When model and pop upstart Issa Israel sat down with a few of his friends and collaborators to watch the German indie film Christiane F., he was dumbfounded by how much he related to the story. Even though the film follows a young teenage girl navigating 1970s Berlin, Israel said that her story of battling a serious drug addiction touched him.
“I was battling my own personal addictions and so many of my friends were too,” he tells Billboard. “Her story is universal. There are a lot of people going through rough times. I wanted to unapologetically tell a story.”
Eager to pay homage to the film that resonated so deeply with him, Israel turned to his music. His new video for “Off the Hill,” premiering below, follows two queer lovers navigating the streets of New York and fighting messily over their apparently failing relationship.
Thanks to Christiane F., and a number of other childhood influences, the video looks as though it was filmed in the 1980s, with grainy footage and colorful fashion spread throughout. That appearance fits with the synth-heavy song, making the video feel like a treasure dug up from the past rather than a brand new piece of art.
Israel says part of the reason he wanted to make this video was because he loves the imperfections that were on display back in the ‘80s and ‘90s. “Some ideas were still in their infancy, sounds weren’t so processed, images weren’t so crisp,” he says. “There was this distinction between real life and fantasy. A lot of experimentation, things were still on the brink.”
The video, much like the decade Israel loves, is grungy, dirty and unapologetic — something that can be rare to find amongst mainstream queer artists, who are silently expected to cultivate a good-looking aesthetic in order to succeed.
The artist certainly understands the importance of looks and appearance — Israel has modeled for major-name fashion brands like Yeezy, Telfar, Maria Ke Fisherman and more. While the star didn’t move to New York to pursue a modeling career, he says that it had its own set of benefits. “It helped a lot with going through that whole social scene thing you have to do in NYC,” he says. “I don’t think you can be a pop star, if there isn’t fashion involved. It goes hand-in-hand.”
But ultimately, Israel thinks that authenticity in music is more important than an aesthetic. “Queer or not queer, an artist shouldn’t be expected to do anything, but feel and create accordingly,” he says. “I didn’t feel it was appropriate for something crisp and polished. My feelings aren’t polished and manicured.”