When the urban gospel artist formerly known as Tonéx came out as a homosexual, his saga erased the already blurry line between sacred and secular pop music. Here’s part one of a special series on the curious evolution of modern Christian music.
Fans of the artist born as Anthony C. Williams have, for most of his career, called him by his stage name of Tonéx (or a host of derivative alternates: TON3X, T. Boy, T-Bizzy, et cetera). With this stage name, he took the world of gospel music by storm, unleashing a hybrid genre of eclectic contemporary music — gospel mixed with R&B, hip-hop, funk, pop, and a slew of other influences. The blend is so unique, he made up his own word to describe it: “nureau.”
But since fall of 2010, he’s been performing under the alias of B. Slade, an artistic persona drawn from ’70s glam rock lore. This new name coincides with his new public identity … self-assured, uninhibited, and gay.
The fact that Williams’ decision to reveal his homosexual identity led to a firestorm of controversy on both sides of the issue is, while newsworthy in the most basic sense, not particularly surprising. Homosexuality has been, and continues to be, a hot-button issue in politics as well as entertainment, so any time a Christian of moderate-to-high profile comes out, it causes a stir (see: Knapp, Jennifer or Boltz, Ray).
Neither is it all that surprising that most of the people who’ve chosen to affirm his public stance are gospel music industry insiders, people who promote the gospel music genre for a living.
What is surprising is that the underlying truth that episodes like these illustrate is rather obvious, yet rarely stated. If we can learn anything from the saga of the artist formerly known as Tonéx, it’s this:
There really is no such thing as Christian music, at least not anymore.
In order to understand why this is true, we must look back.
At risk of oversimplification, here’s an overview…
A Brief History of Christian Music
The history of the musical and cultural tradition associated with contemporary Christian and/or gospel music has been in venues far more extensive than this article, although most of them tend to focus more on the CCM (common shorthand for White) side, rather than the gospel (shorthand for Black) side.
Nevertheless, it’s safe to say that what we know today as the Christian music industry didn’t really exist as recently as forty years ago. As evidenced by the advent of CCM Magazine in 1978, contemporary Christian music as a format arose from the Jesus music movement of the early 70s. Eventually it evolved through the ’80s and ’90s into the economic juggernaut that it is today.
Initially known primarily for its evangelistic message of hope in the salvation of Christ, its practitioners followed the tradition of hymnists like Martin Luther, who authored many of the great hymns of the church by setting new lyrics to the existing bar melodies. Young pioneers like Larry Norman and Andraé Crouch sung their faith to the popular rock, soul, folk and funk styles of their day.
Eventually a whole industry sprung up around the idea of Christians playing popular music aimed not only to non-believers, but to other believers. As Christian musicians continued to develop relationships and build credibility with their secular counterparts, a subculture of Christian music morphed into a set of subcultures, each one becoming a form of stylistic mimicry of a popular music genre.
By the time of the late ’80s and early ’90s, Christian music had become a full-blown parallel industry, whereby the most popular secular bands and acts of the day had Christian counterparts, marketed by the cultural gatekeepers as safe alternatives. The Christian bookstores even kept handy charts in their music sections to tell you, if a local youth liked a particular chart-topping secular artist, which Christian artist sounded similar enough to warrant purchasing their CD.
Many of the Christian artists themselves found this idea to be condescending and repugnant, yet they had little choice but to allow it, because they had little control over the marketing decisions made on their behalf by the Christian record labels that paid them and controlled their commercial output.
In time, each of these labels became owned by major media conglomerates, and their decisions became more and more controlled by business interests and less guided by Christian ministry principles. At the same time, more and more Christian acts were achieving greater commercial success and critical acclaim than ever by “crossing over” and finding success with non-Christian listeners, often by collaborating with artists in the general market, or releasing songs with non-religious themes.
With few exceptions, these crossover attempts did little to change the overall reputation of Christian music as being dated, derivative and generally inferior. So Christian music went from being defined by the message of Christ, to being defined by therapeutic moralistic deism, a shadowy cultural echo of Christianity, shaped primarily by broader American culture.
Thus, the contemporary Christian music scene devolved over time into what it is today, something not unlike the Holy Roman Empire: neither Christian, nor contemporary, nor all that musical.
So if Christian music isn’t really as Christian as we like to think, then what is it? How should we respond to it? And is gospel just another label for Christian music? How is it different? How is it the same? And what does any of this have to do with Tonéx, or B. Slade, or whatever his name is?
Stay locked in for Part 2 of the Gospel Identity Crisis series.