Until recently, Darwin Hobbs couldn’t possibly muster up the courage to sing those words. No matter how hard he tried, he just couldn’t; he was a man in chains. Though his towering, take-no-prisoners voice has for more than a decade inspired freedom in those with ears to hear, liberty didn’t ring true to him, even though his life had all the makings of it: he grew up in church, he sang in church, he found love in church, he led worship in church. You could say he became a man in church—outwardly, at least.
Hobbs’ fifth studio album, FREE, is an end-cap to a period in his life lived under the guise of freedom. With it, Hobbs is finally experiencing emancipation—from his past, from his pain, from his scars, from the illusion that he was a grown man when, in reality, he was still grappling with the demons of a childhood marred by sexual abuse. He finally has a story to tell: “For the first time in my life I’m very excited to talk about where I’ve been, where I am, and where I’m going,” Hobbs says.
The youngest of six siblings, Hobbs has been singing in church since he was 10 years old. Unlike other prodigies of gospel, though, his vocal gift wasn’t a product of endless hours of choir practice or Sunday performances; it just dawned on him that he could sing. “I had no working knowledge of the fact that I could sing,” Hobbs admits. “I wish I could make it more difficult, but I opened my mouth and I could sing. I never had formal training.”
He could’ve fooled us. Without the schooling or the benefit or a lengthy résumé, Hobbs packed his bags and moved to Nashville in the mid-1990s to pursue a career in music. At breakneck speed, doors started opening for him—his first-ever gig as a session vocalist came mere weeks after setting shop in Music City. That’s all it took before word spread like wildfire. “I just started getting referral after referral after referral,” Hobbs says.
Before long, the singer became one of the most in-demand singers in town, recording more than 700 sessions for the likes of Michael W. Smith, Twila Paris, Michael Card, CeCe Winans, Donnie McClurkin, Jars of Clay, and countless others. Name anyone in the Christian or gospel music phonebook, and Hobbs is likely to have sung with or arranged vocals for them.
In time, those connections led Hobbs to industry veteran Charlie Peacock, who made the necessary introductions to eventually land the vocalist a deal with a then-fledgling label—EMI Gospel. Hobbs became a flagship artist at the imprint, as well as its first male singer and soloist. Those firsts gave Hobbs some leverage to score a handful of early career highlights, like recording memorable duets with Michael McDonald and Donna Summer, as well as setting on tape his lauded cover of “So Amazing,” a song first made popular by Luther Vandross—a classic singer Hobbs is oft compared to.
In his decade-long tenure at EMI, Hobbs went on to record four critically-acclaimed albums (MERCY, VERTICAL, BROKEN and WORSHIPPER), and in 2007, the label commemorated the occasion with the retrospective THE BEST OF DARWIN HOBBS. Meanwhile, the session work kept going strong, adding to his mantle credits in albums by Michael McDonald, BeBe Winans, Chris Tomlin, Natalie Grant, Marvin Winans, and many others. The world was taking notice. Hobbs appeared in control.
But the world wasn’t privy to what was going on behind the music. Unbeknownst to everyone—loved ones, label personnel, and ministry partners—Hobbs’ inner-self remained trapped in his teenage years. Emotionally and spiritually, he was in bondage thanks to a man his mother invited into their home—the man she chose to marry after her first marriage ended in divorce.
Bizarrely, this was the same man who proved instrumental in Hobbs’ joining the choir when he was 10 years old—it was at this man’s church where the singer first sang for the Lord in public. “Being a child and being violated in this way is like someone making an inscription in a fresh slab of wet cement before it’s completely dry,” Hobbs says. “It just created a mass of confusion for me. It’s a conundrum for a child to have to walk through something like this. It presents you with such a dichotomy to tend with.”
The confusion became even more intolerable as Hobbs contended with the notion that the perpetrator wasn’t just a churchgoing family man; he was also his mother’s husband and head of household. “He was my mom’s knight in a shining armor,” Hobbs says. In an effort to maintain the composure and health of his mother and the home, Hobbs didn’t talk about it. He simply bottled up his feelings and used singing as an avenue to hide the pain inside. “I often had no choice but to record albums from unhealthy places in my heart,” Hobbs says.
After years of captivity that included unwholesome habits, posttraumatic stress disorder, and a detrimentally low self-esteem, liberty finally rang in Hobbs’ life the day his stepfather died. Almost overnight, the gag order the vocalist was under was lifted, opening the door for him to release himself from his past. “For the first time in 40 years I’m free enough from guilt and fear, being that in my mind and in my spirit I’m able to freely talk about this.”
This newfound freedom isn’t limited to his past circumstances. Professionally, FREE marks the beginning of an entirely new season for Hobbs. After many albums recording other people’s ideas, the singer is at long at the helm of his craft and creating art that is no longer bound by a particular style or commercial expectations. “It’s a new day for me,” Hobbs says. “It’s much better. It’s a bit more difficult and harder because I have more responsibility, but I’m glad about that.”
In keeping with his background singing for some of music’s brightest, the album’s title track and first single is a glorious anthem that would sound equally at home with gospel or contemporary Christian audiences. “It’s funny because when I first started I was going to record a contemporary Christian album,” Hobbs recounts. “All my friends were in this genre—that’s where I was doing all my singing.”
But “Free” is just one of a dozen tracks brimming with Hobbs’ muscular, unmistakable tenor and a range of sensibilities, some of them unheard of in a gospel recording. Take the contagious, piano-laced “Heal the Land,” a driving tune inspired by 2 Chronicles 7:14 that seems lifted from the Billy Joel songbook. Or the buoyant pop of “Crosswalk,” an empowering declaration to take a bold stance for one’s faith in Christ.
Not ones to lag behind in the rhythmic department, Hobbs and producer Aaron Pearce also offer some delightfully urban moments, like the joyous “The Name of the Lord,” a fierce summer banger that would be equally at home at a praise party or during a Sunday morning celebration. Just as grand is Hobbs’ soulful, spot-on rendition of “Your Grace Is Enough,” a congregational tune first popularized by worship leader Chris Tomlin.
A consummate worshipper, Hobbs is never more at home than when the mood is one of adoration and solace with the Divine. In fact, the most stunning moments on FREE happen when Hobbs inches closer and closer to the Holy of Holies. Tracks like the worshipful “Who You Are” and “I Praise You” prepare the hearts for the pinnacle of the album, the breathtaking “In This Place,” a striking invitation to worship that seems tailor-made for worshipping congregations to embrace.
“There’s a clarion call in this album for people to know what the church should become,” Hobbs says. “I hope and I pray that it brings liberation to the lives of those who in their minds are captive and bound. I hope it serves as a tool for people to worship the Lord and to enter into times of personal worship with the Father—that it will break silence where people are unwilling to talk about all the issues in their life.”