The Brooklyn-born artist Ian Isiah has worn many hats throughout his shape-shifting career. On the cover of his latest album Auntie, an arresting recreation of a photograph of Coretta Scott King at Martin Luther King’s funeral in 1968, it was a black pillbox cap adorned with a veil of deep green netting. But on a recent day, his headwear is more protective in nature. “Right now, I’m talking to you, a hair bonnet on and a nightgown on,” he tells MTV News by phone. “I’m a granny. I live by being a granny, not even in age but just my attitude is so granny.”
That outlook may seem surprising coming from someone whose work across style and sound has moved the needle forward in each industry he’s touched. As the creative director of the influential fashion collective Hood By Air, Isiah played a key role alongside his high school bestie, the founder Shayne Oliver, in elevating streetwear to the canon of luxury, while also setting a new tone for inclusive runway presentations and collaborative art-making before the house went on hiatus in 2015. Meanwhile, he was a central figure within New York’s underground nightlife community GHE20G0TH1K, which began in 2009 by fusing goth and hip-hop in gritty warehouse raves, pushing back against the largely white-washed image of the dark subgenre that emerged from ’80s British post-punk.
Now, two years sober (“It opened up my third eye.”), he’s put partying behind him and returned to his earliest passions, singing and live instrumentation, skills he developed while growing up and performing in gospel groups at his Pentecostal church. Today, being a granny is “just my persona,” he says, “and I’m portraying it through music that sounds like it’s straight out of 1988.”
Where his 2018 LP, Shugga Sextape Vol. 1, inserted hymnal harmonizing into Auto-Tune-heavy R&B sex jams that glistened with synthy beats and experimental textures, Auntie is a collection of full-on funk. Referencing the classics of James Brown and Stevie Wonder with squeaky clean production by Chromeo, the first album off their new label Juliet Records, Isiah trades electronics for the analog sounds of jazz saxophones and heavy bass lines over which his sweet falsetto soars to new heights. His astonishing vocal range is on display in the closing track “Loose Truth,” a gospel-infused ballad that incorporates recordings from Isiah’s local preacher. The album as a whole sends a positively heartfelt message of self-assurance — do you, do whoever you want, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise — and that message resonates particularly loudly on the single “Princess Pouty,” a single about knowing your worth that grooves with pure, middle-fingers-up sass.
And that’s the gospel according to Auntie Shugga: confident, crass, and always chic. As Isiah gears up for the relaunch of Hood By Air at New York Fashion Week, he speaks to MTV News about his latest project, sobriety, and bringing the church back into his sound.
MTV News: I know you’re from New York and you began singing in church.
Ian Isiah: Yeah, New York, born in Brooklyn. Beginning in church, son of a preacher in a family of preachers and church-goers. Father’s a Rastafarian. Grew up playing steel pans and listening to gospel music. I don’t know. High school, fashion, style, dancehall. Brooklyn, New York. I like how I’m throwing out terms and not full sentences.
MTV News: So, then, when and how did you start making music outside the church?
Isiah: Well, even though I was doing it outside of the church, it was still with church people, because we all grew up together as musicians. We would get together outside the church and work on some R&B and shit like that. So I kind of started in the house with cousins, just messing around on Pro Tools, messing around on GarageBand when we were in our teens, not knowing that it was preparing me for going into a studio with actual producers and engineers, which is something I always wanted to do.
It really, really got started when I decided to put out an EP — my first-ever EP, The Love Champion — a long time ago, like eight years now. That was the beginning of me telling the world like, hey, I’m about to do these R&B songs and they’re a bit sexual and they sound fire. Get into it. I tested the waters, it was a good time. I loved the response that I got.
MTV News: You were working with Chromeo on this project, of course, but how do you feel that you made that transition from the more minimal sound of Shugga Sextape to the funk of Auntie?
Isiah: Allowing people to see more of who I actually am, because I am very much a granny. I’m also penetrating the fact that music and musicians matter heavily. When we hear things nowadays, it’s so easy to generate what that sounds like and people can computerize anyone’s voice; everyone can get manipulated to sound like a pop star. But I want to remind the ears and the minds of everyone that music is a real thing, that music composition is also a real thing. And there are musicians out here that play actual instruments, that don’t need electricity to play instruments.
And that’s what’s on this record, just like Stevie Wonder records. I mean, I’m not comparing my records to no Stevie Wonder records. But all of the legends’ records were just… these are musicians playing before there were programs and all the tools and all that kind of stuff, which I love. We could do things raw from scratch, we’ll have a good time.
MTV News: So there are a lot of live instruments on this record, as opposed to entirely digital production?
Isiah: The whole thing is live, yeah. Onyx Collective is also on this new album: They’re a great, young jazz band coming out of New York City, my homies. Chromeo are great musicians, and I play, as well. So creating this new album, it was really just us in the studio, jamming and writing this music. So it’s definitely a different sound. The church boy is really being the church boy now.
MTV News: You mentioned that you’re a granny. What about you is granny-like, specifically?
Isiah: Well, my current two-year sobriety, for sure. I’m always walking around the house singing and humming. If I’m not talking, I’m singing, and that’s 24 hours a day. I’m just very granny a.k.a old soul a.k.a. I know what’s up and I don’t have time.
MTV News: Has your sobriety affected your outlook as an artist and as a musician?
Isiah: It opened up my third eye finally. I mean, I’ve always had that third eye open, but I ignored it. But now that I’ve been sober for two years, I can see everything very clearly. I can see the discrepancies in both fashion and music, as business and as personal. I can see where and what not to do, and I can see how they’re both so similar in careers. And especially seeing how throughout the years losing so many friends, a lot of these artists that we’ve lost. And I saw that pattern, that pattern wasn’t going with me. So I think my sobriety is my new spirit animal.
MTV News: Why the name Auntie for the album, then?
Isiah: Granny is the icon of all, you know. Under granny there’s auntie, there’s godmother, there’s godfather, there’s uncle. But the granny is like the grand aunt of it all. I chose Auntie because, collectively, when you listen to the album, it honestly sounds like your aunt — at her birthday party in her backyard or her husband’s birthday party in her backyard or auntie’s day at work.
MTV News: Your last collection, Shugga Sextape, was all about sexual freedom. What topics are you exploring with your new music?
Isiah: This album is actually very empowering. It’s empowering for me personally, but also very empowering for the listener’s ear. It’s very unfortunate in the climate that this nation is in right now, and we ought to do our part to change that immediately. Directly supporting local communities, defunding the police, we all need to immediately do something.
So this project is coming out during a time when it’s kind of parallel and it speaks to empowering and encouraging everyone in the midst of this national climate. I didn’t plan for that to be a thing, because no one wants what’s going on right now to be a thing, but I am grateful that the project is 100 percent — it’s funky sonically, and you have to dig a little deep and listen to the lyrics, but every song on the album is about empowering and encouraging you to move forward as a whole with the people who are next to you. Because that’s the goal, that’s it.
MTV News: I definitely see that on “Loose Truth,” and you included a bunch of essential workers in the video. Are there any songs that really speak to that sense of empowerment?
Isiah: Definitely. Coming right out the gate when I started it, the song “N.U.T.S.” — “N—a You The Shit,” that’s the acronym, which means I’m already trying to empower people. Like, stop thinking about what everybody else says about you and start caring about what you say about you. Patience running thin, nobody gives a shit.
There’s a song called “Can’t Call It” about being in love with someone and you get empowered with each other. There’s a song called “Bougie Heart” about understanding that your heart has different characters of its own and just like knowing yourself even more, before you’re able to know and love somebody else. The whole thing is literally about encouraging and empowering yourself first and then others.
MTV News: On some tracks, like on “Loose Truth,” it sounded like you were sampling sermons. Where did those come from?
Isiah: No samplings on here, baby. That’s the bishop, my overseer, my father, Jeffrey White, from my church. Well, I guess you can call that a sample, but no, it’s like a recording of one of my church services.
MTV News: Why did you decide to put that into the song?
Isiah: Well, because people need to hear the word. That specific choice, why did I choose that specific line to put in the song? I don’t know, actually. It just spoke to me. And the good thing about what I believe in, and the good thing about how I was raised in my faith, is that everything applies. So I just wanted people to start hearing the word.
MTV News: How has being part of Hood By Air, as a collective of Black artists, influenced your work as a musician?
Isiah: Well, it’s my visual. Hood By Air’s like a playground for me to bring my ideas, or transition my ideas into a lifestyle. Certain ideas that I will want to write about in a song, I would create that character through fashion with Shayne. There are words and terms that are being said in the room while we work, and there goes me in my notes section, already writing things up. By the end of the day, in my Uber home, there’s a song.
So it just goes hand in hand. You know how artists are just thinking about what they’re going to wear or what’s my next look for a video. I guess I’m blessed because… actually, here we go, that’s what the bridge is. The bridge is being able to have that advantage of not worrying about a stylist or not worrying about your visual presence in music.
Because nowadays, let’s be honest. If someone likes an artist, they 50 percent like the music and 50 percent mindful of the way the artist looks, which is weird, but I understand it. I want people to start understanding what real music is again. Not that current music isn’t real music, it definitely is. But I want people to start understanding what instrumentation is again.