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 thoroughly documented 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.
Hey Jelani – Thanks for raising this important and compelling topic. Wow. There is so much here to unpack, that it is almost too much to take in. Nonetheless, I am compelled to roll up my sleeves, and dive in, so here goes.
First, I can remember participating in a traveling “contemporary Christian music group” in the early 80’s back in the Petra days, and taking on some similar songs. There were churches that were viscerally angered that we’d bring Satan’s music into their hallowed halls. Moreover, I’m sure there are many of us that can remember the cautionary tale that is Amy Grant, who dared to cross over only to later be met by Vince Gill’s arms? Of course, who knows what really was happening behind the scenes, and what her life was like – thus, whom amongst us can judge? OK, putting my southern California white boy history aside – Of course there is no such thing as “Christian” music – notes are notes, regardless of the fact that it can be argued that God is the author of all creation including music.
The point, I think, then is how is the music used, right? There is no question that music can be used to transcend, just like prayer – music is, can be a form of physical act of prayer, and there is no question it can be highly emotive in this way. It seems to me then, to whom are you praying? Sex, drugs, God? Yourself? The label is just a means of delineating use, it seems to me – and style.
The issue use raise is salient for at least two reason: 1. There are people that don’t know how to engage with the sacred unless it is on the nose. Of the my most memorable spiritual experiences was at a George Winston Concert – Seriously (and I don’t even like that kind of music, generally I find it insipid). God was never uttered. Christian music? No Did God speak – Ya. Why – Because God can speak through creative excellence – IMHO. 2. People are jacked up because the dude came out – There, I said it. It is possible to be gay and still believe in God (shocking, I know – and no, I’m not gay – content in marriage for 19 years, thanks – just to set the record “straight” – it is ok for straight dues to defend gay dudes, that’s all I’m sayin’– and I’m secure enough to advocate.). Moreover, it is possible to be gay and still get up every morning and say God, I need your Son – save me – just as I say the same. Even more so, it is possible to be gay and sing praises to God’s Son. So, is Tonez or B.Slade (or whatever) singing Christian Music – who the hell cares? I am more concerned with his creative excellence, and in the end, it is up to God to determine what is in his heart and soul. I’m out – for now. . . .
I agree with you, Scott. I think especially in the black church we’re okay with our talented musicians and artists being closeted homosexuals…just don’t let them confess it out loud like Tonex did. Tonex happens to be a very talented artist who probably would have the success of a Kanye West of Lady Gaga if he would’ve set his mind on a secular career from the start. But for some reason God had this brother creating his art in the Christian music world, even though God knew he would one day come out. I don’t think that was an accident. I think it is important to take people like Tonex as whole individuals–not just as a “Christian” artist or a gay black man or an eccentric musician. He’s a whole lot of things and the only way we can truly address this issue in the church is to face it head on with all its human complexity. We’re all sinners, and that’s exactly how God interacts with us! We need to learn to interact with each other the same way.
Wow, Stephen – Preach it, man! Well said, dude! I really could not have said it better. It seems, though that Tonex’s story is what needs to be told. Cheers, S.
I am not sure where Jelani Greenidge is going with this topic, but I know we’ll find out when he releases Part 2 of “the Gospel Identity Crisis”. What has taken me aback is the response of a couple of people to Anthony Williams and his “coming out”. Folks are treating this as if God has not spoken concerning this issue. Homosexuality as an option for anyone is sin in God’s eyes. The Scripture makes that very clear. Should the homosexual be beat over the head? No more than any other believer who is actively living a life of sin (e.g. the adulterer, the fornicator, the thief, etc.). If folks have a problem with the church’s stance on homosexuality their real problem is not with the church, but with God.
I am not trying to exalt myself as some “holier than thou” individual. I am not. I need the grace of God that is in Christ Jesus just like everyone else. But the Scripture ask the following question:
“What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound? God forbid. How shall we, that are dead to sin, live any longer therein?” (Romans 6:1 – 2)
The grace of God received by the believer frees you from the bondage of sin through Jesus Christ. We see this in Jesus’ encounter with the woman caught in adultery. The requirements of the law said that she should be stoned. But our Lord freed her from her guilt when He said, “Neither do I condemn thee. Go and SIN NO MORE.” The Law and the Grace of God meet up in Christ Jesus.
It grieves me to see people trying to condone a sinful lifestyle. We are hearing and seeing more of this in the church. We are in danger of “…turning the grace of our God into lasciviousness, and denying the only Lord God, and our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Jude verse 4)
Jesus didn’t just deliver us from the consequences of sin, but from sin itself!!!
I’ll steer away from the homosexual issue. Not enough time or energy in me to deal with the follow ups. I’m at work, so my thoughts may be a bit disconnected, but I’ll try to wrap them up in the end.
Musically, all I can say is that the spiritually-minded person can tell spiritually “clean” music from “worldly, sensual, and demonic” music.
The best illustration I can come up with is the difference between a technically perfect performance of a classical piece of music, and one that hits all the notes, but adds a bit of the player’s artistic interpretation. The pianists who sound like player pianos, spitting out notes aren’t considered masters, by any means.
Soooo, if a “worldly-minded” choir member, or worship leader/musician is playing church music from that kind of heart, it really does come out in the “spirit” of it.
If it is a Christian doing non-Church music, you can still sense the spirit of the song…
I went to a “Women of Gospel” concert at a big L.A. church several years back. While the performers were talented and entertaining, the presence of the Holy Spirit wasn’t made plain until a particular singer came out and focused on worshipping.
Anyhoo, all I’m saying is that the state of the heart of the artist matters. And to protect our own treasure, we need to judge some fruit.
Have we come to the place where “every man did what was right in his own sight”?
Music was created by God and corrupted by Satan. It was meant to be honoring to our creator, not a tool of Satan to ensnare the weak and unsuspecting.
Satan can create beautiful, stirring, music to those listening, but he has an agenda–his music lures you away from God’s truth to His lies so that nothing good can come from it.
Anthony C. Williams needed, in his mind, a justification for turning his back on the Truth and Satan gave him several. He didn’t evolve into a more spiritual, gifted, more exciting, more outrageous musician because of being misunderstood and maligned by the church and the gospel music industry, he did it because it was his choice to be a homosexual. He needed a conscience salve, so why not pull the oldest card in history, the blame card.
Music that comes from a heart that wants to exalt a righteous God, a loving God, a just God will not also carry with it hype, controversy, discord, evil.
Williams just did not have the guts to say, “Lord I don’t believe Your word is true”…when you said in Romans 1:25-27, Who changed the truth of God into a lie, and worshipped and served the creature more than the Creator… For this cause God gave them up unto vile affections: for even their women did change the natural use into that which is against nature: And likewise the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust one toward another; working that which is unseemly,receiving in themselves the recompence of their error…And even as they did not like to retain God in their knowledge, God gave them over to a reprobate mind.
Don’t wimper about how the church and the industry turned their backs on you, corrupting your style; but how you turned your back on God, corrupting His people.
Now about the topic; gospel music, like all things will go the way of the world if we don’t stop buying, and buying in to the madness.
Bruce Donaldson hit that right on the head!!!!! I need not say a word.
Bruce is a friend of mine, but I’m going to disagree with him a bit.
This is a subject near and dear to my heart, and one I have wrestled with. No, I’m not talking about the homosexual issue. I’m talking about the so-called “Christian arts” issue.
Honestly, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been surprised to find out that someone–someone who created something beautiful–was not where I thought they were spiritually. If you’re a Christian long enough, it will happen to you.
I don’t think that makes the art bad.
To take it a step further, God has used drunkards to physically heal people and lead them to Christ. Authors have written helpful truths about Christian living, only to have the books thrown out of the Christian bookstores when something scandalous surfaced. Did the book suddenly become bad?
So I’ve stopped trying to judge things by the vessel that they came out of. I’m often wrong!
When I see something that reflects an attribute of God, I believe it testifies of Him and brings Him glory even if it came from a weak (or unsaved) vessel. I play instrumental music. It has no words, but I believe it reflects various attributes of God. Is it un-Christian? I hope not! I consider it worship!
I’m going to go out on a limb by saying that I think the way we divide between “Christian” and “secular” art is silly. Does a beautiful picture only become “Christian” when there is some sort of “Christian” identifier attached to it? Maybe there’s a little fish symbol in the corner, and all of a sudden it’s been sanctified? Is it only “Christian” if the person’s heart was right at the time it was created? Do you really think you can know someone’s heart? The Bible says we don’t even know our own.
Maybe we should stop trying to put “Christian” or “secular” lables on art, and start asking, “What attribute of God does the art reflect?” Does it somehow reflect His beauty? Does it reflect His love? Does it move me to gratitude? Does it compell me to worship? And so on…
BTW, I love that song and video. 🙂
Being an artist at my core. I’ve worked as a writer, a poet, a graphic artist, a photographer, and a video producer. I too, Charley, struggle with the whole “art” definition. I have been on a pendulum and over time it moves back and forth, but I’m hoping it eventually lands dead center, “on the mark.”
I agree with Charley that there should be no signifier of whether something is “christian” or not. Just because there is or is not a cross, dove, or Jesus’ name on something doesn’t qualify nor disqualify good “art.”
Rather than the word, “beauty,” I’d prefer to use “truth” (As Satan can disguise himself as an angel of “light”). When art is created well it goes beyond connecting with your mood, or personality and hits deep in your heart and your soul says….wow, or ahhhhh…yes! In that way it boils down to our personal responsibility to discern the spirt(s).
If something created signifies a truth, or the Truth (the Person of Truth) it’s more likely to be a solid piece of art. I like to use the first of the Matrix film trilogy as an example of that. But I am not going to continue feeding on the producers’ works because they somehow landed on or tapped into something big…once.
But going beyond the qualification of the piece, there is a “spirit” of the artist’s work. Even a “christian” artist can create something out of rebellion, anger, pride, jealousy…and if it’s done well (even beautifully?), that can transfer to the viewer. Music–especially when combined with lyrics– is apt to do just that. Motion picture scores are fashioned “scientifically” to move people emotionally beyond what the words and pictures they are seeing can do…
Over the last several years, I’ve been trying to eat more healthily and to detox my system from additives and toxins that are in some of the “best tasting foods” I’ve ever eaten.
Even the water I drink is not from the tap. The tap water tastes better than any bottled water I’ve had yet, but it contains horrible things from solvents and pharmaceuticals to chlorine and fluoride. Granted it is just traces of these elements, and the content and volume varies, but they add up and cause problems in our immune systems. I would rather drink from a natural spring (flavor varies) than from bottles or my tap.
The same with art. If I know the spring is clean and natural–even if it’s not always the best tasting as compared to tap water–I’m going to drink it before the usually better tasting tap water. If I can’t get spring water, I’ll go for bottled (glass bottles preferably) spring water…If I can’t get that, I’ll go for distilled ( I have to add minerals) or filtered tap water…
When it comes to art, especially music, I’d rather hunt for diamonds I like in a diamond mine, than trudge through the sewers hoping someone flushed their beautiful ring down the toilet.
If I find myself in or near a sewer and find a diamond I wouldn’t discard it….
Fair and/or accurate analogy?
OR…does anyone think motivation of heart counts for anything?
Hey everybody, great comments! Glad to see folks entering into dialogue over this.
There is so much that I would love to respond to, but I don’t want to steal my own thunder, because this is going to be a four-part series. Please make sure to come back and read the rest as it goes live in the coming days and weeks.
Having said that…
Outrider, I love the analogy, though I’m not sure which is supposed to be which. Is “Christian” music supposed to be tap water? I would’ve thought it would be the other way around.
Charley, I think the questions you’re asking are right on, although God has several attributes that can seem to be contradictory. Conflict surrounding those questions is inevitable.
Wanda, what does it mean to buy into the madness?
Stephen and Scott, yes these are complex issues and Tonex is a complex individual… I want us to examine this as not simply a music issue, or a church issue, or an issue of homosexuality, because his story encompasses all of those and more.
Good stuff y’all, lets keep it going.
Hey Jelani, I want to say thanks for bringing this issue up. And I want to say thanks to my friend, Bruce, for pointing me to this article.
I’m not sure where this series is going, but I think that most of us agree that the current concept of the Christian arts should be blown up and reformed from scratch. My firm conviction is that the Bible speaks to literally every area of life, and that God did not invent the division between the spiritual and the so-called “secular” world. “The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it,” as the Psalmist says (Ps 24:1). Everything belongs to God: government, economics, education, science, and–yes!–even art!
That said, man is fallen. Obviously. And the salvation of fallen man is definitive, progressive, and final. The Christian was saved, is being saved, and will be saved.
I’d like to emphasize the progressive part of that salvation because there will be no perfectly godly music, or anything else on this earth, until that final day. My point is: there are degrees of Christ-likeness in the Christian and his creations.
Furthermore, all people, the saved and the unsaved, were created in the image of God, and continue to bear at least some of His qualities, including His creativity. I believe art is godly to the extent that it reflects who He is.
It says in Romans that His creation testifies to His invisible qualities. I think the same can be said of man: his creation testifies to his qualities. The more we resemble God–i.e., the more we are conformed to His image–the more our art resembles Him also. Some art is more godly than other art.
However, I reject the idea that there has to be some “Christian” identifier to make it godly. It doesn’t have to contain words. It doesn’t have to contain symbols.
Yes, I have been criticized for emphasizing the aspect of beauty in relation to godly art. Let me ask, “Who invented beauty without purpose?” Is there some purpose in the beauty of a sunset, the ocean, the flowers, and so forth? Why can godly art not be simply about beauty without purpose? I realize, of course, that there are other attributes of God, such as steadfastness, holiness, patience, faithfulness, truthfulness, righteousness, and so forth. I understand also that to the degree that art is in contradiction to other attributes of God, it loses its godliness.
In closing, I’d like to suggest that perhaps the unsaved *can* create art that is even more godly than what I see masquerading as “Christian” art. Oooohhh…did I say that?
Yes, Jelani, in my analogy, the “christian” music is the “spring water.” Sometimes music that is determinedly “unchristian” tastes much better than that considered, “christian.” Usually due to superior artistry.
I’m sorry to keep using “truth” over “beauty” Charley, but I think you are right that the “unsaved” can create godly art. Sort of like the tenets of differing philosophies and religions to christianity that echo our Scriptures. Truth is truth. I might sniff around their kitchen, but I wouldn’t want to drink their Kool-Aid.
And I’m not really advocating beauty over truth. I think *both* need to be present. Ugly truth. Deceptive beauty. I’ve seen plenty of both. No thanks!!
‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.’ John Keats.
Hey, Bruce, I didn’t fall off the earth or lose interest in the subject. I just got busy! That was a great article. Nothing there that I can disagree with. It’s certainly easier to Monday morning quarterback than it is to get in the game and actually do something. But, I don’t think you and I are coming from that perspective.
I guess I can sum up my thoughts this way. There are two sets of fingerprints on this earth – God’s fingerprints and the devil’s fingerprints. I have simply decided to focus my energy on looking for God’s fingerprints.
I have spent a lot of time looking for deception in music and art. I examined every worship song with a critical eye. I called it discernment. It’s not a very fun way to live. There’s not much joy.
Let’s be honest: man is fallen. There will be error and deception in art, even Christian art. But I’m going to be looking for God. Make sense?
“To the pure, all things are pure” (Titus 1:15).
HERE IS THE MISSING PARAGRAPH TO THIS ARTICLE: Christians have driven non-traditional “Gospel Music” out of the church like a homosexual stepchild being kicked out the back door. Christians have so over-criticized THEIR OWN MUSIC TO THE EXTENT it is colloquial by state and denomination. For about 200 years both before and after Martin Luther ALL MUSIC WAS SACRED. There were strict guidelines and rules against changing and altering Hymns. Even Johann Sebastian Bach was reprimanded by his patron or [employer] over artistic disputes regarding the way he played sacred music.
So, when women were allowed to sing in front of the congregation, IT WAS MEET WITH CRITICISM BY THE CHURCH. When the SATB (soprano, alto, tenor, bass) harmony began to be used, IT WAS MEET WITH CRITICISM BY THE CHURCH. When the Oratorio was developed, which put sacred music on a stage and out of the church, IT WAS MEET BY CRITICISM BY THE CHURCH. When choirs began to sway side to side and clap while singing, it was meet with CRITICISM BY THE CHURCH. When choirs began to sing being accompanied by different instruments, IT WAS CRITICIZED BY THE CHURCH. Even the great pioneers of black gospel music like Mahalia Jackson, The Caravans, Thomas Whitfield, Thomas Dorsey were never supported financially by their so called church “fans” nor the church; most were not even wealthy when they died. Some churches still don’t allow electronic instruments in their church services. Even Helen Keller can see my point by now; gospel music is still being over-criticized by the church for every innovative idea artists come up with. THE CHURCH LIMITS WORSHIP AND PRAISE TO ONLY WHAT LEADERS AND CONGREGANTS CAN TOLERATE. When David danced before the Lord with all of his might and out of his clothes, onlookers were greatly offended BUT TO GOD IT WAS STILL PRAISE. Until recently, churches basically paid musicians no mind and did not respect them and assumed they would always be there to usher in “the presence of God”. There is a Christian organization called “The Pentecostal Assemblies Of The World (PAW) and for years they had the most talented musicians ever. A couple are Fred Hammond and El Debarge. FOR YEARS LEADERS NEVER PAID THEIR LOCAL MUSICIANS BECAUSE THEY WERE EXPECTED TO “PLAY FOR THE LORD.” Even the well known “Clark Sisters” were thrown out of their church organization if they did not CHANGE THEIR STYLE OF MUSIC” AND tone it down. Gospel musicians, singers and composers operated under so many constrictions, convictions and limitations. GOSPEL MUSIC WAS NOT FREE, IT WAS BOUND FOR MANY, MANY, MANY YEARS. So now the only way to break free, just like a people oppressed, THE MAJOR AND MINOR PLAYERS OF GOSPEL MUSIC ARE LEFT WITH NO OPTION BUT TO REBEL AND FOLLOWING THEIR heart beats. CHRISTIANS HAVE FORFIETED THEIR BIRTHRIGHTS TO GOSPEL MUSIC AND NOW THEY ARE COMPLAINING AND CRITICIZING GOSPEL MUSIC YET ONCE AGAIN.
NOW, I know this is only part 1 but it seems like the author [Jelani Greenidge] is trying to get us to accept homosexuality and the lack of identity in gospel/Christian music; if so 1 has NOTHING to do with the other. Anthony Williams is not an outstanding artist BECAUSE HE IS HOMOSEXUAL; 1 HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH THE OTHER.
sorry MEET should be met…typing too fast…lol
MESSEJ… I hope you’ve since read the rest of the series. I’m curious to see what you think about the other installments.