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Jidenna is here to bridge the gap between the United States and Africa. For anyone who remembers hearing “Classic Man” for the first time, your immediate reaction was, “Who is this artist and where is from?” with the desire to know more. Shortly after, he unleashed his debut studio album, The Chief, reminding audiences of his Nigerian roots.
While his origin lies in Imo State, Nigeria, Jidenna grew up in Wisconsin — he came to the U.S. at the young age of six. Since then, he’s resided in Oakland, California; Brooklyn, New York, Atlanta, Georgia; and Nigeria.
Fast forward to 2019, he’s one of the biggest artists on Janelle Monáe’s Wondaland Records label with distribution through Epic Records. During the recent REVOLT Summit in Atlanta, Jidenna spoke alongside Tuma Basa (Director of Urban Music at Youtube) for the “Africa’s Got Something to Say” panel, deeming the conversation “culturally the most important panel.” The two proud Africans discussed everything from where Afrobeat lies in today’s streaming culture, the effects of Afrophobia, and the artists who are pioneering the ever-growing Afrobeat wave.
In August of this year, Jidenna unleashed his new album 85 To Africa with standout features from GoldLink, Mr Eazi, Mereba, and more. The 11-track project charted in the top 10 of the iTunes Top Hip-Hop/Rap Albums chart, spearheaded by singles “Sufi Woman,” “Tribe,” “Sou Sou,” and “Zodi” featuring Mr. Eazi. Beyond the storytelling in his lyrics and incredible musicality, it’s Jidenna’s ability to speak to the diaspora and bring its people back to the homeland.
REVOLT caught up with the star to discuss his roots, why it’s so important for him to represent for Africa, his music and more! Read the conversation below.
For those who don’t know, who is Jidenna?
I have a response in my head, but I don’t know how it’s going to come off. Some people know me as ‘Classic Man,’ other people know me as a recording artist. This guy just texted me on WhatsApp the other day, he’s like, ‘The way I look at you is if the African Union had a leader who was an entertainer.’ Who I am is going to depend on how I walk and how I end this life. There’s no way I can define him and that’s what other people have said.
What was your reaction when you first heard ‘Classic Man’ on the radio?
Big Von! That’s the homie. KMEL is a home for me. It’s a great feeling. Having a hit is like having a ring on your finger. There’s certain artists that have rings every year. It was a blessing to have a ring — a couple rings actually — early because it was ‘Classic Man,’ Yoga,’ ‘Little Bit More’ [that] did some things. I was grateful, but I imagined it that way. Everything I’m running right now, I imagined and manifested, but you still get surprised by certain moments. That was not a surprise, but it was a sigh of relief. Some work has paid off.
How long were you grinding at that point?
I started making music since as a kid. Some people start later, then all of a sudden, they pop on the scene. For me, it was at least 10 years, 15 years, probably if I go all the way back to my childhood. So 15 years, nothing’s poppin’ and you’re broke (chuckles). Then, your song’s on the radio. So, it was a good feeling.
Did you have any of those moments this year?
This year was about cultural impact for me. I wanted to make sure people knew I was a human being. I wanted people to know I love human beings. I wanted people to know I have a specific mission in this life. For some people, this is a career. Other people, it’s a job. For me, it’s a crusade. I made damn sure as I took off layers of the suit, they saw me as a total person.
This year, the cool moments were really when we’re doing the album promo. We did these pop up parties and the feeling of the pop ups started spreading on the internet. I mean mostly they had me whining on women, which isn’t a big deal to me because I grew up in dancehall culture. I’d be the average guy at the party and she’d be the average woman, so it wasn’t no ting to me.
But the environment of the sweaty basement — Bashment kind of feel — that would go on Shade Room and people would see it. That meant a lot to me mainly because that culture is so anti-Hollywood and anti what people look at celebrities by. That was my moment for me. It wasn’t radio or anything, it was just culture.
Did you have a pop up party in LA?
We did, it was quick. It was day of. So at noon, we’d set up two speakers in the place. It was at this cafe in Leimert Park off Crenshaw. We did deep in the hoods, too, not in the city. In Philly, there’s this place called The Deuce. Everywhere we went for the most part was not in the downtown area.
What was your decision to do it there?
One: Those are the type of neighborhoods I relate to, I worked in, grew up in. Even if it wasn’t in my city, per say, I wanted to have a neighborhood that mimicked where I was from. Two: To be with the people. It was free, so I made it affordable, obviously. That to me is important. Some of those people can’t pay to come to a show or pay for a meet and greet, or it’s just out of their radar. Growing up, I never went to shows as a kid because I didn’t no money. I wanted to do something literally for the streets, so we went around the country and did them everywhere from New York to Toronto to here.
At what point did you realize you wanted to name your album 85 To Africa?
It was during a conversation between one of my homies Les Green. He was one of the marketing directors of Nike over in South Africa at the time and then Mikael Moore, who’s on my management squad — same manager as Janelle [Monae]. We were all talking with the whole crew, my crew Fear & Fancy. Les was like, ‘Yo man, if we could just tell niggas you could hop on the 85 in Atlanta and go straight to Africa, you could take the 85 to Africa.’ We were like… ‘Message!’ So, I wrote the shit down, went home that night and made the song. The song came before the album, but after a while, we’re like, ‘You know what? This is what you actually care about and people will get it instantly.’ That’s what it was.
What did it mean to get Mr Eazi on ‘Zodi’?
Aw man, it was great. I’ve been blessed and I haven’t released all the songs. But, I’ve worked with all the heavyweights before these last couple years where Afrobeats got popular in America because it’s been popular. Burna Boy was on the remix for ‘Little Bit More,’ I got a song with Tiwa called ‘Spy Candy.’ I recorded with Wizkid the same week he recorded with Chris Brown and Drake for his first big American record. I was there early. Wizkid came to one of the first shows, I was at Burna Boy’s first show in the US. Took Tiwa to her first awards show. So, Eazi was the one guy, one of the few that I’m like, ‘Yo, we ain’t done anything.’ We linked up and it was instant connection (chuckles). We actually recorded that in the studio together. Artists don’t do that a lot nowadays.
Did you learn anything from him?
Yeah because we’re first generation Africans here. We have our own slang that we mix up, just like how London has its own thing. Certain things, he’s like, ‘Your pigeon English is not right’ (in Nigerian accent). I’m like, ‘That’s how we talk, you have your pigeon.’ But, I picked up on certain words from him because he’s got the real Naija and Ghanian pigeon language, so I learned some things.
What did it mean to speak in REVOLT Summit’s ‘Africa’s Got Something To Say’ panel?
Tuma’s amazing. I was happy that theme is even present. Tuma obviously was thrilled, he loves that theme. That theme is important. I wish that we were also part of the T.I. and Killer Mike panel because that conversation is linked. What happened is when Tuma and I were separate, so it becomes an African conversation. The African conversation is the African-American conversation. If you’re having an African-American conversation and you don’t mention Africa, then we’re going to be doing the same shit we’ve been doing for the last 100 years. It doesn’t even fucking make sense. I didn’t watch the entire panel, but I felt and resonated with what Killer Mike was saying about really putting a program together. I already hit him up, we already chopping it up.
No progress will come if people ain’t talking about Africa. I really will fight at anybody on any panel, on any stage, anybody. I’ll fight to the death, I’m not playing for real because I know. I’ve studied this shit more than anybody out here. Killer Mike, I respect. Everybody else — I’m not even talking about the panel itself, I’m talking in the world. It doesn’t make sense. I happen to be from different places and I see other immigrant groups. The Vietnamese in Boston, I know what they did to preserve their houses where black people got pushed aside and white working-class people also got pushed aside. Irish people got pushed aside. The Vietnamese kept it and there’s a reason why. There’s a reason why Chinese-Americans have Chinatown. There’s a reason why Jewish-Americans can have a place, a neighborhood. It’s because they move their money and they have a place where they can send it. It’s called the repatriation of Israel, China. You can manufacture shit in different places. If we don’t have that, we ain’t gone have no wealth. We’ll be stuck here for the next few hundred years.
What is the biggest thing you learned from the panel?
Tuma mentioned this phrase that I love, it’s like the ‘One Love’ message from [Bob] Marley. My message has been ‘One Tribe,’ but Tuma talked about ‘One Dance Floor.’ He talked about how he wants to make America have trap Afrobeats — everything in between — international music on one dance floor. I thought that was a powerful phrase because that’s how it is in London. They have Grime, they have drill music, and they have Afrobeats all on one dance floor.
What do you miss both about Africa?
When I’m in Africa, I’m building. Even if it’s not MY country because my heritage isn’t direct to that specific country, I still feel like I’m building a place that ultimately cares and will respect me, and my offspring. When I’m in America, I’m not sure. Africa, I’m sure that as long as I can oust these old men out of power and put in brilliant, wise women and young people, then we’ll be fine. That’s my game there. That’s what I miss most about Africa. I do feel like I’m building something that will stand the test of time. Here, this is a young adolescent country, so who knows?
Is Jidenna dating?
Yeah, I’m open to dating. It’s hard to date on tour, but I do my best. I don’t have anybody I’m consistently seeing.
What do you look for in a woman?
Connection. I have no idea what will happen, but my hope is that I can find a woman or a woman can find me that can meander through different worlds. It’s very important because if I bring you around a bunch of gangsters from South Central — they used to take care of me when I lived in South Central — or in Boston, you got to be okay that there’s a bunch of heaters on the table. There’s stacks of pills, cash, and rottweilers sitting next to this guy. You also have to be okay if I bring you to a board meeting or a cocktail party where it’s super stiff and uppity. You have to be able to do all that. Book smart, street smart, I like both because if not, it’s a wrap.
What’s been your greatest memory on tour?
We were in San Diego when the lights went out. I give this speech before ‘Classic Man’ because that’s really why I do all this music, so I can give speeches. Otherwise I probably wouldn’t be doing any of this. So ‘Classic Man’ hits, I’m literally on the last note of the song. On the last note, I usually switch up the lyrics. I go, ‘I’m a street elegant, old-fashioned man, yeah baby I’m an African.’ I switch it.
As I’m hitting, ‘I’m an African,’ I notice the mic isn’t working and the lights went off. I’m like, ‘Oh shit!’ The electricity in the whole building and the whole block went out on the down beat, the last beat of the whole song. The crowd starts cheering because they had sung it out. They start going crazy, jumping. They think it’s a magic trick. The lights came back on in 10 minutes and I did an encore, but they’re so hyped. They couldn’t believe it. They felt like we brought the power down. Truth be told, we probably did because of the amount of power we were generating on that block.
What can we expect next. we know you have two albums, right?
Besides the two albums, I have the Africa tour I’m about to announce… It’s six dates so far, but we’re going to add two more.
So you don’t get a break?
Nuh uh. I have a few meetings, then I’m out this week. So Africa tour for sure, I’m going to start touring Europe at the top of the year. I’m going to announce my partnership with a nonprofit named Birthright AFRICA. Their mission is really to educate the youth culture about the importance of Africa, but also give free trips. It’s a travel abroad program to Africa really for anyone who wants to go, but specifically targeted towards the African diaspora. I’m going to do a speaking tour next year. I don’t have a book yet, but I’ll do that later. Definitely more acting. Most of all, I’m just excited to keep shedding more skin. I’m pretty honest right now in life and present. I want to see what more I can do. How we can get to where it’s literally just my spirit walking on earth?