his career TobyMac, born Toby McKeehan, continues to sell out shows. His solo career includes eight albums and three Grammy Awards. [Photo courtesy of CMA Media Promotions]
Published January 10

In 1993, I purchased my first Christian-music album, DC Talk’s Free at Last.

I wore the cassette out dancing to Jesus Is All Right and other hits by Christian rap’s three kings Michael Tait, Kevin Max and TobyMac.

This Christmas, my husband gifted me floor seats to TobyMac’s Hits Deep Live Tour, coming Feb. 24 to the Amalie arena.

Now 30 years into his career TobyMac, born Toby McKeehan, continues to sell out shows. His solo career includes eight albums and three Grammy Awards. In October 2018, he released the Elements. The album’s first single I Just Need You spent 12 weeks at the top of the Christian music charts due to its cross-generational appeal.

I talked to TobyMac about making music parents (like myself) can sing along to with kids in the car.

What is the message behind the Elements?

The Elements really came out of this time where I was waking up in the mornings, having my reflection time, reading the Bible and walking out the door ready to go. But by the end of the day I was coming in dragging, feeling beat down in the spirit. It just felt like most things out there were working against the man I wanted to be, against the husband and father I wanted to be.

There’s this push to be prideful, not to be loyal and kindhearted, not to stand firm in beliefs. The Elements is really about not falling into these traps. It’s about making people aware of what helped me overcome these things in my life. It’s about getting geared up.

You took a three-year break between this album and your last. How did you use that time?

I took that time to make things important that are important, family and giving back. We raised 11 million dollars for our faith-based school, where 50 percent of the students are on scholarship. I took more time to write.

You reunited with DC Talk for a cruise in 2017 and are doing it again in 2019? I guess it went well.

It was fun to get the boys back together. You get on stage and the nostalgia really kicks in. We left college with a U-Haul behind our SUV ready to do this music thing together. We were in the trenches together, leaning on each other, laughing and crying together. It’s fun to come back to those early songs and also do our own.

How do you feel about artists working to break down barriers within the Christian music genre? Artists such as Lauren Daigle and Lecrae? What part did DC Talk play in modernizing Christian music?

The Christian music label can be heavy and turn people off who might otherwise love it. What matters to me is staying true to my faith in God. I write music about what I am going through. My music, my shows, everyone is invited. Everyone.

I’m absolutely 100 percent super supportive of those artists being out there. I think we’ve all our done our little push, starting back with DC Talk, to get our music out to people. Lauren, I speak so highly of her. She is a great singer-songwriter.

For me it’s about writing songs to move hearts to experience faith at a different level and fall more in love with God. I want to serve people with this music. I want to start conversations about life, diversity and God. That’s my hope.

You still hit the stage with a lot of energy. How do you keep it up tour after tour?

It’s just what I’ve always done. I play basketball a couple times a week. I’m active. I love sports. I look at the stage and take an athletic approach, I say let’s go attack this. It’s like it’s a game. At the end of the show I say to everybody ‘good game, good game.’ I soak two shirts each night on stage.

You write a lot about diversity? Is the message always well-received?

I’m probably out there pushing it a little harder. If you’re not open to diversity then something is deeply wrong if you’re calling yourself a person of faith. Diversity is our calling. I have a song with Aaron Cole about not being scared to look at the past and say things that cause people to dialogue about race.

How do you feel about generations attending your shows together? My son loves your song Lights Shine Bright.

I’ve been seeing more and more at my shows. Parents who say their first concert was DC Talk bringing their kids to their first concert Toby Mac. It’s not something I could have foreseen for myself.

Do you see yourself keeping up the momentum for years to come?

I don’t know how long I’m going to be doing this. When I was in my twenties, I told my dad I’d be doing this a couple years and then be back to real estate. Here I am still passionate about it.

I’m still sweating every lyric, every track and concert. I used to think I’d stop writing when I had a certain platform of songs but the new songs are still coming. Whether it’s a small show or I’m in arena, I still have something to share with people. I will always have something to say. Till the day I die.

Toby Mac Hits Deep Tour Live featuring Jeremy Camp, Jordan Feliz, We are Messengers and Aaron Cole stops at the Amalie Arena at 7 p.m. Feb. 24. The concert often sells out. For tickets, visit ticketmaster.com/event/0D0055319B32A562.

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