IN RADICAL COMPANY: Tonéx with gospel artist Fred Hammond at the 2008 BET Celebration of Gospel in L.A.
If you’ve made it this far, you know what this series is about. In the first three parts, we took a look at Christian music as a whole, the cultural definition of gospel music, and the identity of the artist formerly known as Tonéx in light of all of this.
Next up, some conclusions. (But first, an illustration.)
In the critically acclaimed series Sports Night, sports anchor Casey McCall (Peter Krause) has the following exchange with his co-host and best friend Dan Rydell (Josh Charles):
“How can I be cool again? I’m a newly divorced man, I’m young, I used to be cool, I need to be cool again. Help me… be cool again.”
“Well, first I would need to disabuse you of the notion that you were ever cool before.”
Christian music: same as it never was
If we’re really going to understand the extent to which Christian music in general, and gospel music specifically, has ceased to be particularly “Christian” or full of the gospel message, we’ve got to come to grips with the fact that, on a large scale, much of it never was in the first place.
Not that there has never been any music written or created by Christians used by God to proclaim His glory and fulfill His purposes. On the contrary, God has been using people for that purpose since the days of Asaph and the sons of Korah.
The issue, rather, is that the arbitrary manner that evangelicals in the ’80s and ’90s were taught to discern which music is good, legitimate, and holy and which music is bad, wrong, and sinful was flawed at best and hypocritical at worst.
It’s time to stop the charade.
We must get away from using terms like secular and Christian to differentiate the music recorded by and/or marketed to Christian people.
Those terms didn’t work before, and they don’t work now.
Some songs by some artists do a great job at communicating truth, and others by others do a poor job. Some artists glorify God by creating great art that stimulates the senses and appeals to our sense of beauty and awe. Others glorify God more explicitly by calling our attention to His mighty acts and wondrous ways. And some just know how to set a great hook to a good beat so they can put food on the table.
In the grand scheme of things, there should be plenty of room in the marketplace for artists across the spectrum of aesthetic achievement and spiritual significance.
But if we can’t tell which is which, then the problem is not with the artist or the song; the problem is with us as listeners. And since listeners are the customers in this commercial model, then listeners must be the ones to start changing if we’re going to change the system.
We’ve got to be smarter. We must learn to understand the difference between the gift of music, the vessels who carry the gift, and the Giver who created them both.
And we must learn to appreciate, support, and promote music from musicians who do their best to honor God and make a difference with their music, regardless of whether they are being promoted by a “Christian” record label, a “secular” record label, or are completely independent, especially since some of the best musicians out there started with the former but are now doing the latter.
Don’t call it gospel, either
Language matters, y’all.
If we’re going to bring about change in the gospel music industry, we’ve got to find another word to describe the music. Dawkins and Dawkins called it “rhythm and praise,” awhile back. Maybe that will work, maybe not.
But we need something else.
It’s not that the word gospel is bad, just culturally loaded. The meaning has gotten so diluted that it’s no longer useful. The priorities of today’s contemporary gospel listener are so far out of whack that we tend to care more about whether the beats are hot than the message being transmitted.
That’s why pastors like my man Cole Brown of Emmaus Church (author of Lies My Pastor Told Me) tends to opt for phrases like “gospel-centered” to describe the kind of music that he wants his flock to listen to.
Gospel music might have started being only about the message of Christ, but after a while, we consumers have learned to blindly trust the reputations of the artists themselves and the industry machinery that marketed their wholesome imagery to our willing eyes and ears.
And it’s made us lazy.
Many of us have fallen prey to the prosperity gospel and other distortions of Christ’s message because we’ve learned to turn off our brains anytime the beat is bangin’ and the track has “Jesus” in the hook.
Bad for us, bad for them
And while more and more esteemed Christian recording artists have been scandalized by divorce, infidelity, or other forms of impropriety, most Christians shrugged and kept listening. Consumers of American church culture, we’ve learned to just move on to the next wave of talent instead of trying to bring substantial reform to an industry that leaves so many anointed musicians personally shipwrecked and morally adrift.
Because that’s what’s really insidious about this whole thing.
The arbitrary division between sacred and secular is not only bad for the listeners, but it’s bad for the artists, too. Too many people assume that just because a person is anointed by God to minister with music, it means that person has their life together.
We put our artists up on pedestals without giving them a way down.
And artists don’t live or work in a vacuum. But when these folks go through the trials of life, either we’re too busy to notice, or we find ourselves offering excuses without taking the time to look closely.
In many cases, the people who are close enough and involved enough to make a difference in the lives of our best artists are too scared to risk angering their friends and losing access to influence and revenue in the process. So they refuse to ask tough questions of our artists that can hold them accountable.
As Marvin Winans coldly lamented, they just don’t want to know.
Though I don’t know him personally enough to know for sure, I’m fairly certain this is what happened to Tonéx, and it happened so consistently for so long that after a while he felt like he couldn’t reconcile who he felt he was to the person everyone expected him to be.
Though he is still ultimately responsible for his choices and will stand before God to account for them just like all of us, I understand a little more about how Anthony C. Williams went from singing as Tonéx to singing as Brian Slade. His was not only an individual failing, but a failing of the system as a whole.
And I’m saying … if we want the system to change, we have to change what we look for in our music, and what we use to describe it.
Lose the baggage, keep the flavor
This issue is the biggest reason why so many rappers like to refer to themselves as Christians-who-rap rather than Christian rappers. They’re trying to sidestep all of that baggage.
I used to think that was dishonest of them, especially compared to the bold stand displayed by members of The Cross Movement and the 116 Clique / Reach Records crew. Now, in retrospect, it seems pretty smart.
So that’s my advice to up-and-coming artists today.
Lose the baggage, and keep the flavor.
Stop selling your material in the Christian discount bin, and take the bold step of getting yourself out in the marketplace, where your music can be experienced, appreciated, and critiqued like everybody elses.
If you’re good, people will notice. If you’re a Christian and you want your music to bless other Christians, people will notice that, too. Christians use iTunes and eMusic just like everyone else.
And if you’re not as good as you thought you were, or if you don’t meet the expectations that others might have had of you … so what? Maybe you’re just supposed to be obedient. Or maybe your music will open a door and lead you into the next phase of ministry you’re supposed to be in.
And note, there’s nothing wrong with having a music ministry that is aimed primarily at Christians or churchgoing people. (That’s the sweet spot for my own hip-hop crew.) But if you’re going to do that, be honest about who you are, and resist the urge to live up to other people’s expectations if they’re not biblical.
More importantly, if you’re going to minister in that fashion, make sure you have people in your corner who knew you as a person before they knew you as an artist. As an artist, you need people in your ear who care more about pleasing God than making you feel good. You need folks who can challenge you to walk in a manner worthy of your gift and calling.
But what about Tonéx?
The good news is that, as I said before, if Tonéx is a believer in Christ (which it seems he is), then his name is written in the Lamb’s Book of Life, and that is a very good thing. That is worth rejoicing over.
And the extent to which songs in his catalog reflect that reality, those songs should be listened to, celebrated and promoted. I’m thinking, for example, of a song like “To Know You, Lord” from Out The Box. It’s a very nice, relaxed, smooth, jazzy worship tune.
Yet, we cannot afford to lose our vigilance in engaging the lyrics. We need to be asking ourselves things like, “What does it really mean to know the Lord? How do we know if we do or not?” As we listen to our music, we must be like the Bereans, who checked the things they heard against the Scriptures.
This vigilance is especially important in light of the role that music plays in modern and postmodern culture. In American society, artists are the prophets. So we must use discernment in the way that we engage with art, whether “Christian” or not — otherwise, we could be led astray by another gospel.
On the flipside, we must not have a judgmental attitude as we do this. Not that we shouldn’t use our judgment, but we can’t act like just because an artist has struggles in an area, nothing they have to say is worth hearing. If God can use a donkey to speak, he can use an imperfect person, even if that person is a nonbeliever.
And if you want to buy any Tonéx recordings or attend any of his live shows — including the ones he’s been doing as “B. Slade,” just approach it like you would any other concert. If you enjoy the music and you think you’ll have a good time, and you can conduct yourself in a manner that represents the Lord while you’re out in public, then go. If not, or if you think it might be a stumbling block to the people around you, then don’t.
The end of Christian music
The truth is, the end is near. We are in the last days of Christian music. As the years continue to turn, we will see more and more signs of the end of Christian music as we know it.
And this, for the many reasons I’ve covered, is, generally speaking, a good thing.
But there’s another end we need to consider.
If we as Christian consumers are to be discerning about the media that we consume, then we need to consider this other end. And if we as Christian musicians are going to be successful in creating, marketing, and sustaining our musical vocation, then we definitely need to be aware of the other end.
We need to understand the end of Christian music … the goal. The Aristotelian virtue of it. What is the point of listening to, evaluating, and creating this music, or any music?
It’s the same as anything else.
Man’s chief end, according to catechism, is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.
If our music, despite the exterior labels, despite the cultural connotations, despite the raft of expectations riding on each release … if our music can do those two things — help us to glorify God and enjoy Him in some way — then we’re doing something right.
And regardless of how uncomfortable it may feel, this is, I believe, the direction that God is calling us toward.
When we are pleasing God, we don’t have to care what others think. We don’t have to care what our sales numbers look like. We don’t even have to care whether we live or die, because as Paul says, to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord.
And in that state, we’re free to live out the ethos of the great theologian Michael Stipe — yes, that Michael Stipe, of R.E.M. — who once penned the following lyrics:
“It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine.”
Let the church say “amen.”
Michael Tait is lead singer of The Newsboys. He and the Grammy-nominated band performed an electric set at the Jersey Shore Will Graham Celebration in Ocean Grove, New Jersey, last month. Best known as a member of the pioneering Christian rock/rap group dc Talk, Tait’s career in the Christian music industry has been defined by stretching the boundaries of art, faith, and culture. Urban Faith News & Religion editor Christine A. Scheller caught up with Tait as he prepared to take the stage. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Urban Faith: Congratulations on the success of Born Again, your first CD with The Newsboys.
Michael Tait: Thanks. After 44 weeks, we dropped off and then were number one again, so it’s mind-blowing.
Urban Faith: You’ve played with cross-cultural bands pretty much your whole career, right?
Michael Tait: Oh yeah. I call it “living integration.” I want people to see that the beauty of the human race is found in the diversity of the human race. We are God’s bouquet. We could have all white flowers or red, but man, wouldn’t it be pretty to see a bouquet of different flowers, different styles? That to me is the beauty of it.
Urban Faith: You did a lot to promote racial reconciliation when you were with dc Talk. Are you guys still involved with race and justice issues?
Michael Tait: Obviously, dc Talk is disbanded for the moment, or as we say, ‘double-parked in the city’ … but my heart’s always been for racial reconciliation because I grew up in the inner city of D.C. and my dad’s heart was for it.
Urban Faith: My editor wrote a book called Reconciliation Blues about his experience as a black person in the evangelical world. What are your thoughts on that experience?
Michael Tait: It’s funny you should mention that because the other day the band was like, “Tait, you’re like the only black guy in Christian rock.” It’s true. We have Kirk Franklin, who’s my friend, but that’s gospel. In CCM, as broad as it is, I’m the only little spot in that whole conglomeration.
Urban Faith: Did you grow up listening to rock music?
Michael Tait: I grew up listening to Oingo Boingo, U2, and Duran Duran, but also Kool & the Gang, Lionel Richie, Michael Jackson. My friends gave me a hard time, but I was like 12 or 13 and I was like, “Forget you guys, man.” In other words, I’m not going to be pigeonholed. I like basketball and soul food, but I also like tennis and sushi — and rock ‘n’ roll.
ROCKIN' DIVERSITY: Tait onstage with the Newsboys at the Will Graham Jersey Shore Celebration.
Urban Faith: In an interview with the Gospel Music Channel, you talked about your sister who died of AIDS after a history of drug abuse and your brother who is in prison for drug offenses. In her book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in an Age of Colorblindness, Michelle Alexander talks about the war against drugs as a backlash against the civil rights movement. Do you think structural racism has impacted your own family in this regard?
Michael Tait: Speaking directly, in a real tangible way, no. We weren’t put down or put in jail because of our color, nor did we become victims of HIV because of our color. But I think down the line, in the very nature of racism, most African Americans have been affected by it. Is it an excuse? No, it’s a fact. Should we stop and throw in the towel. No way. I’m not doing that. I want to climb higher. Not everybody has that drive.
The sad part is, because of the system and racism, a lot of families are broken up. That was the whole nature of racism in the beginning, to tear apart families. It’s still going on. That’s the part that’s so bad, because then little Johnny and Stevie and Bernard are alone at home. Mom is working two jobs and dad can’t be found because the world says he’s not worth anything. He’s looked down upon. He feels inferior to others. It’s a stinky mess, so sometimes it’s hard to grasp what to do, but all you can do is take one day at a time and do one act at a time.
Urban Faith: Some Christians have been identified with the “birther movement” that cast dispersions on President Obama’s birth. Would it happen if he wasn’t black?
Michael Tait: I think the bigger issue here is that many of us are not happy with what’s happening in our country under his leadership. That’s going to make us say, “Hey, by the way, you’re not even da da da.”
Urban Faith: Are you speaking of yourself or in general?
Michael Tait: Yes, myself. I’m not satisfied with Obama’s current direction for our country. … The scariest part about it is I’m a Republican, and I’m not sure I see anyone coming up that I can even vote for next time. Who knows, [Obama] might get four more years.
Urban Faith: Another personal question for you. I read somewhere that you have a supermodel in your life.
Michael Tait: Yes, her name is Mari. We met in New York and started dating about a year ago. I’m going to pop the question one of these days.
Urban Faith: In your interview with the Gospel Music Network, you said, “I get lost in church. I can be jaded, go on cruise control. I know the Christian clichés and phrases to say to capture the audience.” That’s a spiritual dilemma. How do you keep going?
Michael Tait: I think it’s mind over matter. … The more real I get every night and the more I get into the Word in my personal life, the more it stays fresh. Otherwise it becomes karaoke. … Also, I look at the crowds and the people. Every state’s different and every situation is different. It’s like God inspires me and fills me in that moment for that work and I feel it every night. So I can say the same thing and God uses it because his Word never comes back void.
CHANGING PERSONAS: Tonéx in his earlier, more conservative look; Tonéx more recently as "B. Slade."
Part 1 of this series examined the coming out of Tonéx, viewed against a broad history of Christian music in general. Part 2 of the series examined the cultural definition of gospel music, and saw Tonéx as its first reality star.
Here in Part 3, we must dig deeper, ask harder questions, and more importantly, find solid answers. Extensive as it has been, this series was designed not as an exhaustive resource of definitive answers, but a series of solid ideas from which some of these questions can be answered.
If we’re honest and observant, we see the truth found in Scripture illuminated by what we see around us.
Not About Salvation, but Definition
Here is an important caveat.
Liberal theologians, gospel music fans, and critical readers might be tempted to attack this series as being overly judgmental. Some might feel that asking these kinds of questions is tantamount to questioning Tonéx‘s salvation. This accusation seems especially galling considering his church heritage.
But the issue is not eternal salvation. Hebrews 9:27 assures us that eternal judgment happens after a person dies, and it’s not our job to be the arbiter of such salvation. That is a matter between a person and the Almighty. And according to Romans 10:9, if a person confesses and believes, then they are saved. Based on that basic rubric, it seems Tonéx is a Christian.
But that doesn’t help us answer the question of whether his past, present or future musical offerings can or should be classified as Christian music.
See, in the most literal sense, there is no such thing as Christian music, and there never has been.
It impossible for an inanimate, intangible article of intellectual property to come to a saving relationship with Christ Jesus. A song can be no more Christian than a radio, a Frisbee, or a lawnmower.
So when we talk about Christian music, it’s important to have a clear definition of what we mean. Many of the common cultural clashes regarding music written and recorded by and for Christian people stem mostly from misunderstood terms and mismatched expectations.
In 1998, the Gospel Music Association issued a fourfold definition to address the issue of lyrics in songs to be nominated for their annual awards show. In order to be eligible, songs had to be:
• Substantially based upon historically orthodox Christian truth contained in or derived from the Holy Bible
• An expression of worship of God or praise for His works; and /or
• Testimony of relationship with God through Christ; and/or
• Obviously prompted and informed by a Christian world view
Based on this criteria, a lot of the music that has been marketed as Christian would be excluded, which is why the GMA eventually rescinded this definition in favor of something less restrictive.
Nevertheless, when most people refer to “Christian music,” they are talking about music with lyrics that, regardless of style, meet one or several of these benchmarks.
Yet, these criteria are still subject to interpretation. Denominations and faith movements have been established, split, and evolved across generations over the particulars of what orthodox Christian truth is, or which ideas can safely be said to be prompted and informed by a Christian worldview.
And even if we agreed on all the particulars, how can we verify all of this in the context of a four-minute song?
In order to satisfy the requirements of nervous parents, youth pastors, and other evangelical gatekeepers, record labels always included biographical information in the press packets and liner notes of the artists they promoted. The idea was, if the lyrics of the songs didn’t convince you that the music was truly Christian, than details of their story could help nudge you off the fence.
But the problem with that approach is found in Romans 11:29, often cited as part of the doctrine of immutability, that God doesn’t change. In particular, this verse asserts that when God gives a gift, he gives it without possibility of being revoked. If He says it, He gives it, then it will come to fruition. Like the popular Tonéx lyric, it means that when it comes to His promises, “God Has Not 4Got.”
So if God has given someone an anointing to play an instrument skillfully, that anointing doesn’t necessarily leave just because the person is being disobedient in the particulars of how and when that instrument should be played. The King James Version renders that verse as saying that the gifts and callings are given “without repentance.”
We see this clearly as we survey the life of Old Testament patriarch David. The Bible refers to him as a man after God’s own heart, despite many documented examples of David’s disobedience. And the fact that the lineage of Jesus runs through the house of David shows that God kept his promises to David, despite the fact that David wasn’t always faithful to Him.
As it was then, so it is today.
The implications of this idea help explain why some evangelical figures start off ministering in prominence, but end up veering off the path of theological credibility. You can be anointed or gifted in a particular area, say, singing or preaching, and people might continue to respond well to that singing or preaching, regardless of what your actual message is. Though there are always consequences for sin, it’s possible for anointing or gifting to stay in effect despite errant belief or habitual patterns of sin.
(See: Pearson, Carlton)
A Closer Look at “That’s When”
This is a sobering thought, and though it shouldn’t result in a witch hunt, so to speak, it should give us pause to examine the messages in the so-called Christian music that many of us ingest, day after day.
With that in mind, consider some of the lyrics to a popular Tonéx slow-jam called “That’s When” from his O2 album (also available in Auto-Tuned, remixed, R&B form here):
All alone, sittin’ thinkin’ here by myself / contemplatin’ bout my life, chewin’ on my nails / Can’t afford to break down, gotta be a man / ain’t the richest guy around, but I do what I can / how it’s gonna go down, homie don’t ask me / I just pray to the Lord up above, in search of reciprocity / that’s when, that’s when you bless me / that’s when, that’s when you rescue / me from, the pain and the heartache / that’s when, that’s when
For a long time, this was one of my favorite Tonéx songs. The words, and the manner in which they’re sung, indicate a mature believer struggling under the weight of financial responsibility, holding out hope that God will provide.
Yet, if you look closely, there are signs of faith that are sincere, yet not quite Biblical. Consider the last line of the verse, “I just pray to the Lord up above, in search of reciprocity.”
Reciprocity is a relationship of mutual dependence or action or influence, or a mutual exchange of commercial or other privileges. You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours. The use of this word right before the chorus implies that Tonéx expects, or at least desires, a reciprocal relationship from God. When he prays, the song suggests, God will answer with a blessing.
Yet, that’s not the typical relationship with God that we see on display throughout the breadth of the Scriptures.
For every passage like Deuteronomy 15:4-6, where God promises financial blessing in exchange for obedience, there are also passages like Romans 9:14-16, which quotes Exodus 33:19-20. Both of these are about God’s sovereignty, how He will show mercy to whomever He wants, independent of anything or anyone else. Not only that, but there are plenty of examples of times when folks in the Bible have prayed and not gotten what they wanted, including Jesus Himself.
So compared to most of the music that you hear on urban radio stations today, “That’s When” is wonderful. There is no crass innuendo, and it even mentions prayer. Yet, examined against the light of the Scripture, the song still fails to communicate the truth as completely as possible.
Fact is, it’s hard to derive a full and comprehensive Christian worldview from just one song, and one song shouldn’t have to represent the entirety of what an artist stands for. But this one song has many of the same characteristics as a lot of contemporary gospel music – vapid, churchy, positive-thinking clichés, formatted with catchy hooks and solid production value.
Which leaves the song, and a lot of songs like it, in a place of doctrinal limbo. It’s still probably better than listening to most contemporary R&B, but it falls short of communicating the truth of the gospel in an accurate and meaningful way.
Still More Questions
Measured against the fourfold (temporary) GMA definition of gospel music, some Tonéx songs are unabashedly gospel. Others, not so much. Much of his catalog, dare I say, most… is somewhere in the middle. And how we respond to his music depends a lot on our expectations and what we’re looking for.
So the questions remain:
What should those expectations be? How can we tell which songs are worth listening to for the purpose of edification, and which ones aren’t?
More importantly, how should listeners evaluate which songs and artists are worth listening to or investing in?
Stay tuned for the final installment of the Gospel Identity Crisis series.