Christian Music’s Moment: How TobyMac and Lecrae Conquered the Countdown

For the first time in 15 years, a Christian album is No. 1. TIME examines how Christian music hit the mainstream and why it's here to stay

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Lee Steffen

TobyMac, pictured, and Lecrae lead a new wave of Christian music mainstream success.

There’s a whole lot of Jesus running through Americans’ earbuds, at least according to the latest Billboard and iTunes numbers. In back-to-back weeks Christian artists TobyMac and Lecrae released new albums that made even mainstream artists listen up as they both stormed up the charts.

Earlier this month TobyMac jumped to the top of the Billboard Top 200 chart with Eye On It, the first Christian album to reach the No. 1 spot since Bob Carlisle’s Adult Contemporary hit Butterfly Kisses 15 years ago. But TobyMac isn’t exactly AC. His blend of rock/pop/hip-hop—“schizophrenic pop” he jokes to TIME—is a new sound to reach such levels of success: an overtly Christian artist who sings, talks and raps about Jesus.

And if you want to hear something else as different from Christian AC as you can get, then take Lecrae, a hip-hop artist debuting at No. 3 on this week’s Billboard Top 200 chart with Gravity. He has already claimed the top overall spot on iTunes, including concurrently owning the first, second and seventh slots on iTunes’ hip-hop chart for the deluxe and regular versions of Gravity and his album Church Clothes. Just like TobyMac, whom he collaborated with on Eye On It, there’s no sidestepping what drives him: Lecrae tells TIME he wants his album to “change the way people see the world and let my faith bleed out in my music.”

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In an industry not exactly known for its embracing of a Christian worldview, Lecrae has made his Christian perspective paramount, calling out those making masochistic, violent, self-centered music (“I’m passionate about my faith and want to create great music that provides an alternative perspective,” he tells TIME).

The fresh faces emerging these days prove that “Christian music” doesn’t have to mean an old-school sound. “That wall is coming down between Christian music and Christians making music,” TobyMac says. And this, he says, “is a beautiful thing.”

Lecrae explains how he bridges this former divide. He says first and foremost he’s a hip-hop artist. But faith defines who he is as a person, so his music naturally tackles a variety of issues from that worldview. “You have to look at Christian as a noun in terms of a person,” he says. “I’m a Christian; hip-hop is a culture. You have a Christian within a culture doing hip-hop music.”

He says that artists within his culture understand that viewpoint and appreciate his authenticity. “I’m not some rapper trying to cash in, trying to call myself a Christian,” Lecrae says. “I’m not some church boy trying to do rap music.”

Al Branch, general manager of Blueprint Management Group and Geffen Records (affiliated with Interscope), who has worked with Kanye West, agree. He credits the rise of Lecrae and TobyMac to their artistic genuineness and dependability. “They have created their own niche and nurtured that,” he says. “You have to be consistent. That is the key.”

And beyond that, Branch credits the artists with getting their names out to build the curiosity that leads to album listens among traditionally secular audiences, even with extremely limited airplay. Lecrae, for example, performed at SXSW 2012 and the 2011 BET Awards, which Branch calls a “pivotal point in his career.”

“[Lecrae] has been at places that most Christian rappers don’t go,” says Branch. “He’s not afraid to get out there and let his light shine. I’m not saying he should be at a strip club, but just be yourself.”

Christian musicians have always sought crossover success, explains Rod Riley, President and CEO of Word Entertainment, Warner Music’s Christian label, as a way to spread the message, and what we’re seeing could be just the tip of the iceberg. TobyMac may be the first Christian artist besides Carlisle and LeAnn Rimes to take the top spot on the charts, but in recent years, as the artists, writers and producers have all grown in talent, according to Riley, the popularity of Christian music has grown. In 2011, Christian artists Casting Crowns and Red both debuted and peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard 200, and earlier this year David Crowder Band, a rock-worship group, moved into the No. 2 slot. And increased success on the Billboard charts falls in line with increased touring and fes draws. Winter Jam, a Christian tour, has been rated as the top-grossing tour in recent years.

“If you look at the progression of the scene, I put the artistry talent right up there with what is happening elsewhere,” Riley says. “The message is about hope and love, which is universal.”

Lecrae says he’s glad to see a growing audience. “I’m sure there are people who respect me, but not enjoy me,” he says. “They respect my perspective and quality of the music, but don’t enjoy the challenge to be responsible. Some people don’t want to hear that. But I think a more mature listenership is being developed.”

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That same listenership also has more chances to hear Christians in music. Riley says that over time, based on consolidation, all the major Christian labels are now owned by mainstream parents, bringing new marketing opportunities to bands that may not have received mainstream airplay or landed in television shows and movies. (TobyMac and rock band Skillet have been featured in NFL telecasts, and TobyMac can be heard on The Simpsons and Transporter 2.) The accessibility of music on iTunes has also helped.

“We don’t differentiate fans sitting in a [church] youth group or sitting in a club,” Riley says. “As long as it reflects the artist, the authenticity resonates with people.”

Still, getting some non-Christian listeners to look past the Christian content and revel in the music proves difficult. “Sometimes that label, Christian music, will cause your art to fall on deaf ears,” TobyMac says. Instead of classifying TobyMac’s music as Christian, he’d rather you look at him for his music and understand he’s writing lyrics from a Christian perspective.

John Cooper, lead singer of Skillet, a Christian rock band on a mainstream label whose album, Awake, hit No. 2 on Billboard’s Top 200 in 2009 and just went platinum, says despite his band’s crossover appeal, some rock stations still won’t play their music because of their Christian affiliation.

That doesn’t bother Skillet, though. Cooper, who purposefully doesn’t use the word “Jesus” in his songs, instead says that by giving people a song with a “great message” and letting them interpret meanings themselves, Skillet will naturally find a larger audience. “If you write something that is very narrow in scope, then it is only going to be people that absolutely agree with what you’re saying that can be touched by your music,” Cooper says. “I like to write in a way that means different things to different people. Sometimes a poetic version of the truth can be a little more powerful.”

In the song Hero, for example (video below), Cooper says he views Jesus as the “ultimate hero,” but understands others will have a different view.

Skillet’s view falls in line with other rock groups—Switchfoot, Flyleaf, P.O.D.—that want to steer clear of the Christian label for fear of being branded. These bands may consist of members who are Christian, sing from that worldview and maybe even were at one time on a Christian label, but don’t have their music proclaim Jesus blatantly.

TobyMac and Lecrae take a different tact, keeping Jesus in the forefront of many of their songs. Yet, they still garner secular attention and success that now rivals Christian rock bands as the hip-hop genre continues to grow. “Art is about expressing what is in your heart, what you love and what you struggle with. The things I’m going through can’t be that different from anyone else,” TobyMac says. “But faith plays a big role in my life, big enough to sing about it. It is not on every song, but every song is from that perspective. There are definitely people out there that don’t want any part of it, but they haven’t even listened to the music.”

But they’re listening now. With so much Christian music on the charts, it’s no longer a style, but simply a lyrical perspective. You can even rap about that.

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