Liberty Journal

TobyMac: On Liberty, life, and leaning on God

Summer 2013 : By Drew Menard

TobyMac returned to his alma mater Dec. 30, 2012, and brought down the house with a stellar performance at Winterfest inside the Vines Center.

While many prominent recording artists find purpose in the glory of stardom and basking in the limelight, alumnus Toby McKeehan (’88) - better known as TobyMac - uses his music as an opportunity to serve people, and ultimately God.

“I’ve never looked at my music as indulging in art for my own benefit or because I feel like I need to ‘get this out.’ When I write a song, I want to serve the people listening, to cause them to think or to maybe turn their eyes toward the hope of Christ,” he said.

That approach in no way diminishes McKeehan’s musical prowess. He is a six-time Grammy Award winner and has been dubbed Songwriter of the Year twice by Broadcast Music, Inc. (BMI). But through it all — from breaking new ground in contemporary Christian music with his first band, dc Talk, which he formed at Liberty with classmates Michael Tait and Kevin Max, to his successful solo career — McKeehan has stayed humble. His eyes are fixed on what is truly important: God and family. His latest album, “Eye On It,” is deeply personal, sharing some of his struggles with growing as an artist, husband, and father.

Toby and Amanda McKeehan with their children: Truett (14), Marlee (10), Moses (10), Judah (7), and Leo (8)

Though he grew up in a Christian home, it was at Liberty where he began to make his faith his own, shaping him into the man he is today.

“My major was political science; (music) wasn’t what I was looking toward at all,” said McKeehan, who also played on Liberty’s golf team. “But my life was literally redirected while on Liberty’s campus. … It changed me on the inside, and it changed the purpose of my life.”

At a time when rock and rap music were not widely accepted in some Christian circles, he said Liberty’s founder, Dr. Jerry Falwell, Sr., was very supportive.

“Even though the style of music probably would have been a little controversial at the time at LU, (Falwell) believed in who we were and the heart of what we were trying to do,” McKeehan said. Falwell even wrote a letter of recommendation for the group to use in pursuing appearances at churches and events.

After graduation, McKeehan took a few M.B.A. classes so he could remain on campus with Tait and Max, who were still in school, as the band began talks with record labels.

Almost 30 years have passed since his freshman year at Liberty. McKeehan revisited some of those old days and shared where life has taken him since then during an interview with the Liberty Journal.

How instrumental was your time at Liberty to your development spiritually and as an artist?

I love LU. I loved my time there. It changed my life. That is where I met the two guys that I formed my first band with and all of a sudden I am in music. I look up 20 years later and I am still in music and still passionately writing songs and hoping with every one of them to turn people’s eyes toward God, toward hope.

At some point in your life you have to make a choice about your own faith. I made my faith my own (at Liberty).  … When I set out to write songs, the first few songs I wrote were about whatever. But then at that time at Liberty I made a decision to — not even really knowing what Christian music was — I decided if I was going to write a rap or if I was going to write a song, I wanted to write about the most important thing to me, the dearest thing to my life, and that was my faith in God. So I started writing songs from that perspective.

In your mind, what was so special about dc Talk?

When God chooses to use something to create a change, it really is bigger than us, it is bigger than a band or three people. It is God choosing to do something with it. … The interesting thing about dc Talk is it was three distinct personalities, three different styles of music, three different backgrounds coming together to make one sound. And I think ultimately we were at a place where we were driven and we were seeking God in it all, like really asking God to breathe something through us that was fresh.

What are some of your fondest memories at Liberty?

I loved my time there. I played on the golf team for four years. I played intramural basketball and pick-up games in “the cage” on the circle side all the time. We had less indoor facilities back then; we played outside.

I still love to play three pickup games a week in basketball. I love basketball, I always have. I miss “the cage.” I’d go back in a second if I could.

What do you think of all the growth here at Liberty?

The transformation looks impressive and very strategic. And it seems as if they are going as deep as they are wide. It seems like the focus is on education and sports as well as campus beautification. That is always impressive to me. It’s not just fast growth, it’s growth with purpose.

You had a chance to watch a Flames Basketball game in the NCAA Tournament with your family. What was that like?

It’s nice to see your alma mater stepping up to the ranks of the NCAA Tournament. We all threw on our LU beanies and watched the game. It was exciting. It was great to see those guys doing what they do. They played a great game; they really had it right there. They worked hard to get back in it and they had a shot to win it, which is really impressive.

How do you balance your family life with the demands of your career?

We tour a little differently than most people would imagine. I am home every week for either three or four days. I know there are some bands that will leave their homes for six months. … I’ve just changed the way that things in the music world are done to help me to be a dad who is in the mix. I tour based on my family’s needs. If you are considering music and the touring life of music, your family has to know what they are getting into and be as called to it as you are. I’m thankful for a wife who not only inspires me to live passionately for God but also is the manager of our home and I’m honored to say that she is the one who keeps this thing going.

The advice you often give people is to surround yourself with positive influences. How has this been applicable in your life?

When people ask me how it is possible for me to do what I do, I say it is the people around me. It’s my band, it’s my producer, it’s my fellow songwriters, it’s the artists I get to develop, it’s my wife.

You have to be willing to listen to the truth about yourself and you have to have people around you who will tell you the truth about yourself because sometimes it’s ugly.

I think the same goes for a college student. You need to ask God to surround you with people — whether it’s your professors or your friends — who will inspire you to live more deeply to pursue God more passionately. To me, Liberty offers that opportunity. There are those people that will inspire you if you choose them. They are right there on campus all around you. There are also people who can drag you down but there are (also) people who will speak life into who you are and who you are called to be.

What is one thing people may not know about TobyMac?

It’s definitely not the deeper side of me, it’s the fun side … I’m a sneaker freak. I don’t really collect them as much as I just like to wear them. Nike’s, old-school Jordans, whatever, I like to rock sneakers.

What special projects is God calling you to do now?

I love developing artistry … I’ve been able to do that since starting Gotee Records about 18 years ago (with bands) like Sonic Flood, Relient K, Grits, Out of Eden. … I’ve been able to come alongside a lot of great artists and help them to develop. It’s funny, you think you are doing a record label to help artists develop, and so many times those artists, like Jamie Grace, Capital Kings, Finding Favour, they end up inspiring you. It’s definitely a win-win situation and I’m honored to get to work with them.

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