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Ish-Illa Finds Purpose In His Struggles On “Beautiful Pain (Juneteenth)”

Written by on August 30, 2022

Ish-illa celebrates Black voices with his new single “Beautiful Pain (Juneteenth).”

Originally from Chicago’s South Side, musician Ish-illa grew up with hip-hop and R&B, first finding his voice when he would have singing competitions with his brothers and sisters at 6 or 7 years old. Now, upon turning to Christianity, Ish-illa’s sound is deeply influenced by gospel in tandem with his R&B roots, hooking listeners with his sharp production and pristine vocal harmonies. With lyrics drawing attention to social, political and economic issues, he’s been releasing heartfelt, uplifting faith-inspired singles since 2012 and hopes to release a full album this year.

Ish-illa’s latest single “Beautiful Pain (Juneteenth),” added to Vocalo’s August “Poised to Break Through” playlist, was released on Juneteenth of this year. According to Ish-illa, he was inspired to write the single in 2020 after seeing Black people all over the world celebrating their identity and consistently turning hardship and struggle into progress.

“Celebrate [your identity],” Ish-illa said, “and all those who say they love you will help you celebrate your Black, too.”

Ish-illa also noted he feels compelled to uplift others now because of his experiences growing up in a family struggling with poverty and homelessness. As an adult, Ish-illa turned to Christianity and decided to start a homeless ministry with his wife to help educate, rehabilitate and empower community members facing poverty or housing insecurity. Although he lacked the support of local churches, the ministry lasted for more than 10 years.

“I couldn’t wait for everyone else to gain sympathy or empathy,” he said. “I had to do what I felt God put on my heart.”

Ish-illa later moved from the South Side to Los Angeles and, most recently, to Japan for work at the beginning of the pandemic. While he is now in a different part of the world, the Chicago-raised artist still expresses his love of the city and pride in his roots, and continues to strive toward motivating others through his music.

Following the addition of “Beautiful Pain (Juneteenth)” to our “Poised To Break Through” playlist this month, we heard from Ish-illa about his upbringing, the importance of faith in his life, things he wishes were widely understood about poverty and more.

“I find motivation in a lot of my own personal triumphs and things I’ve persevered through, when I should’ve given up but I didn’t.”

– Ish-illa

Where in Chicago are you originally from? 

I’m from the South Side of Chicago, “The Wild 100s.” 

Where do you live now? 

I live in Los Angeles, but I recently relocated to Japan for work and to let COVID-19 blow over in the states. 

What do you like about your neighborhood? 

It’s very peaceful and serene and for the most part, everyone loves my culture and thinks I’m some sort of superhero.

What do you think sets Chicago apart from other cities? 

It might be my biased opinion but, to me, it’s a solid, keep-it-real, raw, relentless city of people, and I’m proud to say that I’m born and raised there.

When did you start making music? 

Very young, maybe 6 or 7, my brothers, sisters and I used to have singing contests against each other to see who could sing exactly like the records we’d listen to. I always felt I won, but I was the little brother, so I felt no one would ever admit that and give me that title. So I just used it to make myself better so one day they would have no choice.

How did you develop your fusion of gospel, hip-hop and R&B? 

I was raised on hip-hop and R&B, but as I got older I gave my life to Christ and then gospel music became more relevant to me than the music I was raised on. But the sound of all the music genres I liked just kind of fused itself as I started to write and create.

You’ve said you want your music to uplift and motivate people, and it certainly does that for us. Where do you personally find motivation?

Life is filled with so many great stories of people who motivate me daily to strive for greatness, but I definitely find motivation in biblical stories throughout the bible that depended on God and how they had to go through similar, or maybe worse situations than me and God still brought them through. I find motivation in a lot of my own personal triumphs and things I’ve persevered through, when I should’ve given up but I didn’t. That motivates me to keep going, and I also find motivation in setting new goals for myself to be better than I was yesterday.

“The scars that run so deep always make me feel the need to rescue the younger version of myself in every hurting, broken person I meet.”

– Ish-illa

You mentioned in your submission bio that you’ve experienced homelessness and poverty in your life. If you’re comfortable talking about it, could you tell us a little bit about your experiences with homelessness and poverty? 

Homelessness and poverty were our way of life growing up, it seems like it was our inheritance. One of my hardest memories, out of many, I remember being raised in this abandoned building/junkyard on the South Side of Chicago, I believe on the street Racine, with my mom, dad and six brothers and sisters. [We were] all together, huddling with each other, being very cold and hungry while eating cold, sour, old molded beans out of a cast iron pot and having ringworms on our chest, arms and back because where we slept was so filthy, and my dad beating my mom because she wanted to work.

The smells that I never forget were of this strong, very old septic tank of feces that got stronger and stronger because of the little hole outside of the corner room of the building we slept in, always backed up or flooding in that part of the building. We had to smell that going to sleep and waking up some days. That’s always stuck with me, even till now. Some days were better than that, because some days we had a shelter to stay in or, because we were Muslims, we could stay at the mosque around Ramadan. Or every once in a while stay with a new friend of my mom’s until we moved to the projects. But overall, I became a professional at being homeless as I got older — because, like I said, as sad as it sounds, it was something I felt was my inheritance.

How has this changed your outlook on life and other people? 

This has changed my outlook because the scars that run so deep always make me feel the need to rescue the younger version of myself in every hurting, broken person I meet.

What are some things you wish were more widely understood about poverty? 

One thing I wished that people understood about poverty is that it needs a strategic community of people who understand [how] to defeat communities of poverty by communicating proper provision directly to the needs of the poor — educating them, encouraging them and elevating them out of the mind state of poverty. Your pain makes you pay attention, if it hurts enough. 

In my first years of accepting Christ after I was released from jail, my wife and I started a homeless ministry to go out and feed anyone who needed help. It was hard, because I tried to get churches to join me, but there were too many politics and no one was out there that looked the way I looked. They couldn’t understand why would someone like me be using my money out there, feeding people five days a week, trying to get people off the streets, in rehabilitation and walk with them through the process until they were clean.

But I couldn’t wait for everyone else to gain sympathy or empathy. I had to do what I felt God put on my heart. So we were alone, and I helped as many as I could. It lasted for more than 10 years and, in a lot of people, we saw quick results. Some I didn’t see any results. And then some of the labor I did years ago, in some cases, I’m just now seeing a harvest for the seeds we planted in love. But altogether, it was worth it. The bible says, “If I can trust you with a little I’ll make you ruler over much.”

What changes do you think are necessary for Chicago to support others who are struggling with poverty and/or living without homes? 

I feel they need to be the first example to organize communities of government-paid programs that allow people to be hired from the inner city, to get paid and educated to clean up their own cities. The programs should have every subject that affects our communities with hired professionals that understand our communities to help advance the community mentally, emotionally and physically, in the highest way. I feel it should be some sort of reparations program, and also a replacement for welfare so we can be educated to do for ourselves.

Your new single “Beautiful Pain (Juneteenth)” dropped on its namesake holiday this year. Tell us about the song’s creation, its meaning, and how it connects to Juneteenth. 

Yes! I’m proud to have written this song, and Juneteenth was a great historical monumental moment for all Black people around the world. So, as a songwriter, I definitely wanted to write a song that represented this incredible day. 

But I wrote “Beautiful Pain (Juneteenth)” in 2020 when I was in Japan and I was seeing Japanese Black people and other Black people from majority-white countries courageously stand up for their right to have a voice in their Black skin, to say, “No matter what, I am proud of my Black!” And It didn’t matter if you were Black and dating outside of Black, or just a different diaspora of Black — celebrate it, and all those who say they love you will help you celebrate your Black, too. 

I felt obligated to use my voice and the gift God gave me to write a song that represented all of us, from every angle and shade, to say, “What you see, I see, and what you feel, I feel,” and one of our commonalities, out of many, is we historically turn all of our struggles and hardships into our “Beautiful Pain.” So, please use that inherited resilience, Christ as your foundation, don’t give up and you’ll see there’s purpose in your struggles that will end up your personal story of “Beautiful Pain.”

How do you and your family celebrate Juneteenth? 

Every year probably will be different, because it’s such a new holiday, though, I believe, I remember celebrating it as a kid before it was a holiday. But we eat, watch movies and learn more history of our culture and just remember and have conversations about how far we’ve come.

You recently dropped some new merch for the summer, including a hat that reads “Godfidence” on the front. Can you talk about what this word means to you and how you apply it to your life?

Since I’ve become a Christ-follower 17 years ago, I’ve always seen myself doing things that I wasn’t normally considering doing, coming from where I come from. But when I got Christ, I was so confident because I was no longer doing this life for me or in my strength, and I was so excited ‘cause now I finally had a purpose. I had incredible confidence in God and being God’s child after he kept showing up for me when I accepted Jesus and stayed very honest about my wrong and right on a daily basis. 

I mean, we were inseparable and I felt I could do anything… I always told him, “If you lead me, I’ll follow no matter if I like it or I don’t.” I felt if I revealed my true heart to him, he would understand, ‘cause he made me and I was right. I felt “Godfidence” was inevitable, and it just means confidence in your purpose in God.

What are some goals you want to accomplish before the end of this year? 

I would love to get my songs in movies, TV shows and games, especially “Beautiful Pain (Juneteenth).”

Do you have any new musical projects in the works? 

Yes! The Beautiful Pain album is coming. Hopefully dropping on November 19 of this year, God willing.

Listen to Ish-illa on Spotify below and follow him on Instagram

Interview and written introduction by George Chiligiris

Edited for length and clarity by Morgan Ciocca

All photos courtesy of the artist

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