SALT LAKE CITY — While attending Liberty University in Virginia, Toby McKeehan considered a wild question: Could he make it in the music industry as a Christian hip-hop artist?
McKeehan — better known by his stage name TobyMac — had formed a Christian rock/rap trio called DC Talk with two fellow students in the 1980s, and the success of their shows in small neighboring cities got him thinking that this music could be successful on an even wider scale.
He remembered thinking it was worth giving it a shot, but back then, McKeehan never thought the decision would last a lifetime. He was a political science major at Liberty University and actually had plans to move to Washington, D.C., after school to do real estate with his father.
McKeehan recently told the Deseret News that initially, his father had a hard time understanding this move, struggling to see how rap music could be intertwined with faith in God and other positive messages. But that changed one night when McKeehan wrote down the lyrics to one of his songs and put them on his father’s pillow.
“All of a sudden it clicked for him,” McKeehan said. “He was like, ‘I get this. I understand this — it's not what I love, but I understand what you're saying at least.’ And I just remember that was a turning point. He began to support me a little more.”
McKeehan’s father died in 2015, and the artist’s most recent — and Grammy-winning — album, “This is Not a Test,” deals with many personal experiences, including caring for his father near the end of his life. The singer brings his “Hits Deep” tour to Vivint Arena Saturday, Feb. 3, and that name has double-meaning as it refers not only to hit songs throughout his 30-year career but also to the overall purpose of his music.
“I think I had a lot of missteps at the beginning, I really do,” McKeehan said. “I began to turn from writing songs about ex-girlfriends I was mad at, and I started writing about deeper things. For me, I’ve learned that great songs are about what you’re going through. It’s not aimed at people — it’s writing about what you’re going through and how you resolve what you’re going through. … I’m talking about my own hills and valleys, and strangely, it resonates more with other people.”
Joining McKeehan on this year’s “Hits Deep” tour is Christian pop singer Danny Gokey, whose album “Rise” was a nominee for best contemporary Christian music album at this year’s Grammy Awards. Gokey, who grew up singing alongside his family in a Milwaukee church, rose to fame when he placed third on the eighth season of "American Idol,” which aired in 2009.
Going on the show was a huge leap of faith for Gokey, whose musical experiences prior to “American Idol” had always been rooted in his church.
“When I went on ‘American Idol,’ I realized how music had an impact not only on the people who go to church, but I saw how positive music — music with hope — and sharing my story through music impacted people who … would never step into a church,” he told the Deseret News. “And it really helped shape my view that this musical gift that God has given me is for people whether they’re in the church or whether they’re out of the church.”
Being on “American Idol” was also a time of struggle and growth for Gokey, as his first wife died from a heart condition just a month prior to his audition in 2008. But he found the show to be a powerful way to share his story — and faith — with a wider audience.
“My first wife was a huge fan of the show … and I started watching and I got hooked,” he reflected. “I made up my mind to try out for the show … little did I know, one month before I tried out, she passes away and my whole world flips upside down. And I decided to keep my promise (to audition) … that’s where the message of hope really comes from, because I’ve been in that place where it seems like everything was against you: There is a new chapter after a dead end.”
Since his ride on “American Idol” — the Adam Lambert season — Gokey has continued to joyfully share his message of hope with others, and he looks forward to bringing his hit songs to Salt Lake City Feb. 3 alongside McKeehan.
“He’s one of the best showmen I’ve seen, and I've been to some shows," he said. I look at (McKeehan) as the veteran, and I just want to learn from the best, so I’m excited that I get to do that while sharing my heart with people."
“I’ve always looked at my music like this is for everyone," McKeehan said. "I’m not saying that people don’t categorize me (as a Christian artist) or label me that way, but it’s not just for people that think the way I think or have a view the way I view — I would hate it if it’s like that. It should open up dialogue, it should open up conversation, so I’m honored if my music is crossing any lines."
If you go …
What: TobyMac "Hits Deep" tour
When: Saturday, Feb. 3, 7 p.m.
Where: Vivint Arena, 301 W. South Temple
How much: $15-$69.75