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Part 8: Tonéx vs. Everybody

Taking him at his word, calling Williams (or Tonéx, not entirely sure which one came out) gay is likely oversimplifying a complex human experience. Expurgating him from the church (or at least from our iPods) would be an ironic overreaction considering how seemingly intolerant Tonéx's narrow-minded Apostolicism once was. I presume the choice to release The Naked Truth with the cussing and homoerotica had some creative merit and/or made some artistic point, but Tonéx clouded the issue and stigmatized whatever journey he was on by becoming disturbingly less overtly spiritual as he became disturbingly more androgynous. In this respect, Tonéx's evolution to B.Slade is the realization of every reactionary Old School church deacon campaigning to get all this dancin' and "jazzy" music out of the church: they're all saying "I Told You So."

Pastor Anthony Charles Williams II

better known by a number of stage names, the most popular of which is “Tonéx,” now performs as Brian (abbreviated “B.”) Slade, whose Suxxess Records release, Diesel, dropped last week. Slade is apparently also starring in The Who’s classic musical, Tommy, at the San Diego Repertory Theatre. Williams is among the more outspoken and enigmatic LGBT faces in Christian ministry. From his 2000 major label debut, Pronounced Toe-Nay, Williams developed a quixotic Prince-style air of mystery and unpredictability about himself and his artistry, producing some of the most inventive and affecting Christian worship music of our time, culminating with the powerful anthem, “Make Me Over,” from his award-winning multi-platinum 2-disc set Out The Box. Williams has indeed made himself over many, many times, moving effortlessly from his roots in traditional conservatism (in the coda to “Make Me Over” Williams insists you must speak in tongues as evidence of the charismatic experience in order to be saved) to outlandish Euro-pop (“Fail U”) to music that might be about God, might be about a lover, might be about his dog (“You Bring Me Joy”), to expletive-ridden anti-music label rants (“The Naked Truth”) and back again. Williams seems to revel in confounding Church Folk and, like Prince, at times seems to be charting his own course and at other times seems to be adrift, making things up as he goes along. Also, like Prince, I believe it is a mistake to assume Williams—or Tonéx—has some master plan and is firmly in control. It took me several turns with Prince to arrive at the conclusion that, talented as he is, he’s just a guy. A very talented guy, but he’s no strategic genius and not all of his puzzle pieces actually fit together and add up to anything. As tempting as it is to apply that same thinking to Williams, I’m fairly well satisfied now that, like Prince, he’s just out there winging it. That he enjoys keeping people guessing, and that his artistic mood swings often outpace solid career planning or even artistic storytelling that creates a whole out of many parts. Like Prince, not all the Tonéx puzzle pieces fit, and we are left gasping, wondering how to interpret his latest mystery.

Gay rumors have swirled around Tonéx (if not Williams, the two being at times starkly different personalities) for years, but they seemed to have little if any effect on his exploding music career, which reached its zenith with the brilliant Out The Box. Out The Box debuted at #1 on the Billboard magazine Top Gospel Album Chart in September 2004, appeared on Billboard’s Top 200 and Top R&B Chart, was #5 on the Contemporary Christian Chart, and to date has sold over 500,000 copies. He also netted a Grammy nomination for Best Soul Gospel Album the following year, and had another bonafide Christian radio hit with the ballad "Make Me Over". In 2005, Tonéx won a total of six Stellar Awards including "Artist of the Year" for Out The Box. [Wikipedia]

In interviews Williams admitted to running way over budget with Box, spending an inordinate amount of money on the live show, post production and promotion. He then accused Verity, part of the Zomba Label Group, of improper business practices, claiming he and his wife were struggling with rent and had no furniture while Box was going triple Gold. Like Prince, Williams fell out with his record label at the height of his fame, Zomba suing him for $1 million, which led to a period of self-exile where he made limited commercial releases containing mainly pre-released material not owned or controlled by Zomba. Most notable of those releases was 2006’s brilliant Oak Park 92105, which I consider to be Tonéx’s masterpiece moment, his Songs In The Key Of Life. Oak Park has the distinction (or perhaps the notoriety) of being the first Christian-based album to be released with a Parental Advisory label, which caused many Christian bookstores to not carry the CD. This may have been Williams’ reason for including the warring label (although, seriously, who knows), as Park contained no foul language whatsoever and would have left urban kids, attracted to the CD by the warning label, wondering what all the fuss was about. Williams said in interviews the warning label was not about language but theme, as Oak Park dealt with a variety of troubling issues. I believe these very issues and how Tonéx approached them in this work are what made Oak Park perhaps the most significant artistic moment of his career, a work that needed then and needs now to be in the hands of every at-risk urban street kid we can find.

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I believe Pastor Williams could teach an entire college

course based on Oak Park, which was less accessible than Out The Box but infinitely richer and sharper-focused: a semi-biographical urban opera that revealed shades of deeply disturbing life moments. Was Oak Park literally about Williams’ upbringing? It’s Tonéx. You’ll drive yourself insane trying to peel back the onion layers. But Oak Park was likely the finest urban gospel recording ever made, one that requires some effort on the part of he listener to fully appreciate and parse together, but well worth that effort.

Beyond Oak Park, Tonéx released, seemingly at random, pretty much whatever he had lying around. There seemed to be no rhyme or reason, no roadmap for fans to follow as he flooded his website, his online store, iTunes and everywhere else with all manner of stuff from his vaults. In sum, these works added up only to a question mark, and the spiritual component of Tonéx’s artistry seemed to dwindle even as his music became more progressive.

Williams reportedly reached an agreement with Zomba in 2007 and readied Stereotype: Steel & Velvet, for release, an album Tonéx called, “My Thriller.” This may have been simple hype, but Williams seemed happy and excited and energized about the double-disc release, building enormous expectation among his fans that this project would surpass even Oak Park creatively and Out The Box commercially. Finally, Tonéx was back, and many of us waited in great anticipation for Stereotype.

However, for reasons we may never understand (who understands much about why Tonéx does what Tonéx does), in the months preceding Stereotype’s release, Tonéx released another independent project, The Naked Truth, featuring a homoerotic CD cover and containing an expletive-ridden title track apparently attacking Zomba. It was around that same time that Williams came out as a bisexual. Had he done one or the other, Zomba might have been able to weather the event, but the combination of the cussing, attacking the hand that feeds him and coming out as at least partially or conditionally gay had an expected affect: Zomba shelved Stereotype. Williams went on to defend his choices in a spur of interviews, but even his most ardent fans were left scratching their heads about what might be next.

Taking him at his word, calling Williams (or Tonéx, not entirely sure which one came out) gay is likely oversimplifying a complex human experience. Expurgating him from the church (or at least from our iPods) would be an ironic overreaction considering how seemingly intolerant Tonéx came across as he ruined his brilliant and moving “Make Me Over” with narrow-minded Apostolicism in the song’s coda, Tonéx essentially claiming Christians who’ve never spoken in tongues are not born again. I presume the choice to release The Naked Truth with the cussing and homoerotica had some creative merit and/or made some artistic point, but rather than clarify these issues for a primarily African American Christian body predisposed to approach human sexuality with a 1960’s mindset, Tonéx clouded the issue and stigmatized whatever journey he was on by becoming disturbingly less overtly spiritual as he became disturbingly more androgynous. The message seemed to be one the LGBT community has more or less exclusively heard from the church, that a choice must be made between sexuality and spirituality, as if the two were mutually exclusive. Prince’s efforts to combine the two were often shocking and naïve at the same time, but Tonéx’s work—at least, the last I paid much attention to it—seemed to drain the pool of the raw conviction and, yes, spiritual conservatism that provided credible ballast for even his most outlandish work: work we received as a challenge to parse rather than an abdication of faith because Tonéx’s values were consistent. It’s possible they still are, but those values seem less obvious in his new discovery and, for many of us, it is the dearth of spiritual content, not necessarily his emergent sexuality, that moves us away from his music. These choices also, sadly, confirm the head-in-sand thinking of Christian conservatives who can hold up Tonéx’s work as a prime example of homosexuality being incompatible with the Christian experience. The more Williams’ focus shifts to sexuality, the farther he seemingly moves from the cross.

There have been and continue to be Gospel artists

we either suspect are gay or know for a fact are gay. It is possible the Gospel music industry, as we know it, would not exist were it not for LGBT persons. Like the black church, the Gospel music industry seems to operate under rules of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, wherein persons we know, for a fact, are gay are accepted just so long as they never actually publicly admit it. We just go on pretending to see what we want to see while encouraging these persons to live a lie. In this view, Tonéx’s train wreck of artistic and personal choices comes across as a bit brave, but ultimately may be self-destructive. The black church is virtually sustained by women and gay men, while denying both. Women do virtually everything but have authority, real authority, over virtually nothing. And black males who admit to being gay (as opposed to being suspected of it) are expurgated as a matter of course, even though we’ve known, all along, for decades, who these men were. For the black church, every year is 1965, with obviously gay men marrying women and struggling within those unions in an effort to find acceptance. Lesbianism flies a bit lower under the radar as unmarried women tend to escape the scrutiny unmarried men undergo.

Tonéx’s flight plan seemed to be back to the independent label route, carving out a new row (hence his label, “Nureau Ink”) in the CD bins among the digital underground. I’d hoped to interview Pastor Williams and follow up on my 2006 essay, “Tonéx vs. Everybody,” and perhaps that opportunity will eventually present itself. I don’t hold out much hope that sitting with the man will assemble all the puzzle pieces. Enigma is what ultimately fuels Williams’ creativity. If he laid everything out on the table, what fun would that be?

Tonéx’s Wikipedia entry reports the following:
On December 29, 2009 Tonéx’s website, as well as his Twitter and Facebook accounts, reported that the artist's mother, Evangelist and vocalist E.B. Williams, had died the day before.

On June 9, 2010, TON3X™ released what would be his final mixtape, the iTunes™ only release "The Parking Lot". The mixtape was also distributed in NYC that night after what would be his final performance. On June 15, 2010, the brand TON3X™ was officially retired.

Williams’ B. Slade work appears to be, for the most part, 1999-esque Prince ne George Clinton secular party music with bisexual overtones and an overemphasis on apparently casual sex. Slade seems to have wholly abandoned Tonéx's ministry even as (so far as we know) Williams continues to pastor his father’s San Diego church. In this newest evolution, Williams has completely abandoned me in the tall grass, leaving me scratching my head wondering if Williams has lost his faith, his mind or both. Diesel, Slade's new release, sounds provocatively old school and works to get the toes tapping, but the lyrical content—while fun—is too sexually charged for my personal taste and the work overall lacks the spiritual consistency of Tonéx’s even most outrageous tracks. In his move toward the secular, Williams has become what Tonéx never could: ordinary.

Part 9: Values In Conflict

Christopher J. Priest
24 July 2011