As Christian contemporary artists go, Fairfax native TobyMac is difficult to brand. His lyrics may be faith-based, but on his new album, This Is Not a Test, Jesus is only mentioned twice explicitly—once in reference to Carrie Underwood. His sound may fit in snugly with slick, Top-40 stars, but unlike Justin Bieber or Ellie Goulding, he steers clear of suggestive themes. In other words, he’s a pop singer with implicit religious wisdom to impart. How the hell do you market that to the masses?
Whatever the strategy is, it’s working. Born Kevin Michael McKeehan, TobyMac will perform Saturday at the 10,000-seat EagleBank Arena, a hometown gig to cap off a whirlwind few months that began with This is Not a Test debuting atop on Billboard’s Top Christian Albums chart. Still, he wants to reach more people, especially those that are turned off by the genre he’s associated with. “The label ‘Christian’ causes my music sometimes to fall on deaf ears,” he says. “I want my music to fall on open ears. I wish it was just [known as] music.”
Neither making music nor practicing Christianity was an integral part of McKeehan’s adolescence in Washington, but religion bit first. He recalls being captivated at age 13 by a religious speaker that had come to tell Bible stories at his sleep-away camp.
“One night it just hit me in the heart,” he says. “I prayed and became a Christian believer.”
Music followed. He moonlighted as a DJ in high school, but it wasn’t until he got to Liberty University that he started writing hip-hop songs inspired by romantic brooding. “I just started writing raps about things like ex-girlfriends I was mad at, lashing out at them lyrically,” McKeehan says. “I used the pen to get back at them after they broke up with me.”
McKeehan’s first major career break came as part of the rock-rap, Linkin Park-meets-gospel-trio DC Talk, who formed in Virginia in 1987. Unlike his TobyMac material, though, DC Talk never shied away from overt Christian lyrics—one of the band’s most famous songs, “Jesus Freak,” includes the lines “What will people think/When they hear that I’m a Jesus freak.”
Since DC Talk, which reunites on the This Is Not a Test track “Love Feels Like,” McKeehan has focused mostly on channeling the four sonic pillars of his childhood—Bob Marley, Run DMC, The Police, and Hall & Oates—while also broadening his lyrics. A TobyMac song like “Speak Life,” for instance, may be about piousness. But here, McKeehan’s words—which include lines like “Look into the eyes of the brokenhearted/ Watch them come alive as soon as you speak hope”—resonate more as vague proverbs.
“Our words are powerful,” he says about the track. “We can choose them to speak life. We can choose them to build somebody up or we could choose our words to tear somebody down. A message like that is for anybody out there. It’s not a sub-genre market message.”
Despite his attempts to make fans out of everybody, regardless of background or belief, McKeehan is aware his listeners are mostly Christian families. But even a squeaky-clean religious ethos, shared by both him and his supporters, can’t stop him from pondering what it would like if his music was a little bit dirtier.
“Once in awhile we’ll joke around and put a lyric in there and we’re like, ‘What if we said that? Oh my gosh, people would freak out,’” McKeehan says. “We do that sometimes in the studio, just to have fun.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article refers to the song “Jesus Freak” as “Jesus Talk.” Also, the initially quoted lyric “Look into the eyes of the brokenhearted/ Watch them come alive as soon as you speak home” is actually “Look into the eyes of the brokenhearted/ Watch them come alive as soon as you speak hope.”