TobyMac is a five-time Grammy winner. (CMA Promotions)
For someone who wanted to avoid the music business, TobyMac certainly has a different story to tell.
The five-time Grammy Award winner leads the lineup of Winter Jam 2013 Tour, a Christian music concert stopping Thursday at Eastern Michigan University's Convocation Center. The annual show features performances from Jamie Grace, Red, Matthew West and others. There's also a pre-party that includes "American Idol" alum Jason Castro.
"I love Winter Jam," says TobyMac over the phone from Tupelo, Miss. "It represents Christian music in a strong way, meaning we go into a city and play the biggest arena in town."
Music was always a part of TobyMac's background, but being a star wasn't in his plans, and his musical tastes weren't always Christian-based.
"I always loved music," he says. "From the time I was 16, when my brother moved out, I had a couple of turntables and put them in his bedroom, and that was my little place where I made music — the spare bedroom, with two turntables and a microphone."
It was in that space that he'd take the 12-inch vinyl record from one of his favorite dance artists, and write raps to the instrumental version of the song.
During those early days, Mac says he was mainly just writing about ex-girlfriends; but that changed when he went to college.
"I kinda realized you could write about what moved you; you could write about things that mattered the most to you," he says. "And I began to realize that music could be shared, as something that you love, with people."
A break came when he joined Christian group dcTalk. He remembers the first time he had to write a song after an uncomfortable incident on a plane with the band. "I reached up to the overhead bag, and the guy sitting behind us, I guess he didn't like that we were having a good time, and he grabbed my wrist and called me a racial slur 'cause I was best friends with an African-American guy and we were having such a good time together.
"And it was that day that I started writing this song called 'Walls' (on dcTalk's 1990 album 'Nu Thang'). And it's basically tearing down the walls of segregation. It was kind of me getting so upset and angered by the ignorance that I wanted to lash out musically."
TobyMac has wide-ranging musical influences, from Run DMC and the Police to Hall & Oates and Bob Marley, which is why he says his music is "a big ole pot of gumbo. "I always loved hip-hop because it was about something — it was the voice of the people, and it moved me. It drew me to that type of music, versus just straight love songs."
Though Marley and TobyMac are spiritually on different pages, Mac believes Marley's music comes from a social and spiritual base that meets the people where they are. "He says such bold things from a social standpoint, but yet the statements he makes have spirituality to them."
TobyMac came to realize he had a unique outlook to be shared. "Part of that perspective was my faith in God and how that feels walking through this world, how that looks and plays out. "I wouldn't be called a 'worship' artist, so every song isn't about worshipping. It's songs about life and the things that we go through. We're all going through the same kinds of things."
One example, he says, is "Lose My Soul" from his 2007 "Portable Sounds" CD, where the opening lyrics are "Father God, I am clay in your hands. Help me to stay that way through all life's demands."
"The first verse is a prayer," he says, "and all of a sudden I look up, and people are saying the words with me, and I'm like, 'This is like my morning prayer,' and I didn't realize that so many people would relate to this."
Winter Jam Tour Spectacular
With TobyMac, RED, Matthew West, Newsong, Jamie Grace, Sidewalk Prophets and Royal Tailor
7 p.m. Thursday
Eastern Michigan University Convocation Center
799 N. Hewitt, Ypsilanti
$10, at the door only
Andrea Daniel is a freelance reporter.