Kia Rice carves space for R&B and gospel in the Asheville music scene

TRUTH TELLING: The stage persona of Virtuous is the purest expression of local artist Kia Rice. Her music can be optimistic and danceable one moment, groovy and dripping with swag the next, then roll you right into church before you even realize you’re there. Rice will release a new video for her song “Clapback” on Thursday, March 21, at The Social. Photo by Naisang Photography

As legions of people flock to our mountains, whether as tourists or new residents, it’s probably safe to assume it’s not the local R&B and gospel scenes that brought them here.

Longtime music venues such as The Grey Eagle and newer spots such as Ambrose West tend to cater more to the rock and Americana crowds. Where local venues branch out, it’s into rock, jazz or classical music, which leaves artists such as Kia Rice, who performs as Virtuous, operating in a bit of a vacuum.

When she celebrates the release of a new video for her song “Clapback” on Thursday, March 21, Virtuous will take the stage at The Social on Tunnel Road. And though she’s played some higher-visibility shows like Goombay Festival and a Women’s March-related concert at The BLOCK off Biltmore in January, Rice recognizes that it’s not easy for an artist of her ilk to fill up a calendar in Asheville alone. “It’s hard for me to get a lot of shows because of my genre, unfortunately,” she admits.

Outside town, Virtuous is in higher demand. Following the release of her 2018 album, Clarity, she performed for 3,000 people at a youth conference in Gatlinburg, Tenn., delivering five sets over the course of three days. She says that her booking experience has been pretty seamless, with listeners catching her live at one event and booking her immediately for another. “People just come to me,” she says. “They find me, they hear about me. Word-of-mouth, that’s how I’ve kept the shows coming.”

Virtuous rocks in a Venn diagram connecting pop, R&B, gospel and hip-hop. Her smooth vocals and spiritual vibe call to mind artists like Erykah Badu or Lauryn Hill, both of whom can easily pack The Orange Peel.

It’s not that her music is difficult to pigeonhole as much as it is that she doesn’t bother resting in any specific category. Virtuous is the purest expression of Rice’s self. Her music can be optimistic and danceable one moment, groovy and dripping with swag the next, then roll you right into church before you even realize you’re there.

Rice grew up in Salisbury and started recording as Virtuous when she was 16, in 2003. Her uncle, who works in music management in Jacksonville, Fla., pulled some strings to get her studio time. That’s when she recorded her first two songs and started thinking about whom she wanted to be as a songwriter and performer.

“I had heard this verse in Proverbs 31,” she says. “Verses 10-31 talk about this lady. She loves the color purple, and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s my favorite color.’ And her children will call her blessed, and she laughs at the days to come. She’s so strong and loving. The way she’s described, I was like, ‘I want to be her. I want to be like that.’ They describe her as the virtuous woman. So I was like, ‘OK, Virtuous. I’m going to go with that.’”

With her stage persona nailed down and her music dream simmering just below the surface, Rice enrolled at Western Carolina University and stayed in Asheville after graduation. She got a job doing social work case management and dedicated her free time to buying beats and writing lyrics. These days, she works with producers to flesh out her tracks and leans on her frequent collaborator, Herman “DJ Besbeve” Bright.

The more she honed her craft, the more Rice realized that her interest as an artist was focused around a handful of themes: faith, hope, love and identity. Those four words have long since become somewhat of an artistic mission statement.

“My music talks about all those things,” she explains. “Faith is my faith in Jesus Christ. Hope is my hope … to see people be transformed, being able to see us walk in love. Love — obviously love. You’ve got to love, it’s so necessary. Then identity. I struggle with low self-esteem issues and not feeling like my life is worth living, and I know a lot of other people struggle with [that too]. So, my songs dive into identity — who I am and what I’m created to do, purpose, and all that good stuff.”

With her mission clear and four studio recordings under her belt, Virtuous is ready to start branching out and playing venues far from home — a good thing, since there’s only a small handful of artists like her in town and the higher-profile venues have yet to embrace her remarkable style. But she’s determined to get their attention. “This is who I am,” she notes, adding, “I’m not going to stop.”

WHAT: Virtuous video release party
WHERE: The Social, 1078 Tunnel Road,
WHEN: Thursday, March 21, 7 p.m. Free, donations accepted


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About Kim Ruehl
Kim Ruehl's work has appeared in Billboard, NPR Music, The Bluegrass Situation, Yes magazine, and elsewhere. She's formerly the editor-in-chief of No Depression, and her book, 'A Singing Army: Zilphia Horton and the Highlander Folk School,' is forthcoming from University of Texas Press. Follow me @kimruehl

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