Local hip-hop artists share messages of hope

BEFORE THIS RIVER BECOMES AN OCEAN: Local hip-hop artists Big Zvch, left, and Virtuous share a mission to connect with listeners who might be facing struggles. Both artists come from faith backgrounds and strive to convey that inspiration in relatable ways. Photo of Big Zvch by Alex Carney, photo of Virtuous by KQ Photography

Songwriter/rapper Kia Rice, aka Virtuous, recently released her new single, “The Life” — the only full song she’s completed since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, other than her track “jUStus” on Josh Blake’s Unemployment Benefits. “It’s a good reminder for myself that [this year] has been tough on a lot of people,” she says. “But through it all, I’m still living. I’m connected to the light source. … The truth is, we’re going to make it out of this.”

She continues, “I came across this beat and thought, ‘Oh my God, I love this beat,’ and decided to write to it. The words kind of flowed. … The inspiration is already inside of me, [and] it just takes a beat or an instrumental or some type of music to bring it out.” The track has an energetic, skipping rhythm and features both Rice’s rich singing voice and the easy flow of her raps. And, while the song is clearly inspired by biblical Scripture and Rice’s spiritual convictions, it could also be interpreted as a song of gratitude to a creative path or supportive relationship.

There are plenty of examples of pop artists successfully incorporating gospel songs into their catalog: Enya’s version of “How Can I Keep from Singing?” Whitney Houston’s cover of “His Eye Is on the Sparrow,” Rhiannon Giddens’ take on “Wayfaring Stranger,” among others. And most fans of secular music can appreciate a healthy dose of the spiritual — perhaps that’s why Gospel Nights in bars and Sacred Steel groups have been embraced beyond the church walls.

But faith-based music has not been as readily accepted by mainstream music fans. Albums and artists tagged “Christian” typically remain niche.

In the Asheville area, the progenitors of praise music are largely overlooked by the larger music scene. The work of Christian-influenced artists is often relegated to church programs and music ministries. But a number of talented songwriters are proving that faith has a place on club stages as well as in choirs.

Rice’s career is underscored by her efforts to make her songs relatable not just to the Christian-identified, but to anyone faced with hardships. “I don’t want to sit here and be a hypocrite, because the reality is I struggle with a lot of things,” she says. “I want my music to describe the reality of life, but also the hope. Even if I’m talking about my struggles, I want to revert to faith, hope, love and identity. That’s the driving force in my life.”

The danceable track “Set My Mind” openly reveals Rice’s own run-ins with depression and self-doubt. “Discontentment, jealousy: Gotta fight it / Emotions running wild: Gotta reel it in,” she sings. “If anything is excellent and praiseworthy, think on those things.”

“I want to be relatable, especially now,” Rice says. “Starting off, I think I was trying to have a particular message for people. … I wanted it to be very faith-based. Now I just want it to flow out, and I want it to be very transparent.”

Self-described “new-wave emo rap artist” Zach Mehaffey is also interested in clarity. “I changed my artist name to Big Zvch at the end of last year. Before that, I released music under my real name … and got a little more traction than I expected,” he explains. “Everything I put out under Zach Mehaffey was very faith-based and very Christian. It was praise and worship. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.” Christian music has a place, he says. “But I feel like my calling, my mission as a creative, wasn’t to reach the church [congregations]. I’m more looking to reach people who are in a dark place.”

Like Rice, Mehaffey writes about depression. His music “still has modern rap/hip-hop sounds, but it’s very emotional,” he says. “Instead of bragging about money and cars, I’m talking about past relationships that fell through.”

Growing up, Mehaffey was a latchkey kid, spending a few hours alone each day before his parents came home from their full-time jobs. “I’d feel things very deeply, but I didn’t have the [social outlets] to talk about it. So, I went straight to music,” he recalls. “If I can make a song that encourages someone to get through another day or reach out to me online, that’s why I do it.”

He adds, “With making music that’s Christ-focused, you have a lot of barriers to reaching people — who might really need that message or might need your help — because they’re turned off by the Jesus aspect from the beginning.”

Four years ago, Mehaffey’s wife encouraged him to write and perform a rap at their church’s talent show. The support the musician received inspired him to study music theory, writing and production. But eventually, “I talked to some of my collaborators and peers who I make music with and said … ‘I don’t want to keep pushing into this Christian music lane only to be let down at the end because I’m not doing what I feel like I’m supposed to be doing,’” he says. “As much as I struggle with stuff, at the same time, I am Christian. I have my faith … there’s always light at the end of the tunnel. But there was a point in my life when I didn’t see that light. That’s where I come in with my music, that’s where I come in with my message, to try to reach those people who are where I was when I didn’t see light — to encourage them.”

An August release, “How It Be,” fully showcases Big Zvch’s distinct expression of conscious hip-hop. The track is charged and upbeat — a rallying cry. “I tightened up my Nikes and I headed off to war / fighting battles with my pen, I got it feeling like a sword,” he raps.

Meanwhile, most of Rice’s output comes from a Christian viewpoint. She started singing in her church choir at age 6. Her mother is also a singer, and the two still connect through shared harmonies. “If I’m singing, I’m in my element. This is what I was created to do,” Rice explains. “My attention isn’t on [myself] when I’m singing. My attention is on the message I’m delivering and the people I’m delivering it to.”

While that audience is growing, and Rice is often recognized in Asheville for her melodies, rap prowess and professionalism — by secular and faith-based listeners alike — that success is hard won. “I’m like a little drop in this big sea of artists. I believe I’m talented and gifted but because of my messages, a lot of times people will disregard it,” Rice says. “It’s evident that there aren’t a lot of artists who are faith-based who are given the opportunity or the stage to present their music to the community. I’ve thankfully been given some opportunities, but I’d definitely like to see [the genre] grow.”

Rice names fellow local hip-hop creators Parxx and Mooney Music as Christian-identified musicians worth watching. Mehaffey adds LCM to that list, “another Christian hip-hop artist with a different perspective on life. He does a good job of pushing forward the music and doing good things.”

Learn more at virtuousmusic.com and bigzvch.bandcamp.com


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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall has lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. She is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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