Meet TobyMac, one of Christian music’s biggest stars

Where does the career of a Christian pop star begin?

Toby McKeehan — the Northern Virginia native who sings, raps and changes lives as TobyMac — mulls it over as he noshes on a bagel outside Dean & DeLuca in Georgetown.

It might have started in the crowd at the Capital Centre in 1983, when he saw Sting fronting the Police. “I pointed to the stage and said, ‘I want to do that,’” he says. “I loved music. But I also loved that it spoke to people’s hearts and lives.”

Maybe it actually started when McKeehan was 13, attending a church camp in rural Virginia, listening to a counselor read words off a page.

“At church, it was a guy behind a box yelling and screaming,” McKeehan says. “This dude sat on the floor of a cabin with us, opened up a Bible and read it. And it all came to life.”


Famed Christian musican, Toby McKeehan known as TobyMac poses for a portrait in Middleburg, Virginia. Mac grew up in the Fairfax area and is headlining the Awakening Festival. (Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)

Today, McKeehan stands as arguably the biggest star in Christian pop music. In the ’90s, his groundbreaking group, dc Talk, made faith-based rap-rock that was brash enough to crack MTV, but wholesome enough to get them invited to Billy Graham’s house.

Last year, McKeehan’s 10th solo album as TobyMac, “Eye On It,” debuted at No. 1 on Billboard’s album chart — the first contemporary Christian music album to achieve that feat since 1997. Last month, McKeehan snagged four trophies at the Gospel Music Association Dove Awards, including artist of the year. After the show, Christian rap star Lecrae gushed to reporters, “TobyMac is a legend.”

But in late September, nobody on M Street recognizes McKeehan. He’s lean and chipper, sporting a crisp baseball cap that makes it difficult to believe he’s just a year shy of 50. He’s left his wife and five children back home in Franklin, Tenn., for a weekend festival gig in Loudoun County — one of the 80-ish concerts he’ll play in any given year. (TobyMac headlines Baltimore Arena on Saturday, Nov. 9.)

He speaks of his rising profile with careful humility, consistently deflecting credit to his fans. And they’ve been an extremely loyal bloc, helping McKeehan’s career thrive while secular artists have suffered the aftershocks of a perpetually slumping record business. Since going solo in 2001, McKeehan says most of his albums have sold between 600,000 and 700,000 copies each.

“They’re very loyal people,” McKeehan says of his fanbase. “They’re looking to rock, they’re looking to dance, they’re looking to throw their hands in the air. But they’re also looking for something that speaks to their life.”

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“I hung out here with the Beastie Boys, once,” McKeehan says, strolling Georgetown’s brick sidewalks. “They were playing the 9:30 Club and they walked out of their sound check, like, ‘Where can we go around here?’ ”

McKeehan hailed a cab from the club’s former F Street location and took them to Georgetown for ice cream. It was 1986. He had discovered hip-hop years earlier, while attending Bethlehem Baptist Christian Academy in Fairfax. One afternoon, his friends took the Metro into the city to buy the latest records from Sugarhill Gang and Kurtis Blow, as well as go-go groups Trouble Funk and Redds and the Boys.

But McKeehan didn’t really start making music of his own until college. After a year at Jacksonville University in Florida on a golf scholarship, he was itching to join his friends at Liberty University, the college founded by Jerry Falwell in Lynchburg, Va. McKeehan’s father, a real estate agent who had sold then-Washington Redskins coach Joe Gibbs his home, helped with some string-pulling.

“The story that I was told was that Joe Gibbs called Jerry Falwell and said, ‘You need to start a golf program,’” McKeehan says. “The next year, I’m at Liberty, playing golf.”

He also started making music with his buddies Kevin Max Smith and Michael Tait, the latter a Washington native who grew up on Capitol Hill. Tait was into gospel. McKeehan wanted to rap like LL Cool J. They named their group dc Talk, after the stage-name McKeehan was using for himself around campus.

McKeehan says that while many still view contemporary Christian music as stylistically constrained, working in the genre gave dc Talk great freedom.

“And I say this in all humility,” McKeehan says, “but there weren’t a lot of singers and rappers coming together. Now it’s everyday. But back then, without a doubt, it was unique.”

The band’s career exploded in 1995 with the release of its double-platinum album, “Jesus Freak.” A video for its grunge-rap title track was directed by Simon Maxwell, who had worked with Nine Inch Nails, and helped catapult the group onto MTV. In the years that followed, other Christian rock bands quietly floated onto mainstream radio airwaves with little fanfare being made about their faith — Switchfoot, P.O.D., Creed, Evanescence, Chevelle, Skillet.

Since going solo in 2001, McKeehan’s music has mellowed into a glossier, more inclusive shade of pop. He’s purposefully casting a wide net through his own music, and through Gotee Records, the Nashville-based record label he launched in 1994. In its busiest years, Gotee released big-selling albums from songwriter Jennifer Knapp and emo troupe Relient K, and is currently home to Capital Kings, a clean-cut pop duo with roots in Northern Virginia.

“We grew up listening to Toby, all the way back to the dc Talk days,” says Jon White of Capital Kings. “And now he’s presenting our music to his fans, saying, ‘This is my fanbase, I want them to hear what you’re doing.’ . . . At this stage in his career, it’s crazy that he’s taken the time to come alongside us. It’s humbling.”

But if reaching people means selling great quantities of albums, does McKeehan see his work as ministry or business?

“To me, this is business,” McKeehan says. “If I’m charging 25, 35 bucks a ticket and charging 10 bucks to buy my CD, it’s a business. You can’t call it ministry at that point . . . If God chooses to minister through me talking about my life, then so be it. But I can’t call it that.”

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After breakfast in Georgetown, the nostalgia trip continues into Fairfax County, past McKeehan’s childhood home, along his old paper route, over to the schoolyard of Luther Jackson Middle School where he had his first kiss, into the parking lot of the Frozen Dairy Bar on Arlington Boulevard.

“Me and my cousin Joey used to love this place,” he says, blue eyes sparkling. He walks up to the counter and orders a cup of vanilla. “Is that boring?”

He can’t remember if he ordered the same thing in Georgetown with the Beasties — it’s been 27 years, after all. McKeehan hasn’t lived in the area since high school and doesn’t make it back to visit too often. So much has changed. Including him. And his music.

“There are early dc Talk lyrics that make me cringe,” he says. “They felt judgemental, like we had it together, had the answers.”

He doesn’t look a lot older, but he certainly feels a lot wiser, and says he’s invigorated by changing attitudes currently sweeping across the Christian faith.

“I love to see [Christians] reaching out and loving well, instead of being insulated and judging,” he says. “I would hope that I’m an artist that’s opening people’s minds about what it means to be a believer walking in this world every day.”

And he’d rather do it through a song than a sermon.

“I want to draw people in because they love the music,” McKeehan says. “And if they hear something in it that’s for them, it makes me happy because it’s something that worked for me. It’s the hope that I’ve been offered. You’re gonna hear hope in a lot of people’s music, but we might resolve differently. I resolve in hope.”

TobyMac

Performing at Baltimore Arena on Saturday, Nov. 9.

Chris Richards became the Post's pop music critic in 2009. He has covered D.I.Y. house shows, White House concerts, go-go and Gaga.
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