Gospel Group Virtue has been making music since their first album (self-titled “Virtue”) dropped in 1997. Few music groups, whether secular or spiritual, have the opportunity to produce more than one album, but Virtue went on to create four additional albums with the last one being Testimony which came out in 2006.
I had the opportunity to speak with the three members of Virtue (Ebony Holland, Karima Kibble, and Heather Martin) about the history of their group, meeting fans, using social media, their upcoming album, and raising technology savvy kids.
The Origin of the Group’s Name
I began the interview by asking how the group came to be called “Virtue”.
“The record label, Verity, came up with name Virtue,” Ebony explained. “We agreed it was a great name because of what Virtue represents. We thought we were virtuous women and that we could spread a message of purity, and kindness, and love and joy and everything that means Virtue.”
I then asked if Verity had a list of other names to be used for the group.
“I think we had the name Endurance when we first came out. Before we were Virtue, we [performed] in college, and we had the name Endurance. But, I think at the time there was another group named Endurance,” Ebony said.
“There weren’t a lot of other names, actually, just the Endurance name,” Karima added. “They took a little while to come up with something, but they didn’t come up with anything other than Virtue. They thought that was the perfect fit and so did we.”
I then asked what the group thought of using such a lofty name for an all female gospel group. I wondered if they were intimidated by going with the name Virtue since it implies purity, righteousness, and holiness.
“We pretty much lived up to that!” Karima said with a laugh. “We weren’t intimidated at all. We were and still are virtuous women. I feel self-empowered and honored to wear the badge of the lady spoken of in Proverbs 31. We try to live that kind of life and that’s our mantra.”
Seeing Their First Album in a Music Store
The first Virtue album came out in 1997, and I asked the group what it was like seeing their first album in a record store.
“When I first walked in, I just bought all of them!” Ebony said laughing.
“She didn’t leave any on the shelf for anybody else!” Karima said.
Ebony continued, “I then thought, ‘Oh, man, if I don’t leave these CDs then nobody else will get them!’ So, I think I maybe got two of them and left the rest of them. But, I was excited and people were standing around, and I said, ‘Hey, you should get this CD!” Nobody knew it was me on the CD until they asked ‘Why do you want me to buy this?’, and I said, ‘Because it’s me!’ So, I got five or six people to buy my CD, and I signed them as soon as they bought them”.
Karima added, “I don’t remember the first time someone bought our CD, but I do remember being in our car when I heard us on the radio. That blew my mind! I froze a little bit, and I got so excited that I couldn’t remember anyone’s number to call until the song went off! It was very exciting.”
Interacting with Fans
Virtue’s multiple nominations for Stellar Awards (the gospel music industry’s equivalent of the Grammys) attests to the fact that they make popular music. I asked the group to describe their first experiences with Virtue fans.
Ebony replied, “I still don’t think of myself as a celebrity, but when people see us they’re just shocked! But, there was this one girl also named Karima, and she had been following us around. We were on tour, and she was in every city we showed up in. So, she finally got a chance to talk to us and meet us, and she said she was on the verge of killing herself. She was on drugs, and she was really having a hard time in life, and our CD literally saved her life. She had been off of drugs and out of rehab and was really trying to live a virtuous life. I’ll never forget that one fan. It was awesome to hear that our music could actually help someone not commit suicide.”
Karima went on to describe what it’s like performing on stage and looking out at an audience of people who love their music.
“You’re looking in the audience, and they are singing your songs, they want your autograph, and they want to give you a hug. They feel like they know you because they listen to your music, they see you on TV, and they hear you on the radio. We’re always open and kind and spend hours and hours signing autographs.”
Selling Music in the Digital Age
While Virtue’s first few albums were sold in brick and mortar record stores, more music is sold in online stores like iTunes and Amazon than in traditional stores. I asked the group of music veterans about navigating the new online distribution of music.
“I remember the first time the people from iTunes came and were trying to get all the gospel artists [in their store],” Heather anwered. They give us free iTunes gift cards, and they were telling us about this big revolution and how fans can buy all these songs online. They were coming to recruit different gospel artists and get us to put all of our music on iTunes. That seems like that was so long ago and now things have really changed.”
Heather went on to describe how the internet has provided a worldwide platform for their music.
“It was just crazy how it really revolutionized the whole distribution of music and, as artists, it really has become a wide open store to be more accessible to fans and people who would never have listened to our music in different countries. Before [the internet] people would write us, but now on a regular basis we see people from the Netherlands and from Africa saying that they downloaded the music, and it really has opened the door for our music to be more widespread. I’m grateful for that, actually.”
Dealing with Online Criticism
During the early years of Virtue’s music career, if someone wanted to read a review of their albums, they had to buy magazines like Gospel Today or Gospel Flava. However, online music distributers like iTunes provide a constant stream of feedback. I asked the group how they dealt with online criticism.
Heather said, “Honestly, I haven’t read a whole bunch of the things that people have to say about our music. You have to have tough skin to read stuff that people say about you, and I don’t know if I have the skin to want to sit there and hear every opinion. I want to know that it’s helping somebody so I don’t know if I want to know all the negative [stuff]. Of course, I’m open to constructive criticism, but I don’t want to read too much of what other people are saying because some stuff will drag you down. But, for the most part, you have to do you and be happy about what God has given you and know that the message that He’s given you is what is required or what’s needed at the time and people may not always receive that.”
Karima added, “Just like tonight, for example, we were on Mary Mary’s [Facebook] page, and somebody commented about what [one of them] had on. People are obviously entitled to say what they want to say, but I think that, if you don’t have anything good to say, I just think you should not say it! I just don’t believe in that.”
Heather replied, “But, at the same time, it feels great when you read good reviews and people are getting a chance to even have an opinion about your music. Even if it’s good or bad, you know that your music is being listened to.”
“Yeah, I don’t want to hear the bad stuff, though!” Karima said with a laugh.
Based on Heather and Karima’s comments, I wondered if female gospel artists are held to a higher standard than male artists. I had heard for years about Mary Mary being criticized about their clothing, make up, hair, etc. I asked Virtue if there is an unfair bias against gospel women groups that gospel men groups don’t encounter.
“Definitely!” Heather said. “I think so. As girls, we have so many choices to choose when it comes to things to wear. You guys can only wear pants. Of course, if a guy came out, the only time you hear criticism is if he’s sagging or isn’t a good dresser. But, for women, there are so many other elements, because we have breasts, we have a butt, so if you are accentuating those body parts too much then, of course, you get criticized and maybe held to a higher standard as a woman.”
Ebony added, “I agree, just like Heather said, we have body parts. You just can’t please everybody. Somebody’s always going to have something negative to say, and you just take it with a grain of salt and keep it moving. If you listen to the criticism, sometimes you want to improve [your outfit], but other times, you’re like, ‘I’m going to wear it whether you like it or not!’”
Heather said, “We’ve had our fair share of criticism, and I can recall times when people have not been happy with what we were wearing, or they’ve had something to say about us not being holy because we didn’t wear dresses down to the ground and cover every body part. But, overall, I don’t recall too many of those, unless people are talking about us behind our back!”
“No, we really haven’t run into any bad [criticism]. We’ve been known to be ‘Oh, you all are the prettiest girls, you all dress the nicest, you’re always modest, and you’re really virtuous!’” Ebony added laughing.
I noted that Heather recently went natural and cut off all of her hair. I wondered, since black women’s hair is a hot topic, if Virtue ever faced criticism based on the belief that many in the church have that women should have “pastor’s wife hair” with long flowing tresses.
Ebony said, “We’re all natural. None of us have perms because we decided that it’s time for a new look. Weaves aren’t good for your hair. Even though we had long hair, I chose to cut mine off, and I chose to keep a weave in it just because we were on the road so much, and we thought it wouldn’t be so damaging. But, it was damaging to all of our hair so we decided in the last year to go natural. Karima’s curly and natural, and I just like mine straight so I pressed my hair out.”
Ebony went on to describe how others reacted to their decision to go natural at a recent event.
“We were at the Stellar awards last month, and people did triple takes because they didn’t know who we were!” Ebony said with a laugh. “When they realized who we were they were like ‘Oh, my God, you all look so young and fresh! Every time you all come out, you look different, and you look nice and fresh.’”
Karima added, “What they said was we always know how to reinvent ourselves. ‘You guys are always reinventing yourselves, and you always look the part and are so stylish.’”
Heather said, “For me, I never try to please people with my hair. I like to change my own hair. I like different hair styles and it’s not like I’m natural today and won’t ever wear a weave again or won’t ever perm it again. It just happens to be what works for me right now so I just don’t really give that much of an ear to what other people are saying or doing or think about my hair. [For example], this summer I had a mohawk! I shaved the sides of my hair off, because I thought it was cool, and I thought it was cute. Also, the weave took my hair off on the sides so I had to improvise! I just do what feels good to me, and I can’t say that I’m ever going to live by what other people think about standards of what your hair should look like. I mean that’s just ridiculous to me. That’s crazy. We always change our looks up and do whatever it is that’s easiest. Right now it’s just being natural. I will say that it’s been one of the easiest hair styles I’ve ever had. And my husband likes it, too! We try to get that message across to young black women. If you try to please everybody, you’ll just always be doing circles and confused and mess up yourself.”
Meeting Fans Through Social Media
I then asked the group about how meeting fans evolved with the rise of social media.
Karima answered, “I started with Myspace. Seeing people abroad discussing our music made us aware of the audiences that we have in different continents and countries. It’s a wonderful tool for artists that want to expand their business abroad. It’s just amazing to me that you can get online and talk to somebody in Africa or in Japan or Israel or wherever. It’s just amazing! And these people will get to hear your music, and there’s no other way, unless you’re on tour constantly travelling to all these different places, that you would ever get to know that you have fans like that. [Having a social media presence] is one of the most amazing things that we’ve come up with thus far. I think if it’s like this already, where is it going to be in another five or ten years? You can meet all these people online, it’s crazy! I mean crazy good, you know, because that’s the way you sell your music, but it’s just amazing to me. It’s just awesome.”
Opening Up Through Social Media
Social media removes the degrees of separation between artists and fans. I asked the group about how they plan to use social media to promote their upcoming album.
Ebony said, “We want to do [social media], and we want people to know who we are and see things [that we’re doing]. I think it it’s a good idea to carry around a little video camera, and let fans know that we’re coming back, this is what we’re doing, this is what we’re cooking tonight, this is what we’re eating tonight because we do that anyway [on Facebook]. We let people know what’s going on in our lives. Sometimes you think it’s a little much, it’s a little scary with some of the people out there, just seeing your pictures and everything, but for the most part it’s a good idea.”
The New Album
I asked Virtue what can they let our readers know about their upcoming album.
Ebony answered, “We know we’re going to have the same tight harmonies, and we want to have some nice ballads because that’s where we shine. We’re just looking for producers that would still keep the Virtue sound and not make us change like a lot of producers want to do these days. They want to make you sound like somebody else when our fans want to hear the original Virtue with the tight harmonies. So, I’m thinking that we really want to write more for this album, and we want to let people know that we are writers as well as singers. We want to have some upbeat songs that people can dance to and vibe with. But, other than that, we want to make sure that everybody still loves us!”
Karima added, “I think they’re going to love it. I say stay tuned and get ready for a bit of the old and some new! The new songs that we found are definitely fabulous. They’re the best that you’ve ever heard from Virtue, and people are really going to love the music because we always sing from our hearts, and it’s always spirit filled. I think that God is always in the middle of our music. Just get ready to pick up where we left off and take it to higher places!”
I asked Virtue if they had a title for their new album.
Heather answered, “We don’t have a title yet. We always come up with a title at the last minute.”
Karima said, “You do the title at the end after you’ve recorded everything.”
Heather said, “So, right now, we are just beginning, and this summer we’ll really get our feet wet and get into the whole game of recording our album. We don’t even know how it’s going to be since we don’t have a record label. Everything that we’re doing is stepping out on faith. We don’t have a label so, even if it’s a traditional or a non-traditional label, we are stepping out on faith. We feel it’s time to come back, and God has brought so many people to us who ask us about coming back. Honestly, we were just taking a break and just waiting on God and taking a break was waiting to hear from God. So, we’re still listening to His voice, but we know for sure that we are going to record an album. How that’s going to occur and exactly how it’s going to be we can’t tell you all of that because we don’t know that yet, but I do know that God is working it out already, and He’s taken us this far. I believe He’s going to show us what every song is supposed to be like.”
Heather went on to describe how the group’s faith intersects how they make music.
“We recorded a bunch of other songs over the years that never made it out that people haven’t heard. So, we always record more than we need and then we pray and the Lord shows us which ones should be on there so we know that will happen again because that’s the way that He moves. I’m going to tell you one thing, from the three of us, we have grown so much spiritually, and I just believe that people in this day and age are so lost because people are motivated by the wrong thing. For a lot of people it’s money and for some people it’s fame, but for us, it is genuinely just to do what God wants us to do. I have learned personally, when you are in His will, you can’t run, you can’t hide, and you can’t fix it or do things by yourself. He has sometimes put a blindfold on me in my personal situations, and I often didn’t know how it was going to turn out. I didn’t know how it was going to end, but when I prayed and trusted Him, I walked away reassured that God gives me the peace of mind that everything’s going to be ok and its going to be according to His will. So, for the three of us, whatever He gives us to put out to our fans, it’s going to be something that is really going to speak to the fact that you have to live the Christian life as a faith walk, and it’s all about trusting in what you don’t see and what you know about God. You know you can’t see how it’s all going to end and how it’s all going to pan out, but you know the evidence of what God has given us through His word and the situations that He puts us in. And He brings us through, and you know that you didn’t do it by yourself. So, for me, I think that has got to be a part of our message in our next record to the world to let people know that you can’t rely on anyone else but God. Your faith has to be in Him totally and, if you say that you have faith in Him, then it’s going to be tested. When the rubber meets the road, you’re going to find out whether you really have faith in your husband or in your job or in whatever it is [instead of God].
After such a deep answer from Heather, I asked a fun question. I asked what types of smartphones the group uses.
Ebony said, “I have an iPhone 3GS”.
Karima answered, “I have a Blackberry Bold, but I may upgrade to the iPhone now that Verizon has it.”
Heather said, ‘I have a Samsung Reality.”
Since I had not heard of the Samsung Reality, I teased Heather about “keeping it real” with a throwback smartphone.
She replied with a laugh, “Don’t sleep on my Reality! It has a touch screen!”
The Importance of Children and Tech
The women of Virtue are all mothers of children of various ages. I let them know that we here at Black Web 2.0 believe in starting early when it comes to getting kids involved in technology. I asked the group to describe how important is it to make sure that their kids understand technology.
Karima said, “As we speak, that’s my daughter on my computer. She knows how to get on [the computer] and play her games on Nickelodeon. She’ll take her dad’s iPhone and uses it to play games. This whole generation, they’re a lot smarter. She knows how to work the remote, she knows how to work the DVD player, and she’s five. It’s just amazing to me! I think it’s very important that they know because that is what the world is right now and probably won’t go back to what we knew. So much has evolved so why wouldn’t you want them to be a part of it? They have to be informed about what’s current or they won’t survive.”
Ebony added, “I’m a teacher, my son is in my class. He can navigate on the computer and on my phone better than I can. It’s amazing that they can do it without being taught anything. They read the instructions, and they just get on there and figure it out. At our school we don’t have a Spanish teacher so we’re taking Rosetta Stone through the computer, and he is learning so much with just a headset and logging onto Rosetta Stone and learning Spanish. Those are going to be the teachers, the computers and technology, so they have to learn it.”
Heather replied, “That’s why I put my son on the computer when he turned two. I just let him play around with the mouse and get familiar with the keyboard and now he can get on and play on Sesame Street online. It’s so important because, like Karima said, that is what the future is. If you don’t know how to do it, then you’re going to be behind in class and in school . You have to know how to get on a computer.”
The Importance of Regulating Kids and Tech
The oldest child of the three members of Virtue is Ebony’s son who is six years old. I asked the group about the right age for a child to have a cell phone.
Karima answered, “My daughter is asking me for a cell phone when she turns seven or eight!”
Ebony said, “My son wants my old iPhone. He keeps saying ‘Please, let me have that iPhone!’ I think 10 is a good age for a cell phone.”
Karima added,”It depends on the child and how responsible they are.”
I then asked the group about the right age for a child to have a Facebook page.
Karima said, “I don’t agree with the young kids having Facebook pages. Some people say that their kids are monitored by their parents 24/7 on Facebook. No, they’re not. So, I just don’t agree. I think with the way the world is today, even though it’s in style, I think that it’s unsafe. It’s unsafe for adults! I think it’s dangerous. I don’t know an appropriate age unless you’re an adult or of age like 18 . Even 17 year olds, I look at some of the pictures on some these little young girls pages and they’re showing inappropriate pictures. That stuff is misleading and a lot of the predators that are out there waiting for that kind of stuff to happen. So, I think it’s unsafe. Yes, it’s the way of the world, but it’s unsafe.”
Heather added, “There are so many kids that are on Facebook and stuff now, but I’m going to be really scared. I can’t even imagine when our kids get old enough and want to have Facebook pages and stuff. I know you have to trust them, but I’m with Karima, I think you need to be a little bit older and, definitely, if you’re younger than 16, than your parents need to get on there, and they need to know you’re on there. [Social media] is a great thing, but it’s been a huge vice as well. I’m old school, and I miss the fact that kids may think it’s great, but it’s taken away a lot of the social skills and interpersonal skills that people have with each other. Some kids don’t know how to write a letter. People don’t even call anymore because they’re text messaging. It’s a whole new world, and that’s part of it, but I think that’s the vice part of it. I don’t like that we have lost our ability to reason and talk and have any kind of social skills. It’s funny that they call it the social network, but it really has taken away a lot of the ability that people have to practice [social skills] like talking on the phone.”
Karima said, “We mentioned that in class today. It’s like we don’t have communication skills outside of texting. Not that it’s a bad thing, but it takes away from real communication.”
Heather asked, “You know, Karima, I wonder what we happen if we went to a high school and asked if people still stay on the phone all night long with their boyfriend?”
Karima replied, “They text.”
“I find myself texting all day, and I’m like ‘Dang, my fingers are hurting!’” Heather said with a laugh.
Karima said, “Younger kids are growing up with video games, and a lot of obesity in kids is because they don’t have to get up and go outside anymore. Everything is inside and computerized and everything is on the television. Yes, true there are predators outside so, yeah, you want to keep them inside, but I remember we stayed outside from the morning until the sun went down. Now you look at kids, and they are stuck to the couch saying ‘We want to play on the wii!’”Category: Featured, social media | Tags: ebony, gospel, gospel music, heather, karima, virtue