Today, Ian Isiah is giving Big Shugga energy. ‘Shugga’ is his alter-ego, his “teacher name”. She’s proud, loving and wise, the singer explains. Flaunting his look for the day on set – faux-locs shaped into arching buns and double-decker eyebrows carved with razor precision – Isiah’s aura is tranquil and warm. “(Shugga) is my spirit animal. It’s when the auntie comes out,” he says. “It’s a part of me growing up, in Brooklyn. I was myself before it was a trend to ‘be yourself’. And not only myself, but gay and black.”
2019 looks set to be Isiah’s year. He’s fresh from touring with Dev Hynes to promote his biggest musical statement to date, the recent mixtape Shugga Sextape Vol 1, which came out in the dying embers of 2018. Across the tape’s upbeat and textured tracks, Isiah explores God, sexuality and intimacy, with “Bedroom” – a dreamy hi-fi pop jam about group sex – at the core of the action. Navigating the stickiest corners of his sexual appetite, the track’s gospel-tinged melodies bring a softness and vulnerability out of Isiah that is evident in person. “Church kids get horny, too. I think I grew older and became hornier than life,” Isiah offers unwaveringly, before getting autobiographical. “Going through high school, being gay and black I was at least 80-per-cent flesh and 20-per-cent spirit. I had five or ten years of that, so I had a lot of built-up flesh! That’s where that whole idea for the sex music came from.”
While Isiah may go into detail about who is doing what to whom on record, pronouns and preference, he maintains, are irrelevant to his message. “If I made it just about the cunts or just about the gays, women wouldn’t be jamming or get the chance to be like, ‘This is actually about me and my man at night,’” he says. As with all of Isiah’s work, he wants to create a loving space for the world’s identities, rather than cater to a specific kind of audience. Whether his songs are wholly pious or risque, infinite love and expression are at the heart of Isiah’s craft. As the mixtape’s main producer, Sinjin Hawke, skips breezily between bashment, industrial pop and piano balladeering, the singer makes his own kind of space.
“Going through high school, being gay and black I was at least 80-per-cent flesh and 20-per-cent spirit. That’s where the idea for sex music came from” – Ian Isiah
Isiah’s diverse worldview can be traced to Flatbush, the richly Afro-Caribbean neighbourhood of New York he grew up in. The area’s lively blend of characters provided a constant stream of inspiration, along with Isiah’s devoutly religious family. His mother, aunts and grandmother were prominent figures in their local Pentecostal church and, while they expected Isiah to value its Christian teachings, he was encouraged to develop his own understanding of the world. “I would get all my grandmother’s church hats together because, in the 1990s, (Detroit gospel group) The Clark Sisters had these cute hairstyles that looked like goddess crowns,” he recalls, fidgeting with a cross-shaped, pearl-encrusted vape. “I was like, ‘I can’t do that or put on a wig!’ The closest I could do was the church hats.”
Isiah began pounding out beats on his grandmother’s pots and pans at the age of three. By the time he was 12, he was a drummer at church attending choir rehearsals every day. The open-mic nights at New York indie mecca Village Underground became Isiah’s destination every Sunday after church, until he was working his ethereal falsetto as a backing singer for venue-regulars like Bilal and Melonie Daniels. But artistic fulfilment didn’t come overnight for the young musician. It was a whole six years ago, in 2013, that Isiah released his debut offering Love Champion, a slinky ten-track release coated in Auto-Tune. “I learned at a very young age that greatness (comes with) time,” Isiah says matter-of-factly, almost as if he’s reminding himself of the power of taking it steady.
Now, as a full-time artist, Isiah feels a divine responsibility to honour the musical roots he planted in church as a child. On the soul-grabbing track “Holy Will” from Dev Hynes’ 2018 LP Negro Swan, he sounds like a choir master raising the church roof through a celestial vocoder. “Lord, I just want to be / Highly favoured in thee,” he intones, as Hynes’ guitar-plucks chime in the distance. “It’s very emotional for me because where I’m from, I tap into something else, forgetting the fact that I’m doing a festival show and everyone is high,” he says of performing live. Isiah certainly looks the part on stage: with his swirling goldilock pigtails, dandyish threads and towering physique, he’s like a genderfluid Rodin sculpture channelling the sounds of the future.
“I learned at a very young age that greatness comes with time” – Ian Isiah
As well as the influence of gospel and secular music on his life, fashion has always offered Isiah a platform to create. Working with designer Telfar Clemens for AW18, he joined Kelela, Dev Hynes, Kelsey Lu and casting director Walter Pearce on stage for a performance-turned-church sermon that became one of the week’s most transcendental moments. For the brand’s next audiovisual display the following season, he appeared in the pouring rain to perform with the likes of Oyinda and Moses Sumney at an East Village helicopter pad. Most importantly, however, Isiah is a longstanding member of the Hood By Air family, alongside his close friend and the label’s founder, Shayne Oliver. “(Shayne and I) understood the idea that if we felt strongly about a concept, the concept would feel strong to itself,” says Isiah of his involvement with the label. “Hood By Air was and is very special to me. I already knew I had a voice, but it taught me to use it in ways that create lifelong statements.”
HBA’s early-00s involvement in DJ Venus X’s famed trance party GHE20G0TH1K gave Isiah a foot-in with the city’s groundbreaking club scene. “Nobody wanted to stay in the house,” he recalls of the gathering momentum of this period. “We’d just all get together. Then (we’d be like), ‘Look at that, it’s a party! Now, let’s capitalise on this party. Look at that, another year went by and we have other locations to do the party. Let’s add looks to go with this party. Look at that, it’s a collection all of a sudden. This was a good idea, let’s keep on doing collections. Look at that, it’s now a fashion house!’ Just trickling along our ideas and then, ‘Woah, we’re doing it ourselves.’”
At the shoot, Isiah is rolling a blunt for the room. “(Weed) brings everybody together,” he says beatifically. When he’s done, he places the joint in the small opening at the top of a ring he’s trying on and shows off his clever new jewel. This year, he’s priming a follow-up to his mixtape, Shugga Sextape Vol 2, as well as an EP with pop-funk duo Chromeo and a debut album proper. Where he takes his uniquely alluring universe from here is anyone’s guess. But it will be thrilling. “This is who I am today. Look at me tomorrow and I might be a completely different person, but the silhouette is me. I want to be an example that you can do and be whatever you want to be... Your lifestyle is at your disposal.”
Hair Shingo Shibata at The Wall Group using Oribe, make-up Ayami Nishimura at The Wall Group using M.A.C, nails Dawn Sterling at Statement Artists, photography assistants Michael Tessier, Guario Rodriguez, production M.A.P