In Part 1, we examined the meteoric rise and fall of gospel-singer-turned-pop-diva Tonéx. But is the Tonéx saga an aberration, or a sign of the troubling contradictions inherent in the Christian music industry?
In the first installment of this four-part series, we examined the story of gospel-singer-turned-pop-diva Tonéx (Anthony C. Williams, a.k.a. B. Slade), juxtaposed against the history of the Christian music industry that helped to make him a star.
Given his prominence, controversy surrounding his current choices of lifestyle and repertoire were inevitable. But how did his identity as a gospel singer contribute to the controversy? And why are people still divided as to how to respond to Tonéx today?
To find these answers, we must dig into what it means to be a gospel artist.
Cultural Definition of “Gospel”
In the last part, we saw how, generally speaking, the growth of Christian music as an overall industry led to a sort of musical ghetto, artificially separated from the rest of the general entertainment market.
This separation stunted the growth and harmed the reputations of artists therein, leading to a perception expressed as an opinion, widely disseminated in conversations on-and-offline, that Christian music sucks.
The biggest exception to this overarching trend of underachievement, however, has been the contributions of African-Americans.
This is not to say that there has been no inferior music from Black people. Surely there’s been plenty. I used to work in a Christian bookstore, so I’ve heard a lot of it firsthand.
(I’m resisting the urge to take any shots here at artists I don’t like.)
Nevertheless, crossover appeal has always been easier and more frequent for Black people. The music of the African American church has served not only as a hotbed for talent development, but asfor virtually all of the styles of popular American music today, including rock and roll, jazz, soul, funk, and even hip-hop. This is why almost every entertainer of historic note — too many to even mention a few — started out in church.
In this historical context of African American musical influence, the evolution of Christian music as a parallel commercial industry helped to establish the genres of music that we now refer to by the overarching umbrella term “gospel music.”
And even though gospel music has never been universally embraced in American culture (due to its overtly spiritual message), its biggest stars have always had wide commercial crossover appeal, from Aretha Franklin and Walter Hawkins to Kirk Franklin and Mary Mary.
Gospel music gets its name from the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Good News that Christ died for our sins and rose again, conquering the power of sin and death in the process, and bequeathing on those who believe and receive Him supernatural freedom, power and eternal life. These are all important themes in gospel music.
But because of this unique positioning that African Americans have traditionally held as being curators of expressive musical culture, there is another, more common definition of the word “gospel” that people often use, a definition that refers to the method of the music, rather than the message of the music.
This other use of the word “gospel” is defined by certain cultural and musical cues that authenticate a real spiritual experience in the African American tradition. Things like the warm, whirring purr of a Hammond B3 organ, the vocal melisma of a dynamic lead vocalist, exuberant piano licks, and the joyful spontaneity of people jumping, shouting, and “having church.”
These cultural signifiers have been viewed historically as strange and exotic — even sometimes dangerous — by White people. So in the context of general market entertainment, there is a novelty factor to the gospel style that makes it attractive. As the gospel music industry has risen in prominence and economic clout, the culture of “gospel” music — used in the method sense, not the message sense — has continued to be featured more frequently in American popular culture, including (see below), MTV music videos, shoe commercials, and television.
It’s gotten to the point that NYC area congregations have side deals with tourist groups who literally pay to come to church and see the show.
Media theorist Marshall McLuhan famously asserted that “the medium is the message.” Nowhere is this clearer than in this new cultural definition of gospel. Somewhere along the line, the message of Christ became so synonymous with the gospel music genre that even when the message is nowhere to be found, people still refer to it as gospel, .
The First Gospel Reality Star
It makes sense, then, that Anthony C. Williams has engendered such a dichotomous reaction from people in the contemporary gospel music community. He’s been celebrated by liberal inclusive ministers and denounced outright by several conservatives, according to this 2010 profile in The New Yorker.
But one thing he’s really never been is ignored.
The name Tonéx has been in the forefront of the discussion surrounding the next wave of gospel music superstars for well over a decade. His flair for the dramatic, his athletic dance moves, his love of bizarre costumes and hairstyles, and most importantly, his soaring, over-the-top vocal ability set him apart from the very beginning. Tonéx blended hip-hop swagger and R&B sensuality with Pentecostal expressionism and charismatic church folklore. It was a unique combination never seen before or since.
Tonéx’s prominence was partially due to his considerable talent and tireless work ethic, but also because he possessed a knack for self-promotion and an affinity for social media long before it was as popular as it is now. And the oblique nature of many of his lyrics and interviews created a sense of mystique that fueled interest in the man behind the music.
Combining that with the legal travails of multiple record-label skirmishes and the emotional fallout over , his with honesty and propriety regarding his own sexuality, the death of both of his parents, and his assuming of pastoral leadership of the church he grew up and inherited, Tonéx amassed as much notoriety for what he did outside the studio as what he did within it, despite how prolific he has been.
In that sense, he had plenty in common with the Gosselins, the Palins, the Jersey Shore crew, and other reality-TV stars. He was a bankable commodity whose appeal had less to do with substance than style, and he was exploited by an industry that profited from his rise without doing much to cushion his fall.
(See also: Sheen, Charlie.)
More Lingering Questions
But his recent transformation from gospel singer Tonéx into faux-gospel-pop performer Brian Slade raises an obvious dilemma for fans of his music who don’t embrace his gay lifestyle:
• How do we approach his vast catalog of music?
• Is it fair to still refer to the stuff he recorded as Tonéx as Christian music?
• What about calling it gospel? Will that work?
• If not, what can/should we call it?
• What happens when and/if he sings those songs today?
For these answers and other questions, check out Parts 3 and 4 of the series.