Isa ibn Wali and Saint Disruption release new albums

PROPHETS UNITE: From left, Isa ibn Wali and the core Saint Disruption team of Jeff "Firewalker Schmitt" and John Medeski probe intellectual depths on their latest albums. Isa ibn Wali photo by Ricky Tale; Saint Disruption photo by Michael Bloom

Similar to Michael Corleone in The Godfather: Part III, every time Isa Whitaker thought he was done with hip-hop, the music pulled him back in.

Formerly known on the mic as SIYAH, the Swannanoa-based artist had scaled back his recording and performing in 2019 due to a lengthy child custody battle. But even before then, in the lead-up to his 2018 EP, Dark Clouds, proverbial cracks were beginning to show.

“I was kind of falling out of love with hip-hop and rapping,” Whitaker says. “I was feeling like, ‘Well, if that’s the case, then I need to fall back.’”

The time away, further amplified by the isolation brought upon by the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, proved beneficial. In addition to expanding his interests through collecting comic books, the hiatus gave him an opportunity to better understand the music industry and accept that the odds of being discovered and signed by a label were slim. Rather than discourage him, however, the knowledge revealed other potential routes to making a living through music — including as a teaching artist. But the allure went beyond merely making money.

“Over the years, I started to feel a little bit of that pull — that creative pull. I never felt like I was ever going to necessarily be done; just ‘done for now.’ I needed to figure out how to maneuver next,” Whitaker says. “I started doing those little [freestyle rap] videos in the car and throwing those up on Instagram, just as a way to stay creative and attempt to keep my page from going all the way [inactive].”

In July 2021, Whitaker performed at The Orange Peel, which would be his last show under the stage name SIYAH — a moniker that Whitaker noticed other performers had started to use in various forms. To avoid getting confused with these artists, the devout Muslim rebranded as Isa ibn Wali and focused on putting out an official collection based on the tracks he’d been releasing on Instagram.

Mixed and mastered by local engineer Mike Johnson, the two-part Free the World mixtape includes professional studio versions of those freestyles and a few songs featuring original production. Part 1 was released April 19 and Part 2 on May 19.

The break from music allowed Whitaker to collect his thoughts on numerous social and personal issues. The mixtapes’ titles are a positive twist on hip-hop’s oft-spoken dismissive phrase, “F*** the world,” and the lyrics he spits on the 13 total tracks touch on everything from the liberation of persecuted populations to freeing oneself from various daily stressors.

As noted, the bulk of the beats on Free the World are from tracks originally recorded by other artists, including J. Cole, Drake and Lil Wayne. A lifelong student of hip-hop, Whitaker constantly searches for exciting new productions and is frequently inspired by what he hears — though not necessarily in the traditional sense.

“I might hear a crazy beat and then I end up hearing the lyrics and I’m like, ‘I feel like they wasted that beat,’” Whitaker says. “That’s not always why I jump on certain beats, but there are definitely ones where I’m like, ‘I would have done that’ and ‘Why did they come with this?’ There’s a little bit of that competitive nature, too, where you’re like, ‘I feel like I could jump on your favorite rappers beat and do a little something.’”

Whitaker enjoys these exercises and will continue doing them to stay sharp and nimble, but he plans to focus more on original tracks like the Volume 1 cut “Murder Me.” He’s also getting back on the performance circuit and looks to build on his recent May 29 return to the stage at Eulogy.

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Sustained momentum

From Dave Grohl, John Paul Jones and Josh Homme teaming up in Them Crooked Vultures to Jay-Z and Kanye West’s Watch the Throne album, supergroups are often short-lived endeavors that produce one record, then fade away.

But Saint Disruption — the music collective composed of legendary New York-based keyboardist John Medeski and Asheville-based songwriter and percussionist Jeff “Firewalker” Schmitt — has produced four albums in as many years. And despite geographic separation and increasingly divergent schedules, the ever-evolving project feels like it’s just beginning.

Schmitt and Medeski met in 2008 while visiting the same healer inside the Amazon rainforests of Ecuador. A drummer since his teenage days, Schmitt had largely set music aside to focus on his work as a folk healer and practitioner of plant medicine. But after being instructed in meditation to put his professional findings to poetry and music, he contacted Medeski in 2020 to collaborate. And with the keyboardist’s robust touring schedule on hold due to restrictions stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic, they started working together remotely, looping in a range of Asheville-based artists as those restrictions loosened later that year.

The group’s most recent release, This Starless Night, is the latest in a growing catalog. But albums, says Schmitt, are just part of what keeps the project going.

“One thing that’s really been a big driver for it has been the [Saint Disruption] podcast,” Schmitt says. “A lot of the musicians that are in our circle are elders, and they’re superexcited about transmitting wisdom to younger artists and helping younger artists get opportunities for collaboration.”

Launched in early 2023, the podcast pairs legendary musical artists with, in Schmitt’s words, “up-and-coming poets and truth tellers” to create new works, which are then debuted on the show. That collaborative spirit extends to the project’s musical side as well.

“[This Starless Night] has … all told, 12 or 13 local musicians on it,” Schmitt says. “It continues to be a real community effort. We really dig Asheville, and I’m so blessed to be able to work with so many excellent musicians.”

The album started with Schmitt and fellow collective member Datrian Johnson working together on the songs “Towers,” “Six Bullet Sovereign” and “Generations.” The artists first linked up for Saint Disruption’s 2021 debut album, Rose in the Oblivion. But since then, Johnson has become one of the Asheville area’s brightest stars, delivering a show-stealing performance on the side stage during the Warren Haynes Christmas Jam in December and becoming the lead singer of The Fritz. He also has been working on separate projects with Medeski and North Mississippi Allstars’ Luther Dickinson.

“Datrian and I have had a really wonderful friendship over the years,” Schmitt says. “He has the ability to understand — on the emotional plane — what I’m trying to get across in my words, and it’s a real privilege to work with a vocalist who has such a huge range of tools to deliver different emotional states and different meanings.”

With Johnson, as well as fellow locals Jake Wolf, River Guerguerian, Chris Rosser and all-star guests such as Oteil Burbridge (The Allman Brothers Band) joining in on This Starless Night, Schmitt had no shortage of talent at his disposal. In figuring out what direction to give these gifted artists to help realize his often complex vision, the artist — who feels as if he’s still finding his musical bearings after decades of not playing — says he follows his gut.

“I’m still in that ‘tortured artist effect’ kind of phase where 80% of the time it’s just complete torture and 20% it’s OK,” Schmitt says. “Because if you’re trying to tell some sort of truth that’s beyond cognition, and you know that you haven’t hit the mark — at least for me, where I’m at as an artist, it’s just awful. But there are these moments where I just get this intuition and the right artist comes along and just nails it. That’s why I appreciate so many musicians here in Asheville.”

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About Edwin Arnaudin
Edwin Arnaudin is a staff writer for Mountain Xpress. He also reviews films for and is a member of the Southeastern Film Critics Association (SEFCA) and North Carolina Film Critics Association (NCFCA). Follow me @EdwinArnaudin

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