Issa Thompson: The Making Of A Young Rap Star
I woke up early one Saturday to an email from a woman named Christina Daverne: “I have a new artist for whom we’d love your fashion touch! He is 16-years-old and has a lot of shows coming up!”
As the content coordinator for DrJays.com, I’ve been progressively styling celebrity photo shoots over the past year, which has led to some industry folks reaching out to me with opportunities like this.
The Atlanta-based artist Christina speaks of is Issa Thompson. He recently joined Jive Records and is, in fact, the youngest rapper ever signed to the label. I look him up and I’m pleasantly surprised—he’s a handsome young man with bright green eyes, long brown dreadlocks and an already effortless style. His pictures show he’s a fan of skate/streetwear and the color combination of red and black.
I respond to Christina; I’m interested. She and I volley back and forth, discussing ideas, brands and upcoming event dates. Issa’s in L.A. at this time. By coincidence or kismet, I had a four day L.A. vacation booked for the same time Issa would be there.
During our initial call, Christina tells me one Issa’s favorite brands is Supra, so I organize a dinner with Issa and the Supra crew at the beautiful Bottega Louie restaurant in downtown L.A. My friend and I actually drove by this spot a few times—it’s down the street from where we were staying—and it is hard to miss with it’s cream and gold exterior. It’s huge, with high ceilings, a warm ambience, and comes complete with a mouth-watering dessert shop in the front of the restaurant. Issa arrives with his mother, Ngozi, and his cousin Jacquees—also an artist—for our first meeting.
Right off the bat there is a great vibe. Ngozi, a fresh-faced woman in her early 30s, is a total sweetheart and so grateful we’re taking the time to meet them. Issa appears humble, innocent, just happy to be diving into the pizza on the table like a typical 16-year-old boy with a healthy appetite. Over dinner I learn Issa won the Hawaiian Punch “Unleash the Punch” contest, hosted by Bow Wow in 2004. Issa was 10-years-old. “He spit for me. He killed it,” say Bow Wow when asked about the young D.C. native. “He’s only 10-years-old. I swear to God I haven’t heard a lot of 10-year-olds who can rap at my man’s level. I don’t know what it is. It might be the dreads or something.”
Ngozi has four more children, but Issa’s her oldest, born when she was only 16. She and the children, along with her husband, Karim, travel together as a family. Ngozi’s 15-year-old stepdaughter, Lashae, lives in New York. Her nine-year-old daughter Agyei is a gymnast; five-year-old son Kei plays football, and their youngest, two-year-old, Sanaa, is referred to as the “miracle baby.”
I have weeks to pull merchandise for Issa before I fly to Atlanta for four days to style him for his album release festivities. There are many variables to consider when coming up with a look, and with Issa, I want to keep it trend-right yet fun. I don’t want to take away from his natural good looks by lacing him in unnecessarily loud apparel. That being said, he is 16—an age where I think he can get away with being a bit adventurous and bold with his style. I opt for brands like Rocksmith, Sabit, Entree and of course Supra/KR3W.
Weeks later I arrive in Atlanta and find Issa waiting by baggage claim for me, along with his DJ, the young New York native DJ Key. The gentlemen help me with my bags—older men take note—as Ngozi and the adorable Agyei wait in the car. As soon as I see Agyei, I am reminded of Willow Smith. With a gorgeous little face, dreads and super high-top Converse All Star–style sneakers, she is bubbly, sweet—one of the happiest little girls I have seen in a long time.
Issa is anxious to see what I’ve brought to style him in. When we arrive at my hotel I invite him to take a peek inside my suitcase. “Wow, I like everything!” he exclaims. I am relieved. Sixteen-year-olds are not always this easy to please.
The next morning I am picked up and taken to the family’s McDonough, Georgia home to coordinate Issa’s outfit for the night. The first part of “Issa Weekend” is an industry album-release party in a former sneaker store. For this, Issa must make a statement and arrive in something dope. Together we choose a camo varsity jacket by Rocksmith, boots by Psyberia and a Washington Nationals New Era cap.
With this evening’s outfit finalized, Ngozi, DJ Key and I to drop off Issa and the crew at the barber shop with their father, and head out to pick up all the last-minute items for the night’s event. Ngozi opens up about her family as we travel from a party supply store to the mall and the grocery store. When it comes to styling Issa, I was already sold on his look and talent. However, hearing the story behind his career and family just sealed the deal for me.
When they say music runs in their family, they aren’t joking. Issa’s dad is a rapper, his grandfather a pianist and singer. Don Juan, Issa’s 24-year-old cousin, is also a rapper signed to Jive. Issa actually owns his own record label, Wolf Pack Entertainment. “Why do you call Sanaa your ‘miracle baby’?” I cautiously inquire. Ngozi explains that before Sanaa was born, she was advised by doctors to not go through with the pregnancy. She was told Sanaa would be born with a rare disorder that could cause up to 21 different illnesses and that she would likely die before the age of two. But Ngozi is a woman of faith who went ahead with the pregnancy.
Sanaa was born with DiGeorge Syndrome. As described by the Mayo Clinic, it is “a disorder caused by a defect in chromosome 22, resulting in the poor development of several body systems. Medical problems commonly associated with DiGeorge syndrome include heart defects, poor immune system function, a cleft palate, poor function of the parathyroid glands and behavioral disorders.” Sanaa underwent heart surgery soon after her birth, and the whole family relocated from their current home to one closer to the hospital. While Sanaa was connected to life-support, the tube inserted in her little throat punctured her vocal cord. She couldn’t speak or swallow. She would silently choke.
Just hearing this tale gives me anxiety; I can’t imagine the nightmare they lived. Sanaa’s tube was removed this past summer. It is in this moment I begin to understand the wonders of Ngozi’s faith, and the power of faith in general. The family was told Sanaa would have significant behavioral issues requiring special education. Sometimes nature knows better than medicine, the power of a mother’s instincts surpassing any words learned in a medical textbook. I cannot distinguish Sanaa from the next perfectly healthy two-year-old. She speaks clearly, learns quickly and runs around like a ball of energy. Might I add, she is not unlike her other siblings in appearance with her luminous angelic face—too cute for words.
I ask Ngozi how Sanaa’s health affected Issa and his music career. “It came to a complete halt,” she says. Issa was depressed and kept to himself. The whole family’s energy was focused on Sanaa. It seemed the minute she was released from the hospital, the pause button on Issa’s career was lifted. A production company, Crown World, found Issa and introduced him to Jive Records. Wayne Williams, Senior Vice President of A&R at the label, had just signed 14-year-old Jacob Latimore, a singer, and felt Issa was the next hot young artist. Issa, who around that time had just recorded “Whatcha Lookin At” with Young Money‘s Lil Chuckee, inked his deal on September 16th.
I have lingering questions. “It’s clear Issa sounds a lot like Lil Wayne?” I say. “What kind of feedback have you been receiving about this?” “Issa takes it as a compliment!” Ngozi replies with ease. “He’s only 16 and being compared to Wayne?” She admits there’s been negativity surrounding the similarity, but the family is looking at it under a positive light, insisting Issa is legit. Questions lead to more questions, and I’m curious about Issa’s mixtape cover art. The font and imagery are taken from the 1985 film, Back to the Future. Issa used this concept to support his belief that he’s bringing older music into the future of rap.
“It was approved by the label, and once they started promoting it, the legal department stepped in and put a stop to it. So now Jive can promote certain tracks but have to separate them from the mixtape.”
Our last stop of the day is Apple Butter Bakery to pick up Issa’s special cake for the party. Ngozi has used this company before, and is anxious to see the creation they had come up with for Issa’s big day. The cake is crazy—Issa’s head sitting atop a square cake with Back to the Future props, including a replica of the Delorian from the movie.
The ladies of Apple Butter Bakery bring out Issa’s cake
There are no entourages or outside teams to handle the fine details. The making of Issa is a grassroots effort—everyone does their little part, even if it means running errands with the star’s protective, supportive mother.
We arrive at the event site, the Urban Fusion space at 237 Peters Street, and dive right into setting up the party. I take off my heels (my feet are aching from running all those errands), and contribute my part—assembling gift bags and hanging up dozens of balloons.
The “Issa m&m’s” I packed into the gift bags
The night is flawless. The perfect mix of people arrive, and Issa holds the crowd’s attention, rapping every track on the mixtape with his crew. I meet his grandmother and grandfather, who also has dreads—I’m getting to the bottom of this family trend next time around—and finally Christina, the publicist of Reign Word Wide who brought me into this adventure.
Issa with yours truly
The following night is much the same. I dress Issa for a “teen party” at a club near his home in McDonough. He rocks the stage wearing Sabit and Supra, making me proud once again. I take off the next morning for New York. Although I’m excited to head back to the city yet find myself missing the Thompsons as I board the plane.
Issa is just getting started. Stay tuned as I take a behind-the-scenes look into the life, family and budding career of Issa Thompson.
More pics and video below from “Issa Weekend.” Learn more about Issa through the links below, and download his mixtape, Back to the Future HERE.
Don Juan, Issa and Jacquees
Karim, Ngozi and Issa
Issa with Ngozi and grandparents
Issa with his lovely aunties (Ngozi’s sisters)
Issa performs in a Sabit jacket, Supra tee and kicks during “Issa Weekend”
Issa performs in Supra kicks during “Issa Weekend”
Issa performs in Rocksmith during “Issa Weekend”
A special shout out to the brands supporting Issa by lacing him in gear: Meister, Supra/KR3W, Sabit, Rocksmith, Entree, Mitchell & Ness, New Era, Syn Jeans, Greedy Geniu$ and Flud Watches—all of which can be found on DrJays.com!