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Friday, February 06, 2009

TobyMac is stylin’.

The GMA Dove Awards’ 2008 artist of the year has a massive collection of Nikes, a passion for funky hats, a penchant for vintage clothing stores – and no problem whatsoever talking about such things.

Call him a fashion plate, and he laughs, betraying nary a hint of “Hey, I’m a guy” embarrassment.

“I’m an absolute sneaker freak,” he says. “I’m wearing a purple pair of high-tops on stage these days, and I think it’s the bomb.”

Kevin Michael McKeehan, 44, nicknamed Toby in his childhood, doesn’t worry about traditional stereotypes, in his life or in his art. In fact, he’s all about breaking them.

When the music industry frowned on the idea of Christian hip-hop, TobyMac responded with a shrug, and a “you watch me” vibe. In his early years with dc Talk, and the solo career that followed, he has merged rap, rock and religion, earning millions of fans in the process.

“I heard so many things over the years,” he says. “`You can’t do Christian and rap.’ `You can’t do rap because you’re a white boy.’ `You can’t do rock ‘n’ roll and mix that with a message of faith and hope.’ As far as I’m concerned, you can’t put a positive or negative on a guitar riff. It’s all about what you say or do with that. I always go back to the old saying, `Give me bricks and mortar, and I can build a house of worship or a house of ill repute.'”

With hard work and steadfast devotion, TobyMac has proved the naysayers wrong. He’s also earned three gold records, eight Doves and several spots on the Billboard charts. As a member of dc Talk, the list of accolades increases even more.

On Saturday, TobyMac will headline Winter Jam, a Christian music festival at Birmingham’s BJCC Arena. On Sunday, he’s up for a Grammy Award, vying for best rock or rap gospel album with “Alive and Transported.”

But you won’t find TobyMac posing for the cameras with other celebrities at the Los Angeles Convention Center. He’s got a tour stop on Grammy night and has opted to perform with his band, DiverseCity, at the Gwinett Center in Duluth, Ga.

Is TobyMac dissing the Grammys (he already has four of them as a member of dc Talk) or simply displaying his workaholic tendencies?

“I wish, a lot of times, that I was a guy who also stopped to enjoy any achievement or accomplishment,” he admits. “I’m the type who looks and moves on to the next mountain I’m climbing. I probably should look down the mountain more often, and see how far we’ve come.”

The next piece of his terrain, after Winter Jam concludes in mid-March, will be a recording studio. TobyMac says he’s “about halfway finished” with a new CD and has a fall release date in mind, probably near Thanksgiving.

“There are a couple of songs I’m super happy with, and I have the first song written and recorded, I think,” he says. “I’ll be moving in the same direction with DiverseCity, trying to write more poetically and write songs that connect with people’s lives. I don’t want to sound pretentious, but it’s like I wait for God to give songs to me.”

Divine inspiration doesn’t imply, however, that TobyMac regards himself as a preacher or that his concerts morph into church services.

“A song can be about a good time; a song can be about pain; a song can be about victory,” he says. “It doesn’t have to have an overt message about Jesus. I think it’s about a body of work, and resolve in God is my underlying message. I know what I want the center of my life to be. I want to write about my life and be honest about it. In the song `Lose My Soul,’ that Kirk (Franklin) and Mandisa are on, I’m telling you my prayer, the things I struggle with, my deepest desires.”

TobyMac says he applies the same principles, and the same freedom, to the artists on his indie label, Gotee Records. These include Relient K, Flynn Adam, House of Heroes and Ayiesha Woods. (TobyMac’s solo albums are released by ForeFront Records, dc Talk’s label and part of the EMI Christian Music Group.)

“I don’t tell any of my artists how to write or use their gifts,” he says. “I only sign an artist if I know their heart is in the right place.”

If a higher power is guiding his steps and decisions, as TobyMac believes, he remains its grateful object. Religious conviction is the most valuable tool in his music arsenal, giving him the will and desire to succeed.

“If I wasn’t trying to move people toward hope, love and faith,” he says, “I would have given up a long time ago.”

Article credited to the Birmingham News.

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