“Coulda got me, Joe!”

IAN ISIAH
BILLBOARD January 2021

Interview: Octavia Bürgel

Speaking with Ian Isiah, it quickly becomes clear that the Oval is perhaps the only office he has yet to occupy. The shapeshifting vocalist – part R&B diva, part business-savvy creative director, part preacher, part Cupid – came up on a mid-2000s downtown diet of GHE20G0TH1K parties, Urban Outfitters retail, and “skating figure eights” around the Brooklyn neighborhoods he was raised in. “My grandmother’s house is in Flatbush, where I was born. There’s an aunt in Brownsville, and an uncle in Bed-Stuy,” he says. “It was like, ‘Take this to your aunt’s house. Take this to your uncle’s house over there. Your cousins and them are over here.’” Compared to the perpendicular logic of Manhattan, where neighborhoods are subsumed by the thrill of “the City,” Brooklyn’s districts spill into each other. Myrtle Avenue is a tributary, ushering Clinton Hill into Bed-Stuy, Bed-Stuy into Bushwick. Where you are is only a matter of perspective, and Isiah’s home borough – like his music – resists further categorization.

Friends with Hood by Air founder Shayne Oliver since high school, Ian Isiah was a formative member of the groundbreaking label’s crew. Both a force shaping HBA’s output and a face promoting its reception, Isiah’s place was cemented in the pantheon of post-gender cultural icons born of the downtown scene, alongside Telfar Clemens (TELFAR), Raul Lopez (HBA, Luar), and Venus X, among others. But before entering the milieu, Isiah was a church kid. “From the belly all the way to 15, I was on payroll at the church,” he says. It was in that environment that his musical education took place, surrounded and encouraged by family and spirit. His latest album, AUNTIE, is his most resolute yet – his voice clear and soulful, carrying themes of love and empowerment over Chromeo-produced funk instrumentation. The album was released on August 31st, but Isiah says “AUNTIE is still alive and going.” A double-billed digital live show on February 5 “reunites” Isiah with Chromeo for his first performance of 2021. “But first we’re going to hit ‘em with this cover,” he says, as our phone call comes to a close.

Taking note of the vast range of styles, media, narratives, features, and collaborators – anyone from Ryan Trecartin to Renell Medrano – likely to appear within Isiah’s oeuvre, I jotted down: “I keep thinking of him as a generator fanning outward – bridging individual networks and influencing new collaboration.” But before I could ask, Isiah offered: “Everyone on set was my family.” Every editorial, video shoot, promotional campaign, is imbued with the spirit of cooperation, so when he and photographer Thuan Tran reimagined their 032c editorial in the final throes of 2020, it was an easy pivot. “The process – like all my processes,” says Isiah, “was: ‘What’s in the genius folder?’”

“I wanted to put 2020 to rest, but in a way that’s like answering a question with an alternative, as opposed to a ‘yes’ or a ‘no.’ 2021 is the year of more. It’s an add-on to what was; it’s a growth year. I wanted to break up the depression and anxiety of the past months, and try to speak life, speak encouragement. We felt that the best way to visualize that was through the idea of presidency. It’s Shugga’s first day in the office – time to get to work; ‘we did it, Joe.’”

Ian and Shugga are so intertwined, it seems to transcend the idea of an “alter ego.” How do you describe their relationship?  

Ian Isiah is not the queen, but Ian Isiah is the rock. That’s me. Shugga is a personality that I’m in. It’s an alter-ego, but not really, because they’re the same person. I don’t really so much believe in alter-egos – I believe in oneness. I don’t have different mindsets or a different outlook. That would develop confusion. I mean, you go on YouTube to play Sasha Fierce, but I bet you’d still type in Beyoncé. 

Your music videos and editorials display such a range of styles, but there is always a strong visual component to your output. It’s a testament to the notion that your collaborative network is always growing – you’re never fixed in a particular look or affect. 

You know what’s crazy? I have never done an expensive video. Obviously, because I don’t have the money to do it. But just because I don’t have the money doesn’t mean my ideas aren’t worth a billion dollars. The white man doesn’t want to give me no fucking money, so what? Grab your friends and go to work. Money is not talent. Money is not skill. Money is a support system. My dream is to do a Michael Jackson video. Are you shitting me? Of course I want to do billion dollar videos – but I’m not going to wait until the money falls in my pocket. 

In fashion and music, I work with people who are either icons and understand the path, or who are young artists ready to execute, but need the resources. I can assist them the most, because I’ve spent 14 years in the game – shaping what I think is the game, learning from what I think is the game. I need to apply both mindsets in both industries, because if I don’t, I’ll be confused. I’m finally getting my big toe wet in music, but I’ve spent most of my years in fashion and culture. Everything I’ve done is already done. Now it’s these new kids who can update everything that I’ve done and tell me what’s missing. I’m freaking out because I’m learning so much. I’m back in school, and it’s fucking awesome. 

That’s how I feel: fashion is a government, even to those who would identify as not political.

Hood By Air cracked open conversations about race, class, and gender in fashion. At the height of its critical attention in 2017, the brand was put on hold. In October 2020, a cover feature in PAPER magazine showcased an HBA-branded, upside-down American flag, printed with the words “New World Citizen” – visible as a prop in the shoot for 032c – announcing the brand’s resurrection. 

We printed a few flags for the story in PAPER and sent them out to some people. The statement “New World Citizen” is the idea around the relaunch in general, and flags have always been a thing within HBA. Declaring independence, declaring heritage and heroism. But the point here is to also declare that it’s time to speak up.

When HBA entered fashion, it was never so much about “style.” But of course, when the white man is confused, he has no choice but to put a label on things, to make it make sense to him. Those labels fucked up everything for everyone. HBA came on the fashion scene as culturists, young culture enthusiasts. All we knew were SoHo and our homes in Brooklyn, and the 100,000 other people to the left and right of us who were exactly the same. We knew how to make a cool T-shirt, we knew how to make a cool collection, too – but we were like, “do you know that this song and this model goes with this T-shirt, and that it’s a whole story?” They didn’t. “Did you know that you can put a rapper on the runway?” It created a culture continuum, adding in artists and rappers. It was a culture of birthing, and I guess it inspired more people to do the same thing. Here’s the thing, though: Culturally, you’re inspired by inner-city kids in New York City, but you’re capitalizing on cultures that you are not from. Okay. You’re infusing. You’re learning. But what’s your process? That’s where a thin line becomes visible. I appreciate people who are like, “You know what? I literally don’t know. Can you help me?” Boom. That is a real collab. But if you are just applying the “look” to something you already know – girl, please. I don’t got time for that. That’s how racism flares up. 

The fashion industry’s response to politics can often feel hollow or commodifying. What does real change in this industry look like? 

We all need to rectify the social injustice – no one and no industry is excluded from changing the norm, especially when industries control that change. Fashion has a huge obligation to get the fuck to work, just as much as any government. That’s how I feel: fashion is a government, even to those who would identify as not political. As the government of America is corrupted, so is fashion. The boards need to be asking, “What are we doing wrong?” or “Why are we only starting to push Black models now?” If fashion is built with the same structure as government, it needs to be aligned with what the fuck is going on in 2021, and everything that entails – as any competent government should be addressing the needs of its people. 

The album art for AUNTIE references a famous image of Coretta Scott King at the memorial for her husband, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., whose 92nd birthday was observed yesterday in the US.

When we initially did the Coretta Scott King images, we didn’t know how they would end up speaking to the climate. I didn’t know things were going to erupt. I’m just a fan of my culture, and I always have been. Coretta Scott’s beauty, strength and virtuosity were intense. They killed her husband in the middle of a movement and she got up, got everyone dressed, went to the funeral, and looked fab in Time Magazine, which is a now 50-year-old cover that I still reference.

James Brown’s “Say It Loud” was an affirming retort to racial oppression in 1968 America, and AUNTIE similarly gushes messages of self-empowerment against a backdrop anti-Black violence. Did the political history of funk music play a role in what you set out to make?

I didn’t realize how much funk would speak to everything that was going on. I was born and raised in the church – my whole family is from the church. Funk music is a real groove. It’s gospel, but not technically – it’s very political and very groovy. It relies on call and response, meaning I say something, you say it too. It all just made sense in the equation. I didn’t realize it until now that funk music is just church at night. Funk artists are just church folk at night. I’m a church person at night. 

There are hits that I love, but my strength in producing funk has been Chromeo, the homies. I love them. They are actual funk lords. Believe it or not, we met sliding through each other’s DMs. I went to meet with them and caught an immediate vibe. Around the top of 2020, we hung out for a week, wrote a few songs, and that was it. The album was done in a week. The vibe was so smooth, because they’re bomb. Instrumentation and musicianship are huge for me. Music theory is first for me, especially in this new world where I can take someone that doesn’t know how to sing and make a hit record. Our first live show of the year is happening on February 5th. We’re going to fuck it up. You’re going to see Shugga with my family, singing AUNTIE jams and some new jams, too. 

In the past you have mentioned your sobriety. I recently spoke with a friend about the importance of faith – not inherently in religion, but in something – to continued sobriety. Have you experienced a deeper relationship to your faith since you’ve been sober? 

Oh yeah. For me, it’s the only way. I realize that my physical and spiritual balance is important. I can mean what I say, but I also have to do what I say. So how do I hold myself to what I say? That’s where spirituality comes in to support. Spirituality is like a gem in a mine, because the body is not going to do nothin’ the mind doesn’t tell it to. My hands and my mouth are used to doing what my mind says – what the boss says. But sometimes the boss needs a workplace evaluation, too! I didn’t know if I was going to like the change, if people were going to like this new reset me. But now I’m addicted to the reset! 

I wanted to get sober for myself for a long time, and I always pushed it back as if it was a savings account – something I could do later. My spirituality is what pushed me further, to actually do it. When you develop spirituality, you also develop a clearer way of thinking. It took a year for me to realize that putting it back was just procrastination, and once I did, I think I was given a gift. It sounds rough to say, but my gift was the pandemic. It gave me another year to put this process even more into action. I knew that was going to be my weakness – the fact that socializing has played such a huge part in my life, in my career, and still does. It just so happened that in 2020 nobody was going to the club, or a party. I won’t be around those parties as much. I won’t be taking shots. I won’t be in people’s faces as much. I’ll still be on stage, performing, going crazy, but I won’t be going crazy off-stage anymore.

I knew that was going to be my weakness – the fact that socializing has played such a huge part in my life, in my career, and still does. It just so happened that in 2020 nobody was going to the club, or a party.

Have you learned any lessons through the experience that feel especially pertinent this year? 

Absolutely. I’ve learned that death and life are in the power of the term. I’ve learned the power of restoration. I’ve learned that speaking things into existence is real, which sounds like a fancy way of saying, “I believe that I’m going to be great.” But speaking things into existence also means, “I’m not going to get that job.” All of these things have power. I’m also learning the new version of me as much as everybody else is.

With those lessons from the past year, what would America look like with Shugga for president?

Trying freedom again.

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