‘Hey, but, ask me that question about Nigerian stereotypes.’ We’re running short on time before Jidenna has to go on stage. During a break to adjust the lighting, he lets me know the one question we can’t cut.
We’re sitting in DC’s historic Howard Theatre, an important stop along Wondaland’s national Eephus tour. He and Janelle Monáe led a demonstration earlier that day at DC’s U.S. Department of Justice. Humbly, Jidenna tells me how grateful he was to learn that some mothers of the victims of police terror, who marched with him earlier that day, will be attending tonight’s concert.
‘Africa is foundational to all humanity, and to all music, and beyond hip hop to all pop music.’
For Jidenna, heritage, art and activism have always overlapped. So, when we’re pressed for time before he performs songs like, Knickers and Long Live the Chief, I’m not surprised he doesn’t want to miss the opportunity to big up the nation he calls ‘his heart’.
In this in-depth and intimate interview, Jidenna explains why African rhythms and styles are foundational to hip hop and ‘Swank’. He also shares why he aspires to be inducted as a chief in his village and make the chieftain way of life common in the United States.
If we’re going to talk about what makes Jidenna, Jidenna, then we have to talk about your African heritage. What does it mean to you?
Africa is of tantamount importance. Coming from Africa and specifically from Nigeria, the foundation of me as a boy was resourcefulness, resilience, excellence, hospitality – these are common themes in Nigeria.
It’s important to understand where you’re from so you know where you’re going.
What do you think is one of the greatest misconceptions about Nigeria?
Everyone thinks we’re scam artists, that we’re volatile, violent, that we’re not hospitable, that no one wants to vacation there; these are all huge misconceptions. There are a whole bunch of places where you’ll find people are hospitable and humorous. We have a huge array of doctors, engineers, lawyers, teachers, professors, athletes, and artists. It’s unfortunate these stereotypes exist. We’re not armed robbers, terrorists.
Of course, there are places that are dangerous but that’s the case for pretty much every country in the world. I want to make sure everybody sees the beauty of what makes Nigeria Nigeria. And doesn’t just pay attention to what the media wants us to focus on.
Do you think it’s important that audiences understand hip hop’s roots in Africa?
Africa is foundational to all humanity, and to all music, and beyond hip hop to all pop music. Quincy Jones has talked about the importance of African music on Michael Jackson’s production. I’m talking about the actual rhythms and melodies Michael would use. It’s a huge part of hip hop. It’s also the idea of oral story telling; which is how the vast majority of Africa relayed its story. Contrary to that stereotype, there were also written forms of history too. I want to make that clear as a side note…
Fela Kuti’s definitely been one of my idols. It’s his courage in speaking truth to power.
You’re finding even more connections to the African continent in vocal delivery. Artists like Future or Migos when they’re using these triplet flows ‘Versace Versace Versace’. Everyone on the continent knows what they’re doing. That’s why these artists tour in Africa now.
You’ve said Fela Kuti is one of the artists you would have loved to collaborate with. Does he inspire you in other ways beyond music?
It’s every aspect of Fela: his spirituality, his commitment to community. He was hiring hundreds of people, many of whom he didn’t really need to hire. I was very touched by his story when I encountered him as a boy. Since then, he’s definitely been one of my idols. It’s his courage in speaking truth to power. The amount of times he was arrested, his wives, his mother, and his comrades were beaten. He went through so much to speak the truth.
We can see you and the other Wondaland artists doing that in the protests you’re leading in conjunction with Black Lives Matter. What was your experience with the demonstration in DC like today?
In DC we got to speak to the mothers of victims of police brutality. While we were marching, we teamed up with more demonstrators and we convened at the White House. It was hard to hold back the tears as we spoke to mothers of victims whose names I didn’t even know.
Even with continued police terror, many Americans still believe the country should strive to be post-racial or color-blind. Some people believe hip hop shows us that racial identities really don’t matter – that the music “frees us” from our racial identities. What do you think about color-blindness and hip hop?
I don’t ever want to be blind. That’s not a goal of mine and I hope it’s not a goal of our society. I love to see diversity, different shades of people. It’s important to embrace all. The politically correct mentality we have in this country is something we need to minimise at all costs. It’s affecting how we interact and how we express some of the misconceptions we have. We need to have more jokes. We need to have more comedians to break the ice. I’m tired of seeing everyone have to hold their tongue.
We need to start having conversations that are less censored then we can get to a society that looks beyond race.
I’ve lived in Boston; it has a reputation of being the south of the north – it’s one of the most racist cities according to stereotype. It’s not strictly true but it does have a lot of racial tensions. The thing I love about it was how blunt people they were. The Italians in the north; the Irish in the south, it didn’t matter; we all spoke direct.
We need to start having conversations that are less censored then we can get to a society that looks beyond race. I would like a society which gets rid of the word race because it’s really culture that we’re talking about.
What does that mean to focus more on culture than on race?
We talk about black people and white people. I don’t even know what that means. The cool thing about Boston is that there are so many different people; it’s about Italian-Americas, Irish Americans, Jamaican Americans, it’s Trinis… it’s important to recognise the differences and the similarities. You can’t just say black people… the experiences of a black person from Alabama are very different from an African American from Louisiana.
I would like to be part of that momentum which is moving towards a focus on culture. White people are very diverse. I know this because I have a mixed heritage and I see the difference in my cousins who are from all different parts of this country. That’s what I firmly believe that we need to move towards.
We get more of a sense of your politics on another song, Long Live the Chief. It sounds like you’re pioneering a new icon in hip hop, ‘the Chief’, that’s distinct from the King or the Boss.
The king lives on a hill. The chief lives in the neighbourhood. The king lives in a castle with a moat. The chief lives in a compound, which is in the village. The chief is with the people. The king is above the people. A boss is strictly focused on business and bossing around other people. The chief is looking for ways to be a social entrepreneur.
I think it’s important to bring the concept of chiefs to America.
The classic man for me is interchangeable with the Chief but people can interpret it differently.
Why did you want to be inducted as a Chief in your family’s village? I know titles aren’t everything to you, but what does it mean to you to be chief?
I couldn’t be inducted earlier as I was too young. I’m still too young but when the day comes… I’ve never been hugely into titles. The title doesn’t make the person the person makes the title. It’s really an honour from my father and grandfather; they were both Chiefs and I’d like to do right by them. There are lots of things I would like to see in our village. Health clinics, for example. There are some great schools but I’d like to see more of them.
I think it’s important to bring the concept of chiefs to America. Here in American I would set up Chieftain academies as seen in the Classic Man video. Education across the nation is one of the most imperative things we need to focus on.
You can’t just be reactive to police brutality. We have to be active in changing our culture to make sure it’s cool to be sharp, it’s cool to be educated. That’s what I would be as chief abroad and stateside.
If someone was looking at you in your impeccably tailored suit, they probably wouldn’t think you were prepared to dance as hard as you do. Does that matter to you?
I don’t mind dancing and messing my suit up. You come dry and you leave wet. It’s like the classic days of rock and roll – where you’d see the Kinks, or Kiss, or Jimmy Hendrix lighting the stage on fire and that’s what we’re about. We love being free.
We’re bringing hip hop to another space where there’s a little more freedom and less conservatism. It used to be that you dressed down to be less conservative. But now dressing down is what makes hip hop more conservative. Let’s go the other way. Let’s dress up and break some rules.
There’s also politics to your style.
We dress this way because we’re in the new Jim Crow area and we wanted to pay homage and command attention to the new era. So that’s why we dress in suits to remind people of the past and remind them of what’s going on today. That’s the initial impetus and then we started highlighting other aspects of our heritage.
Our duty is to reflect society.
You’ll see the Ankara print. And I love the hues and the colours and across the African continent. Of course we want to be fresh; we want to be clean; but we’ll also get down and dirty. But there was never a plan ‘Oh I am going to put on a suit and be respected by the white people of our time. And I will comb my hair to the side because I want to be a white man.’ It had nothing to do with that.
You’re really poised to do something remarkable, not just through hip hop, but nightlife with your arts collective, Fear & Fancy. Can you talk to us about the Fear & Fancy balls and masquerades?
We believe that the mask often reveals more than it conceals. There’s a quote by Oscar Wilde that goes, ‘Give a man a mask and he’ll tell you the truth.’ When I was young I used to attend Mmanwu, the traditional Igbo masquerade. There you would see performance art. Masquerades are dancing and telling a story. It was an art that was used to teach and reflect on the times. Our duty is to reflect society.
Listening to Jidenna, I recognise he’s an artist who is both wise and young. His reflections in this interview show that his ambitions are met with a deep-seated humility.
He knows he was born to lead – not for show, but by example. Chief Oliver Udemmadu Ogbonnia Mobisson, Jidenna’s father, was an accomplished engineer, scientist, activist and entrepreneur who created the first African PC. The 30-year-old Wondaland/Epic recording artist carries his father’s spirit forward as he pioneers the new hip hop genre, ‘Swank’, and ‘hundred-year plan’ for building new alliances across the African diaspora.
His Nigerian heritage has shaped his commitment to excellence in all things: the dopest beats; the most awe-inspiring performances and unprecedented social change.