When Toby McKeehan was living in Oakton attending Bethlehem Baptist Christian Academy (now Fair Oaks), he had no idea that 30 years later, he would be considered one of the top Christian rappers in the industry and a force to be reckoned with on the Christian charts.
But fresh off his first-ever American Music Award win, which he took home for favorite artist in the Contemporary/Inspirational category, the man who goes by TobyMac reflected on his early years in Fairfax.
“I sang in some choral groups in school and had a little garage band, but we never played out at any shows and I wasn’t really looking to be in music,” he said. “I didn’t really know what I would be doing, but I certainly didn’t think I would be signing a record deal.”
His dad was a prominent realtor in Fairfax County for decades and he just assumed he would move back to the area after college and start a life there. But during his senior year at Liberty University, he teamed with fellow Flames Michael Tait and Kevin Max Smith to form the Christian vocal trio, DC Talk, and its success changed his direction in life.
“I had a spare room in our house and I put some turntables in and I would DJ a party here and there, and I started recording some rap at 15,” he said. “When I met Michael, he definitely inspired me to pursue it a little more and I came up with an idea to combine my rap with his singing. We did a demo which we sold around campus, started playing out and things took off from there.”
DC Talk became huge in the DC Metro area and eventually went mainstream, selling gold and platinum albums. When the group disbanded in 2000, TobyMac went solo and has released five successful solo albums since.
“When I sit there and I write new songs and put together a record, I am literally thinking about the people, I don’t make art for self indulgency,” he said. “I really do hope my music serves people. I write about my life’s experiences, but I want people to gleam something from it that helps their perspective.”
That being said, TobyMac is grateful to the Grammys and other awards he won, and is particularly happy about his first AMA win.
“When you’re sitting there praying your songs will impact people’s lives, and you’re honored by your peers or your fans, it makes it that much more special,” he said. “The [AMA] really meant a lot to me because the people I write for are the people who are voting.”
In October, TobyMac released “Eye on It,” which was the first Christian album to debut at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 in 15 years. The album continues to sell well, as does a Christmas CD he put out last year.
“I am very honored and feel really thankful for what’s been going on. Coming in at No. 1 was cool, not just for me, but for all Christian and gospel music,” he said. “I’m hopeful that my music is intersecting with people’s lives in a really great way.”
TobyMac will be coming home when he brings his Hits Deep tour to the Patriot Center on Dec. 7, featuring special guests Brandon Heath, Mandisa, Chris August, Britt Nicole, Jamie Grace and Group1Crew.
“This concert comes from the old school idea where everyone gets up and sings their hit songs and share a band. My band is so amazing and I thought it would be great for them to play with some vocalists who have hit songs on the radio,” TobyMac said. “They are songs that are inspiring and challenging and maybe some that have impacted lives over the year. They are going to be songs that really flow.”
TobyMac previews that he will sing with some of the artists and they will all mix and match to give the audience something new.
“We really want to make the night special. I had all the artists over my house for dinner and we talked about ways to make it unique and there’s a really good spirit between all of us,” he said. “We will put some things together where people cameo on other songs and you’re not going to catch that anywhere else.”
Returning to Fairfax, TobyMac predicts a memorable evening for everyone.
“I want the night to be absolutely entertaining. I want them to laugh with us, I want them to dance with us, I want them to worship with us and maybe even cry with us,” he said. “I want to drop the joy bomb on the Patriot Center and move people and offer them some kind of hope.”