Toby McKeehan amassed a gigantic following as a member of Christian trio dc Talk, and if you don’t believe us, then see the huddled masses at this Sunday show at Amalie Arena.
The 54-year-old — who performs under the TobyMac moniker — is relentlessly positive, but 100-percent transparent, when he talks about the challenges of being unafraid to embrace and encourage true diversity (of ideas, cultures, and political ideologies) within his own family and fanbase.
"It's tough. Sometimes, when it's people we love. Whether it's a friend, or a bandmate or a family member. Sometimes you have to stop being the padding," McKeehan, 54, said when asked about a tough family decision he had to make last fall.
"You have to kind of let them hit the bottom, and sometimes love looks like that. But it's hard for the person loving."
McKeehan's been on both ends of that tough love, and he'll bring everything he has to Tampa on Sunday. Read our full Q&A below.
TobyMac w/Jeremy Camp/Ryan Stevenson/We Are Messengers/Aaron Cole. Sun. Feb. 24, Amalie Arena, 401 Channelside Dr., Tampa. amaliearena.com.
Mr. McKeehan, it's good to talk to you. I think we only have 15 minutes to chat, so I won't waste my time asking you how good you actually were at basketball after playing twice a week on tour.
Haha. Getting worse every year.
So you're the worst guy in the Diversity crew?
Yeah, I don't know about that. By no means am I the worst guy in the diversity group. You have to include some guys that don't play in that, so I'm good.
So you're a starter.
I'm pretty high in the draft.
Right on, so I write for the alt-weekly here, and we normally skew to the left. I feel like reasonable liberals try and avoid conversations with looney tune Trump supporters, and it got me thinking: How regularly do you get to have conversations with atheists? Is it something you try and avoid, too?
Um, I don't avoid it all. I think it happens all the time. It's not like I'm trying to confront anybody. I'm trying to hang out, love people well, and let however I'm livin' be influential or be something that looks sweet to them.
My understanding is that Elements is loosely about this practice you have of taking some time each morning to think about the person you you want to be in all aspects of life before getting out in the world and getting beat down on that. What are some of the things on your mind this morning? I know you're getting ready for tour, but in regards to your personal development.
I'm just trying to slow down and take each conversation one day at a time, be present in conversation — to me, I don't care how successful you are, I think people want you to look them in the eye, talk to them, listen to their story, listen to what they're going through. I want to speak positively about people. Those are the things that have been in my mind.
I've been in the studio for the last couple days, writing new songs. Today they're loading production into this big warehouse where we'll start rehearsing with full production for two weeks. So yeah, coming out of the studio grind and getting back to this with my band.
Making up my mind to be... I guess it's not the most popular, sexy word out there today, but the word "meek" comes to mind. It doesn't mean "weak" by any means, but it means being kind and gentle enough to listen to people, talk to people and respond to people — put yourself in their shoes and think about their situation for a minute. Sometimes that's hard when you're an artist where you have a crew of people looking out for you, taking care of you. You have to remind yourself of those things.
Well "Meek" is popular right now because of Meek Mill's new album.
I like that you talked about working on new songs because I wanted to ask you if Brad O'Donnell is one of those guys who beats you down for stuff as far as making albums every 18 months.
Brad O'Donnell is one of the guys who inspires me constantly. You talk about a guy that does listen and is kind and encouraging, but can draw a line. He's one of those guys where I'm like, I wanna be like him. Honestly.
Your creative process is effective, but you've mentioned that it takes time and that it takes you living life and making some mistakes. How do you put yourself in situations to grow? Like, how do you get to that uncomfortable place where you can grow?
I think you grow through failure. You also can grow though achievement and success, but it's a trickier path. I think you grow through making mistakes and then taking an honest look in the mirror in the morning. For me, that mirror, maybe it's a physical one, but, really it's more of a mental mirror and a spiritual mirror. I look at the Bible, and it confronts me. It reminds me of what matters. I put my life up against that.
Some people would call that "legalistic," but I put my life up against that, and that's who I want to be, but I fall short. It's a tough look in the mirror every morning, but then you just stay on the grind of trying to be that person that you not only want to be — and I feel this is my heart — that you're called to be.
Yeah, and you do talk a lot about your calling and the way you approach big decisions. In October, you talked about a big decision you and your team had to make for TobyMac and Diversity. I don't know if you meant your band or your family. What was that the decision regarding having to ask one of your kids to leave your house? He obviously, eventually, came back, but is that what you're talking about? Back in the fall.
Yeah. That was what I was talking about. It's tough. Sometimes, when it's people we love. Whether it's a friend, or a bandmate or a family member. Sometimes you have to stop being the padding. You have to kind of let them hit the bottom, and sometimes love looks like that. But it's hard for the person loving.
Who was that person for you, as far as when you needed someone to stop coddling you, per se? Who did that for you in the past? Did you ever have to go through that, what your son did?
Yeah, absolutely. My mom, definitely, was there, always. My dad was pretty tough. As I am came to town and started this business of making records and writing songs there were a couple of guys... I wanted to be a part of something that they were growing, and I thought that I had the mind and the heart to be a part of it. They were older guys setting up a new company. And they just told me, "It's not your time yet. You're not there yet."
That was a hard blow for me. Especially then dc Talk was sailing and doing well, but they just let me know that I'm basically not on that level let. It was hard for me to accept that, but I think it made me better. I think it made me stronger, and I think it was a nice wake up call.
My wife definitely does that for me. She's not easy on me. She's tough, and she's a Jamaican woman, and she tells me like it is to be honest with you.
Does she make you drink Irish moss?
Haha, no, but she makes it crystal clear that when I'm not onstage or with a touring entourage — when I walk into that door, it's time to take out the trash, do the dishes and all the things that people probably don't think that we do, but that I do.
It's kind of nice because you've talked about being pretty lucky to be at a point that you can be in the studio from 10 in the morning and be at home by six to eat dinner. You talked about dc Talk and everything that band went through. That was a different era, and prioritizing your life is key, but what would you say to to the artist with a family who is still trying to make it in music while being good to their family?
Well you have to want it. You can go off on your Macy's parade float, and be an artist and get all these people around you, but you have to ask God to bring people that are real. That love you and love you in a tough way. People who tell you the truth about yourself. Starting with your soulmate and then going into people you're in business with and the people you're in a band with. The people you take the stage with.
The only way that works... there's this work called "accountability," and it's an easy word to through out there. Like, I'm accountable in everything I do, but "accountability" isn't a one-time ask. "Accountability" is an every decision ask. Every decision I make, I run it by people. I say, "Did I do the right thing or the wrong thing here? Help me. Should I do this, or should I do that?"
To me it's always seeking the counsel of wise friends. It's always seeking the counsel of your wise soulmate in trying to stay accountable in your decisions so you're not just, you know, so it's not about you all the time. That's a simple way to put it, but it's just the way it is.
And what does counsel say, even legally — I mean been the subject of some crappy, fake-news ish Internet headline like “tobyMac Exposed! (Sings Devil's music in Jesus' name)” — what do you do about that? Cease and desist that stuff or do you wring your hands around it?
I actually don't do anything. I actually don't cease and desist. I just don't even bring light to it. I don't put any light on it. I kind of just say, "Let my whole life of work, my personal life, organizations that I sponsor — let that speak for itself."
And a lot of artists have experienced a change in fan base after writing songs like "Starts With Me," but you've always kind of been open and committed to diversity and inclusion in a very progressive way — especially for the scene you run in. Was that song different from anything else you've done in the past as far as fan feedback or have you kind of weeded out the people in your fanbase who might not be as open-minded about that idea?
I feel like most people are open-minded to that idea. I feel like anyone that follows my music knows I'm about that. From my personal life; my family is diverse, my friends and diverse, my community, the organizations I support and sponsor are absolutely about diversity. So it's sort of, like, it's an easy one for me. I believe that it's the heart of God that says we're supposed to walk to together in all of our differences — and I believe we're more beautiful together. So I've never caught any grief from people that don't agree with what I'm saying.
That song's different because it's less of a proclamation, it's more of an inside look. It's looking at my past, and it's looking at Aaron Cole's past, too. Guys from Virginia, one a little older than the other. It sort of says, "How were we raised?" and "Are there any skeletons in our closet that we're still living out?," and how do we change that? The resolve is that if our family is going to be different, then it has to start with us. That will lead to societal change, hopefully.
And to ask a more technical question. Tour picks up on January 29 in Louisiana — will there be kinks to work out over that show and the three shows in Texas? I also wanted to know since there are hip-hop elements to your show — does your show borrow anything from some of the bigger hip-hop tours that have hit other arenas around the country?
Yeah, absolutely. I'm a pop artist. Everything kind of comes together, I would never call myself a hip-hop artist. Hip-hop artist is part of what I do because it was with me from the beginning. I love it, I respect it, I treasure it — I really do, as a musical artform and genre. I go to shows, and I try to watch and see how people are being moved by it. I'm always like a study at the shows. Even watching some shows, so many artists have so much songs that people want to hear, so they're doing half songs, ending it with Jamaican (makes the reggaeton horn sound) and then switching it up. But they're getting the titles in, and people love it.
If an artist like Drake were to do all his songs that people know and love, then you would be there for five, six hours, so to pop some half songs in — that was something I was watching and thinking, "This is kind of dope." And it's lots of artists doing that. But the bottom line is... when I put a record out, the tour is a little different. We're playing catch up. Last week, and this week, my band is just learning all the songs on the record. But it's nice because you're excited for the new songs, and you're working on how they translate, and how you want them to come across. And at the same time I'm honored to have a bunch of songs behind me that people want to hear every night because they're hit songs.
So it takes a little massaging to get all the titles in. Some of them you have to let go of, and they're dear to you, and they're dear to the people, so it hurts a little. So that's kind of what we're going through.
I know you wanna keep doing this for a long time, and obviously your body is a little different than it was when you were 20, but do you low key take real estate classes so you can join the McKeehan real estate tradition?
Haha. I love doing this. I think I have enough songs, whether I'm playing them out at a theater or a club, or whether I'm in an arena — it can work for a while. And I enjoy it. I thoroughly enjoy sharing music with people. But, yeah, I want to be wise about how this all happens. I want to be classic in a beautiful way as it comes at me, but I also want to be smart.
I will say this. I got to Franklin, Tennessee really early in the DC Talk days. I've been smart enough around this town. I saw it growing. I made a few smart moves.
Cool. So the McKeehan pub in East Nashville is on the way.
Well, thanks for your time.
You know Brad or something?
No, but I like when you talk about, like, you're open about the label pressure to do stuff, but Brad O'Donnell had this Billboard interview where he talked about, how do we "make hit songs," like what is the strategy, and I thought that maybe Brad would be that point person at the label who would want you to have an album every 18 months.
Yeah, he is. He knows me, and he's kind about it, but of course they want that.
Yeah, totally. I mean I'm sure your publishing is good. You live in Nashville now, you could probably do that and mentor people as well.
Cool. Thanks so much for your time. I don't want to get you too off schedule.
No, thank you. I enjoyed talking to you. You knew what was up.
Of course, it's my pleasure.
Alright, brother, peace.