TobyMac on the Personal and Political Elements of The Elements

TobyMac Photo by Lee Steffen/Courtesy of CMA

The beats driving TobyMac’s music and his soulful voice skew toward hip hop or R&B, so it might have taken the seven-time Grammy winner aback a bit when we suggested his music seems a little punk rock these days.

“I don’t think that would be the first thing people would say about what I do but I know what you’re saying on a deeper level, meaning the lyric has a little bit of conversation, there’s a little bit of street to it. When I say street, I’m not talking about street like hip hop, just street as in it’s conversational,” he suggested. “There’s the hope that it will cause dialogue. There’s the hope that it will cause investigating yourself and looking into your loves, your hates, your beliefs. So, there is some sort of hope that things will get shaken up a bit and thought through.

“I think people are not immediately drawn to the politics of what I’m saying, I think they’re drawn to the heart of what I’m saying and the warmth of the promise of mercy, the promise of God,” he continued. “I think they’re not looking to me for political messages, I think they’re looking to other artists for political messages, but that’s part of my job, to cause dialogue and to be who I am but at the same time introduce some things in my art that I’m grappling with that maybe they should be grappling with, too.”

That focus on making the world better by starting with one’s self sounds pretty revolutionary and it’s made TobyMac - née Toby McKeehan – a giant in the Christian music genre. He ramps up a new nationwide tour this week with a pair of shows at the Berry Center in Cypress. He’ll be joined by Jeremy Camp, Jordan Feliz, Ryan Stevenson, We Are Messengers and Aaron Cole and said he’s happy the trek jumps off with Thursday and Friday shows here in Houston. He filmed his 2008 concert film Alive and Transported over two nights at Berry Center.

“Houston’s always one of the stops because it’s been a great city for me. I love it, I really do,” he said. “I think Houston gets me and I get Houston. I feel like Houston seems to know and appreciate where my music is coming from so I feel really at ease up there on stage. It’s typically the biggest show or two nights of my tour.”

Devoted fans here and elsewhere have boosted his long career, one which hails back to the late 1980s with DC Talk. He’s sold millions of records with the group and as a solo artist. Even 30 years in, his popularity shows no sign of slowing. Last year’s “I just need U,” from his latest album The Elements, is his biggest hit in nearly a decade, he said. The song debuted atop Billboard’s Hot Christian Songs and remained on Billboard's charts for 30 weeks.

We spoke on the day the Grammy nominees were announced and TobyMac was noticeably missing from Best Song consideration. We asked about the omission.

“The only thing I felt is ‘I just need U’ might be up as a song ‘cause it made so much impact and I love it. I love it so much,” he said. “I saw the names on there and they were well-deserving, 100 percent. There’s no weirdness in my heart. They’re all my friends.”

Does he think there’s a front runner for Grammy night honors?

“I think there’s something special going on with Tauren Wells,” he said. “He’s my friend, I’ve watched him go through it, start with a band, then solo, I’ve watched him remain true. He’s always been the same guy. It’s like I look up and I’m like thank goodness people have finally discovered Tauren because he’s special.

“Obviously Lauren Daigle is an amazing ambassador, showing the whole world what we all think and that’s Christian music isn’t just in this little niche, it could be for everybody, so I’m super proud of what she’s doing,” he said.

Hearing him discuss Daigle’s crossover appeal leads to an obvious question about artists in secular music who might be delivering a Christian message these days.

“I think there are so many great artists out there that are inspiring and are bringing people together. I listen to all kinds of music and I’ll find things that move my soul in a deep way even as it relates to my faith in God all the time in secular music, in mainstream music,” he said. “Things will touch me and make me think of my God and appreciate Him and worship Him. Without a doubt that happens.”

We note that he does the same with songs that reflect on the world around us. We specify that "Stars With Me," from the new album, and its discourse on race relations seems especially timely.

“The longer I do this the more I just write songs about my own junk,” he confessed. “My doubt, my fear, my hope, my mercy, my goals, the mountains I’m climbing, the times I’m failing, the times I’m succeeding and I just find when I write about all those things it stirs people to look at their own junk.

“There might be different names and faces on our situations but we’re not that different from each other," he added. "So, I just write about myself, most times, and really try to go to the honest, to the transparent, and don’t try to make myself look like I’m trying to be this man of faith that has it all together, ‘cause I’m not.”

“’Starts with Me’ is a perfect example,” he continued. “It’s not a directly confrontational song but it’s a song that you should think about. I’m not placing blame on anybody, I’m not pointing the finger at anybody, except for myself. I’m looking at my own history and I’ve been talking about diversity my whole life, my whole career.
My family’s diverse, my record label’s diverse, my band is diverse, my friends are diverse. That’s the kind of man I’ve always wanted to be and I’ve made decisions to shape my world in that direction. But, I’ve still had to look deeper at my history and there’s still some things I had to shake as I wrote that song and I wanted to be transparent with that.”

The Elements is TobyMac’s first new music in three years, so plenty of fans are awaiting the live shows. He said he’ll be doing a concert cruise with DC Talk in June, a follow-up outing to a similar venture from two years ago. But his current focus is on the impending tour and he feels he has a bit of a home-field advantage by slotting Houston so high up the tour run.

“Home crowds, a place you feel confident, like I said before, I get them, they get me. It’s a nice way to kick things off and it does sort of set the tone,” he said. “Also, in fairness, Houston will get it raw and unedited. You’re still kind of working on those first few (shows), still figuring things out. You never know what’s going to happen, it’s a little more spontaneous.”

TobyMac brings his Hits Deep Tour to town this week for two nights, January 31 and February 1, at the Berry Center, 8877 Barker Cypress Road. With Jeremy Camp, Jordan Feliz, Ryan Stevenson, We Are Messengers and Aaron Cole. All ages. $30-$97.50.
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Jesse’s been writing for the Houston Press since 2013. His work has appeared elsewhere, notably on the desk of the English teacher of his high school girlfriend, Tish. The teacher recognized Jesse’s writing and gave Tish a failing grade for the essay. Tish and Jesse celebrated their 33rd anniversary as a couple in October.