By Bob Marovich
After the release of his Billboard-charting School of Roses in 2014, Christon Gray had no idea what was coming.
“I didn’t know that I would be going through a separation and then a divorce,” Gray told the Journal of Gospel Music. “I didn’t know that I would be moving. I didn’t know that I’d be in a new relationship. I didn’t know that I’d be leaving a record label. All of that happened and more.”
On his latest release, Clear the Heir (Fo Yo Soul Recordings / RCA Inspiration), Gray uses lyric poetry and music to describe what has been an especially challenging chapter of his life. Viewing his body of work as episodic, Gray considers Clear the Heir, released October 20, to be his interim album. “It’s like watching a Netflix series starting in Season 3 as opposed to Season 1,” he said. “I’m bringing you up to date on how we got to Season 3 and then we’ll watch what happens on the next album.”
After departing Kirk Franklin’s Fo Yo Soul label in early 2017, Gray continued to pour his life experiences into his music. Re-signing with Fo Yo Soul in November of that year, he said, “put me in a position to assemble all of this into one sound. I tried to document what that journey felt like but not make it sound as final as on The Glory Album. That was the end of an era, and Clear the Heir is the album to listen to on the way to where we’ll be next.”
The album is also a chance, Gray added, to “clear the air and do away with any rumors, get into a new space.” For example, he believes that his leaving Fo Yo Soul left a lot of unanswered questions for his fans. “I didn’t give a huge explanation at the time. [The song] ‘Together Forever’ brings everybody up to date and tells them what I have gone through.”
One of the things Gray has gone through is a divorce. It’s something that in years past could have derailed a gospel singer’s career, but it doesn’t appear to have harmed his career. “Look at Israel Houghton, who has also gone through a divorce,” he said. “It seems like the church is ready to, at least, talk about [divorce]. It seems worthy to be mentioned. Maybe it’s not as taboo as it used to be.”
In selecting featured artists for Clear the Heir, Gray deliberately went for a multiracial mix of Christian singers and musicians. “It was important to break the divide by bringing people in to help tell the story of being in between two worlds—even when it comes to the church.”
The music on Clear the Heir is just as eclectic as the artists creating it. For example, the current single, “Grow Up,” chronicles the spurious impact of youthful ambition. But hit records aren’t top of mind for Gray. “This [album] was about making good songs, not about whether they would get placed,” he asserted. “Somebody has to say, ‘This is what my life was like growing up as a Christian.’ We’ve all gone through the same ego issues. We need to be honest. We need our story told as human beings. He loves us for who we are.”
Another example is “You and I,” a song he calls “very edgy, very dark” because it “explains what addiction feels like.”
If Gray is in the vanguard of a sonic change in gospel music, he acknowledges that it is not “an easy space to navigate.”
“I believe God chose me to be here,” he reflected, “[but] he also caused me to go through a lot of sadness so that I can sing from an authentic place that’s not just relatable to the church but to real people. And I’m not just talking about the black church; I think that the CCM market has also suffered from a lot of things as well. I’ve been on both sides to see all of it, whether it’s racial relations or church politics. I think you hear the embodiment of all of it coming out in my sound.”
In other words, telling it like it is in a way that resonates with sinners and saints alike, especially youth, is Christon Gray’s goal.
“If I can do that for the fifteen- and sixteen-year-olds who are aspiring to take this to the next level, to help them understand that this is not just a game to play—if that turns into me not having three or four hit records in the industry that I’m in, I’m okay with that, because the music’s authentic.”
For more information, visit www.christongray.com.