Trusting your creative instincts is one of the most important things any artist can do. But when charismatic singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Tonex was putting together his fifth and latest major label album, "Unspoken," he ended up succeeding by going against his instincts.
Rather than write and record a batch of new songs, he selected 12 recent tracks from some of the nearly two-dozen "underground" albums he has independently released on his own over the past decade. For "Unspoken's" 13th song, he dug deep into his musical archives and unearthed the stirring "Blend," which was nominated this year for a Grammy in the Best Urban/Alternative Performance category.
"This album was almost like the 'Greatest Hits' of songs of mine the general public wasn't aware of," said Tonex, who was one of the co-hosts of the pre-telecast segments of this year's Grammy Awards ceremony. "I picked what I thought were some of the best songs I'd done for my underground albums from the past few years. Whereas for (his 2003 album) 'Out the Box,' I spent nearly a year just working on the preproduction phase, getting the songs ready (to record)."
Choosing "Blend," which he recorded more than a decade ago but never released until now, seemed counterintuitive to Tonex. Then again, so is virtually all of "Unspoken." The album solidifies his evolution from an acclaimed gospel artist, who in 2005 was a Best Contemporary Soul Gospel Album Grammy nominee, to an urban R&B artist whose music deftly explores both the secular and the spiritual.
"'Blend' was recorded in 1997 and was supposed to be on my (2000 major label debut album) 'Pronounced Toe-Nay,'" said Tonex, whose debut album was first released in 1997 on the indie label Rescue Records.
"At the last minute, I decided to leave it off and that, ironically, is the song that now got the Grammy nomination. This album is also shorter than my normal work, and it isn't as ambitious, musically. But the most significant difference would be that this is my first mainstream nomination. So, I think this marks the beginning of my being introduced as a mainstream artist and of my being nominated along people I look up to, such as Bilal and India.Arie."
Winning acclaim and awards is nothing new for Tonex, who in early 2004 assumed the pulpit at his late father's Truth Apostolic Community Church in Spring Valley, Calif., where Tonex still preaches. His best songs place him alongside the likes of neo-gospel superstar Kirk Franklin, Prince, Babyface and a profanity-free Kanye West.
In 2005 alone, Tonex received six trophies — including Artist of the Year, Rap/Hip-Hop Gospel CD of the Year and Contemporary Male Vocalist of the Year — at the Stellar Awards (one of the two most prestigious annual national gospel music competitions).
But his move since then away from what some fans call the "holy hip-hop" world of Christian music has been fraught with controversy — especially since it followed his divorce and subsequent acknowledgment that he is equally attracted sexually to men and women. He reinforced his coming out by naming two of his recent self-produced albums "The Naked Truth" and "Rainbow."
The African-American gospel music community, like the churches that spawned it, is especially conservative on gender issues. The reaction to Tonex's public candor about his sexuality was swift and largely unforgiving.
"Within no time, every engagement I had to preach or sing in churches or faith-based concert venues was canceled," Tonex said, in a first-person "testimony" that was posted last fall on the website BlackVoices.com. "I suppose they did not want a demon-possessed homosexual on their stage or pulpit, although I never stopped preaching or teaching the same doctrine and principles that I spoke on before."
The cover of Tonex's "Unspoken" album offers a striking visual representation of the controversy he's inspired, which was also played out with a series of his often angry online postings on his pages on such social networking sites as MySpace and YouTube. "Unspoken's" cover photo shows him in a simulated prison cell, his arms apparently bound behind him, with a large gag covering his mouth.
"The gospel community was outraged by the cover," said Tonex, whose real name is Anthony Charles Williams II. "When you listen to the album, there really isn't anything (musically) that supports that visual image. But it makes people pause and I love it. It's usually tragedy and triumph for me, in that order, so here we go again."
Asked to elaborate on the controversy that fueled the album's cover photo, Tonex initially demurred. "Those who want to know more can seek it out," he said, after pointing out that he has stopped his once-regular (and very candid) posts on MySpace and YouTube.
But after nearly an hour of conversation about his music, career and beliefs, he felt more comfortable addressing the still sensitive issues that surround him.
"Because I'm a recording activist, I shed light on injustices that affect every community," he said. "And I will continue to use that platform to make sure everyone in every walk of life and social demographic — including those that are considered taboo to fundamentalists — knows that this planet is for everyone.
"Some of my peers in the gospel/Christian community disagree, unfortunately. When it comes to music, life and salvation, ignorance is not bliss. I have paid a dear price to be a voice to the silenced lambs, but I don't feel like a martyr. If my life is a reflection of anyone's buried story, I am living proof that there is life after death."
Looking ahead, Tonex spoke enthusiastically of his already completed "rock" album, "Figure of Speech." He describes it as sounding like "a fusion of Alanis Morissette's 'Jagged Little Pill,' Buffalo Springfield and 30 Seconds to Mars." He is also excited that a song he wrote called "Lights Out" is now under consideration for inclusion on Janet Jackson's next album.
As for the Grammy nomination for his song "Blend," Tonex sounds genuinely pleased just to be in the running.
"My record label (Zomba Label Group/Battery) didn't submit it — my team did — so the people at the label were pretty surprised when it got a Grammy nomination," he said. "I think they wanted me to stick with more conventional Christian themes and I know how to do that, too. But I'm learning how to pick and choose my battles now.
"Usually, I arrange the songs on my albums to go from fast to slow by the end of the record. But this one was a smiley face. It was upbeat at the beginning, then went down, and then back to upbeat. I tried to get it to match the tape around my mouth (on the album cover), so it's high, low and back to high."
To find out more about George Varga and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.