Ian Isiah has no interest in making music for mainstream media or, as he appropriately calls it, “The White Man.” The Brooklyn-bred R&B singer and Hood by Air affiliate first broke into the music scene after signing to UNO NYC 3 years ago, with the release of his debut mixtape The Love Champion. Isiah’s since been rather quiet, aside from collaborating with Blood Orange’s Dev Hynes and his occasional legendary performances at GHE20G0TH1K.
It wasn’t until earlier this year that Isiah returned with the sultry, auto-tuned track “247,” followed by the release of “10k,” which together had fans buzzing about the possibility of a new, forthcoming album. Now, he’s using his platform and music to discuss important issues affecting today’s LGBTQ community of color. BULLETT recently caught up with the rising artist right before he took the stage at Brooklyn’s Union Pool.
How did growing up in the church influence your decision to make music?
I’m from the church. My whole family is church-folk: my grandmother’s a pastor, my mother’s a minister, my auntie’s a minister. We all sing and I guess that’s where I picked it up. I started with the drums, though. I thought I was gonna be a drummer. I would turn over the pots and pans, and go off in the kitchen. Church music was in my ear so much that I had no choice but to sing, so once I started clicking on it, I had no choice but to study it so I knew what I was doing and I learned to appreciate [the] sound.
Does your Trinidadian heritage have any affect on the music you’re making?
I want to say ‘no,’ but I guess I can say ‘yes.’ I have a new song that’s coming out with this fab reggae artist, HoodCelebrityy—she’s Cardi B’s best friend and she’s like the next Lady Saw. She’s the bomb. I have this new dancehall record I’m about to put out with her. I do get a little dancehall with [my music], but I would say it’s a little more churchy gospel that I d, because I like to pierce the soul. I want you to get over the fact that I have on a bra, a lace front and pum pum shorts. It’s the look, but I want you to be able to get over it in 3 minutes and hear what I have to say.
At what point did you decide you wanted to do music professionally?
When everything else was working, but I wasn’t happy. I always knew I could sing and the only reason I took fashion on was for Shayne [Oliver], because he’s my best friend. I realized everything else wasn’t settling enough for me. I worked at Urban Outfitters for like 8 years. It was great, the discount was great, I was a teenager growing up in SoHo, gay and black, so I needed looks. I learned a lot, but it wasn’t my passion.
How have you evolved since you first started making music?
I brought the look with me. I think I incorporated the look to swindle my way closer to where I want my audience to be, which is BET [and] The Source. Yes, I appreciate the art world and yes I am an artist, but my goal is not gallery shows. I’m really not trying to make music for the general public.
I like to think about myself as a mother. What I do at [Hood by Air] is bring concepts; I’m a concept God. I think in concepts, I talk in concepts, everything is a concept. So if I do that when I’m making concepts with Shayne, I don’t understand why I can’t utilize that same equation for everything else. So what I thought was best, is the same as what Prince thought was best, and Luther [Vandross] thought was best, is to make sure the music is on, but incorporate a visual that was like questions. Like, what the fuck is this? I have dudes calling me like, ‘Yo that 247 video you did was amazing,’ and that’s what it’s about.
How did collaborating with Dev Hynes come about?
I love Dev Hynes. We should cherish him, he’s a great guy. I met Dev through the people that represent me now, which is UNO; they’re all cool with Dev. And when Dev moved here, I used to see him around and be like who’s this funky little dread boy? He reminds me of Michael Jackson so much and when I first heard him sing it was like a soft, timid Michael voice. He called me a long time ago when Blood Orange was on tour, to open up for him at Webster Hall. We connected and come to find out the bass player in Blood Orange was the bass player at my church, so we all started hanging out. Then a year goes by and he calls to help him out with his new album. When Dev calls, you gotta go.
The video you two did together for Sandra Bland was incredible.
We’re dying every day. I’m tired of all of us literally having a mouth piece and not doing anything. Why have over a million followers and not [set] an example? Why have followers if you’re not a leader? We have to be an example. And if you don’t want to hear me sing about it, I’m gonna preach it to you. Because we can’t all talk together, but we can sing together.
Where else do you draw inspiration?
It’s all about love. I try to navigate through sounds [alone] sometimes. A lot of my songs, like ’24/7′ or ’10k’— a lot of it is loopy because I’m learning to appreciate my music more and step back a bit with sound. I’m doing a lot of loops where I’m only saying a few things, but [they’re] powerful things that I want you to hear and repeat. Instead of saying a bunch of stuff in one song, I’m gonna say a little bit until you get it.
What’s one thing you want people to get out of your music?
Gender nonconformity. I’m not saying, ‘Call yourself a bisexual when you’re not.’ I’m saying release those titles, free your mind; release yourself from being enslaved by titles. We as humans are destroyed by titles. Learn about yourself and learn about love.
What can we expect from you moving forward?
I’m working on an album. I’m waiting for the right opportunity. I’m really trying to change the way the straight music industry treats homosexuals with talent. I understand you saying, ‘I don’t wanna work with this faggot,’ but I don’t understand you as a musician saying, ‘I don’t wanna work with this faggot, who I know is a beast.’ I wanna change that. I’m not interested in being Beyoncé; I’m not interested in being this big star because at the end of the day I am blessed that I can sing and have that sound. I would much rather be blessed than be depressed. I want to move forward and change lives.