Religion

tobyMac continues to push the envelope in Christian pop

Outsider has been a familiar role for tobyMac.

As a student at Liberty University, he would get into trouble for his appearance, sporting hip-hop fashion at the conservative school. In dc talk, he was the rap guy, introducing sounds unfamiliar to many Christian music fans unless they were associated with urban violence and misogyny.

Bucking the system was fairly routine as he entered his solo career, bringing hip-hop to the forefront of Christian pop — a white artist championing a distinctly African- American genre.

But now, tobyMac is the reigning artist of the year in the Gospel Music Association's Dove Awards, and he's nominated for the honor again. And last month, he picked up his first Grammy award as a solo artist: best rock or rap gospel album for his live set, Alive and Transported.

So, is tobyMac the establishment in Christian pop?

"I don't feel like the establishment," says the artist, who is headlining the Winter Jam concert Saturday night at Rupp Arena. "If anything, I feel like I push the establishment, not in a rebellious sense, but in that I believe we're diverse, and I believe that diversity should be flexed, and the edge of the music we make and the fashion that we put on can be exhibited, but you can still be passionate about your faith.

"I know it can look like, 'Hey, he's the artist of the year. How can he say he's pushing the limits?' I think if you just look over the artist of the year, thank God and thank gospel music that they've stretched toward us."

After all, while tobyMac's sound might reflect what is on Top 40 radio around the nation, hip-hop is still something of a novelty in contemporary Christian music. In reader polls at CCM Magazine, tobyMac was routinely named favorite rap artist, even in years he didn't release new albums. Other hip-hop artists such as KJ-52 and Grits have made a little noise over the years. But none of them has had the success of tobyMac.

It's something he's recognized and attributes to a number of things, including the question of whether there's a real need for Christian hip-hop when mainstream artists such as Kanye West record songs such as Jesus Walks.

"African-American artists in the mainstream are not scared to talk about their faith," tobyMac says. "So they may not feel like they need a gospel record or a Christian record to talk about their faith. If I researched for two minutes, I could probably find you 20 hip-hop songs where they talk about their faith in God within the song.

"So maybe people in hip-hop say, we don't need that over there because we've got it right here."

As a hip-hop artist, tobyMac draws inspiration from mainstream acts such as Gnarls Barkley, Kanye West and Outkast.

"These people are amazing artists," he says. "I don't agree with everything they say, but they are massively creative artists and the talent there is undeniable."

He notes — almost brags — that he buys the clean versions of hip-hop CDs.

All that said, tobyMac would still like to see Christian rock become more open to hip-hop.

Part of the hang-up, he says, is that "the foundation of what we call Christian music is very guitar- oriented. And although there have been some bubbling-under artists ... it's not something that's widely accepted by the gatekeepers, it's not something the ... Christian labels are signing very often, therefore it's not something that's being marketed in stores because it's not being signed, and we're not developing an audience for it.

"So, they're going in the mall and buying a Third Day album or a Casting Crowns album and then walking across and buying T-Pain or someone else."

TobyMac is a gatekeeper himself, running Gotee Records, which has hip-hop and hip-hop influenced artists such as Flynn Adam and John Reuben as well as Relient K and Winter Jam artist Stephanie Smith.

Right now, tobyMac is focused on working on a new album to be released late this year and headlining the Winter Jam tour.

"It's pretty hot to be on a tour that goes to arenas and they're full every night," he says. "I'm getting to do what I love, which is play my music in a full house."

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