From the church pew to the strippers pole, Ian Isiah's spiritual and sensual croons steam up your speakers. We meet the R&B romeo bumping and grinding in Brooklyn.
“I feel like a prostitute!” screams Ian Isiah as he poses for i-D on a roadside underpass in Ridgewood, Brooklyn. Truck and taxi drivers - and the occasional mom - are all rubbernecking at the sight of him, even though the faux-fur vintage crop top cardie is the only thing that’s really risqué. Yes, there’s a taught tum on show, but the rest is all baggy jeans, Timberland boots and beenie (which, admittedly, is covered in love hearts, but that takes closer inspection). Grabbing people’s attention is something Isiah is adept at: his video for M1NDFVK with gender-bending performance artist boychild was a mini sensation with its supercharged sexuality, and for years he’s been part of the Ghetto Gothic and Hood By Air scenes in New York – club and street style cultures that have captured the coolhunter imagination. Whilst creating arresting images is second nature to him, he’s keen to stress that he’s a singer first and foremost, “I’m like Chaka Khan!” Ian declares. After photos by garages and chicken shops and perving on local thugs, we take a drive down Knickerbocker Avenue to the nearest McDonald’s to talk over a cup of their finest coffee.
"I don’t just want gay people to listen to my music. I want straight people to be able to enjoy it and play it with their boys, even to have sex with their girls to."
Tell us about your music.
I feel like we’re back in the 90s, but it’s 2013 and there’s no Mary J Blige, there’s no Brandy. That’s what I want to do, because that’s the music I grew up listening to.
I hear you grew up on Lil Kim’s block in Brooklyn.
Yeah. My mom ran a glasses place in downtown Brooklyn and she was the first to sell Biggie his Versace shades. They used to hand out in front of her shop. She almost got into a fight with Foxy Brown because Foxy said some slick-shit to my mother and she was like, "Who the fuck are you talking to little girl?"
Which current R&B singers are you into?
I am in love with The Dream, Drake - I’m putting him in an R&B category – and Brandy and Beyoncé. I love mainstream music. My dream has always been to be top 40. My mixtape is very different from my M1NDFVCK sound – it’s a top 40 R&B record. It’s kind of a straight man’s record, but it’s also for my gays.
Sweat has very straight lyrics for a gay man. Plus, the cover is of a girl’s amazing booty.
I don’t just want gay people to listen to my music. I want straight people to be able to enjoy it and play it with their boys, even to have sex with their girls to.
But are you going to be gay on record?
Yeah, Frank Ocean can’t do it by himself, he can’t make a statement by himself. But I’m making music, not homosexual music - music for all.
"The music is pure and real. If you don’t believe me, I’ll take you in a room with a piano and sing your pants off."
What kind of guys do you like?
I like thugs. I only like thugs, let’s be real. All other guys, we only become great friends, but thugs are different. I have so many straight guy friends, it’s crazy. I’m probably attracted to all of them, but I never try anything with them, because I don’t want them to get weird, or be that gay kid who’s always trying to hit on the straight guy. But I only like straight guys. I’m gay because I like the masculine aspect. It’s hard – I’m definitely single, unfortunately.
You’re involved with the Hood By Air label. What’s the link there?
I’m Shayne [Oliver, founder and creative director]’s go-to if he needs support, whether that means I’m a stylist for the day, or a muse, or figuring out a look for the next season. I’ve seen HBA since scratch, so I know what he likes.
How long have you been singing?
I’ve been singing in church since I was four. My grandmother’s a singer, my uncle’s a singer, all my close family my age are singers. There’s a lot of gospel or church influence in this mixtape, but it’s more through music than vocals. I’m actually doing a lot of autotune, but only because I’m trying to get on radio, and that’s what you’ve got to do. I won’t say I have perfect pitch like Beyoncé, but there are a lot of harmonies. It’s basically like if Destiny’s Child were three gay boys in one. Or if Dru Hill reinvented themselves and were gayer than they were!
You have such a strong aesthetic, do you ever get worried it overshadows your music?
I have more of a passion for music than the visual aesthetic. I’m also young, so please forgive me for all the mistakes. I’m in a huge experimental era in my life, so I’m going to do crazy shit. But know that the music is pure and real. If you don’t believe me, I’ll take you in a room with a piano and sing your pants off.
Like Quentin Crisp – inviting anyone who calls round for tea and a chat.
I’m so into that!
Listen to Ian Isiah's debut mixtape here.