Just over a year ago, in April of 2015, Columbus artist Christon Gray found himself in an Atlanta recording studio— the same studio that the likes of André 3000 and Big Boi had previously recorded an album.
Gray freestyled with his soon-to-be manager, gospel legend Kirk Franklin, while listening to Kendrick Lamar.
It was then when Franklin called Gray “the future of Christian music.”
Gray saw it as a turning point in his career, a moment that would propel him to new heights.
“(Franklin) asked me first about my faith, which was impressive because someone of his caliber, the conversation could have been something totally different,” Gray said. “It could’ve just been about the talent; it could’ve been where I see myself going in five years musically.”
The strictly business talks Gray was referring to came while conversing with major labels such as Universal Music Group. Instead of gunning for the bigger name, the Columbus-born-and-raised musician said he appreciated Franklin’s humanistic approach and opted to sign with Fo Yo Soul Recordings, a joint venture between the ten-time Grammy Award winner and RCA Records.
All of the reasons Gray gave for deciding upon Fo Yo Soul reflect his attempts to shake up the music industry. He subsequently, and humbly, mentioned that he happened to be so sought out by other labels that a representative from RCA told him bidding war ensued at one point while he was meeting with Franklin.
“The industry is not something that I enjoy,” Gray said. “It’s a bit unrealistic in my opinion.”
Gray said that he also believes the media has a lot to do with the elevated expectations society has set for entertainers, whether it be an athlete, actor or rapper.
“With some of those unrealistic expectations, I find myself wanting to be as far away from it as possible, but yet I feel God has called me to be right there because people need to hear it,” Gray said. “People need to hear my story; they need to hear what I’m going through, not so that they can become fans of Christon Gray, but so that they can know that Christon Gray is a martyr for them.”
While Gray might harbor strong feelings about some of the injustices threaded within the music industry, he also reaps many of the benefits from being signed.
“I always tell people on the positive side that for an artist, I think it’s still the best way to break an artist is to experience going through a major record label,” Gray said.
His previous partnership with Collision Records, which ended mutually in 2015, and current working relationship with RCA Inspiration helped with charting his 2014 debut studio album, “School of Roses” at No. 5 on Billboard’s R&B chart and No. 44 on the Billboard 200.
Three of Gray’s songs even made the March playlist for ESPN Music. His song, “Stop Me,” from his latest project, “The Glory Album” was featured in a Stephen Curry highlight video as well.
His strong sense of belief expressed in his lyrics mixed in with inspiring anecdotes about fending off demons helped his second studio album peak at No. 6 on Billboard’s Christian chart. Franklin’s last-second addition to Kanye West’s seventh studio album and appearance on Saturday Night Live respectively in February also coincided with Gray’s release.
The commercial success that the Columbus musician has enjoyed has also allowed his religious messages to penetrate the mainstream. Gray admitted that he did not always enjoy the type of music he heard at church growing up, but he loved the message and appreciated spitters such as Common and Mos Def.
With the success of “The Glory Album,” Gray wants to take the momentum he has and use it to build something special in Columbus.
“Columbus is a place where I think we still have a lot of work to do to introduce a real perspective of the music industry, but I think it’s a breeding ground for great talent and it’s a pure city, so we could definitely be a part of that conversation hopefully in the near future,” Gray said.
Gray went on to list musicians such as John Legend, Kid Cudi and The Black Keys as artists that never came back to cultivate a budding music scene in Ohio upon reaching national fame. The self-dubbed Easton baby mentioned that he has been working on music as much as possible in Columbus, even holding off on his album’s release to do so.
Building a studio to, in a sense, cultivate talent is the next step that Gray said he wants to take in showcasing the Columbus music scene on a national level, much like Drake has and had done for Toronto.
“Our state is the heartbeat of this country,” Gray said. “I just want to make sure that when people pull back the curtain to find out where I’m from that they see Ohio State and they see Columbus, Ohio.”
Correction May 18: A previous version of this article incorrectly identified the number of Grammy awards Kirk Franklin has received.