Hailing from the small West African nation of Senegal, one emerging R&B artist is looking for the same American Dream so many other immigrants have. He wants to be an internationally famous musical sensation. And with tour stops in Senegal, India and cities across the U.S., he might just be on his way.
ISSA, a recent Portland State University business marketing graduate has already recorded an amateur music video, launched a website, planned a worldwide tour and is releasing a single on iTunes in January. Aided by his business associates and fellow international students – Schahram Rezai of Austria and Shaun Chine of Nigeria – ISSA is driven by a need to succeed in Portland, the United States and the world.
"The U.S. is the heart of the music industry, if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere," Rezai said.
Coming from a professional, middle-class family of five siblings from the developing West Coast of Africa, ISSA was expected to be a lawyer, doctor or businessman – the traditional definition of a successful career. Business partners Rezai and Chine say their families expected the same thing.
"They would say music is a waste of your time," says ISSA. "I always had to make music and hide it."
Before coming to America, Chine says he had no idea you could actually make a living by being a musician or athlete. He says his parents are still highly skeptical of his dream of a career in the music industry. For ISSA, his family's skepticism forced him to hone his vision and explain in it in a business-like fashion.
"Once things got a little bigger, I was able to mature and explain my vision," he said. "They became supportive of my vision and project."
Even coming to America was a challenge for Rezai, whose family is originally from Persia.
"My parents at first didn't believe in any (music) project I was doing," he said. "My sisters, would say, you're wasting your time. Go, work, take a simple job. I hate that, I'm not this guy who can do that."
Cultural skepticism has its influences on the way the ISSA team carry themselves and approach their projects. They say they have a lot to prove not only to their families, but to their world community.
"There's not a lot of role models for musicians (in Africa)," ISSA said, noting the exception of the late, controversial Afro-Jazz-Funk legend Fela Kuti – an icon to whom their parents don't exactly look up to. "We want to be those role models who can succeed without using drugs, without drinking, without smoking."
And presumably, when looking at the themes ISSA sings about, without the political activism of an artist like Fela Kuti. ISSA says he gets much of his influence from American artists such as Usher, Timbaland and Akon, among others. He says he also incorporates traditional drumbeats and music traditions from his native Senegal and from India.
"This is really new," says Chine. "It's exactly what record executives are looking for. Not the same old R&B or hip hop. It's a new kind of beat."
ISSA says his inspiration also comes heavily from dancehall reggae, rhythm and blues, pop and sometimes rock. His storytelling style, however, comes directly from Africa.
"The way to tell a story through my music is the African style — capturing the listener from the get-go with a story and trying to hook you up with that," he said.
So far, all the production work and instruments are performed exclusively by ISSA, who says he is self-taught on both mixing and recording equipment, as well as many instruments, including the piano. His first video – available on his website www.issamusic.com – was produced with no money, just the help of fellow students.
That video, which ISSA sent to BET, earned him the honor of being nominated as a Break-Out Artist on national television.
"If I could create something that is ISSA," ISSA says. "That's where I take it all from, we want to be a musical bridge between cultures."
And with fan mail coming in from Europe, India, Africa and America, it's clear he might be able to do just that.
Listen to ISSA's music and view his videos online at www.issamusic.com. Upcoming shows include the ENVY Lounge on Nov. 26 in Portland. Other shows are being planned for Aura nightclub and the Satyricon.