Jidenna Theodore Mobbison was pursuing an engineering degree at Stanford University when his love of music began to overtake him. In a bold move, he switched courses and created his own major—ritualistic arts. “What I learned from there was the art of putting people in a trance; why people go to concerts and paint their face; why people wake up and do routines,” the Nigerian-American artist explained.
It turned out to be a crucial move that would shape his artistry. “On a larger scale, it provided me the framework of marketing to the masses.” What Jidenna has been offering is an eclectic new brand of music that allows Afrobeat, dancehall and East Coast hip-hop to co-exist and work together infectiously, and with a debonair flair scarcely seen in contemporary Black music.
As the breakout artist on Janelle Monáe’s Wondaland Records, Jidenna captivated music lovers with his striking style, an ode to African dandies, and his Diaspora-embracing music, which resulted in 2015’s Grammy-nominated smash “Classic Man.” His lyrical dexterity and penchant for high fashion are on full display in the release of his highly anticipated debut album The Chief. But beyond the clothes and tracks, Jidenna possesses a desire to be a beacon of moralistic aspiration, social ambition and personal responsibility.
EBONY spoke with the artist to get his take on fashion, his place in the African Diaspora, and his eclectic sound.
EBONY: Your album is called The Chief. Two of your singles were titled “Long Live the Chief” and “Chief Don’t Run.” What’s your definition of a chief?
Jidenna: The chief is the African version of the Don. When I was watching The Godfather, it really clicked that this is an African godfather story and that’s the story that the album is telling, or it revolving around that archetype. It’s also the idea that a chief is not a king; there’s a difference. To me, it’s important that we also have someone else that doesn’t need to live in the castle on the hill with the moat, somebody who still relates to the people, somebody who can be middle class and not be a billionaire and maybe not even have goals of it. And that’s not every chief, and that’s not necessarily me, but I wanted to present a character and an archetype that children can look up to, that’s different with slightly different aspirations from some of the characters we’ve seen in hip-hop.
EBONY: Your wardrobe has become a huge part of your persona. Do you feel pressure to keep it up?
Jidenna: I wear other clothes, but usually if I’m going out, this has been my uniform for years. That part of me hasn’t changed. If I’m walking around Flatbush [Brooklyn], or I’m traveling, that’s just how I’ve operated. So, it’s not pressure at all.
EBONY: On your website, you wrote a manifesto that says being a classic man is more about dignity and integrity than being in a suit. Do you think you’re appearance will draw attention to these virtues?
Jidenna: I think those values are very dear to me. We live in a time where your word doesn’t mean as much. Look at Donald Trump. He can say one thing one day and say the total opposite the next day, or just deny it, even though the evidence is right in everybody’s face. For me, the values that I wrote in the manifesto are core to who I am more so than how I dress. I’ll say if anything, those values connected with others – human intimacy, community – a lot of people of my generation do not necessarily feel like these values are pervasive.
EBONY: A lot of your raps that incorporate chiefs have this theme of self-respect and looking within yourself and our history, instead of white gratification.
Jidenna: I think that’s an interpretation that I was hoping a handful of people would arise to on their own, and I like your read on it. I think you hit it on the head earlier when you said your self-worth and studying one’s heritage but also embracing who we are as a people and embracing who we are as an individual. These are things that are mostly inward looking versus outward. I think we’re doing a lot of outward looking now, mainly because of how we interact with technology now. I’m definitely not anti-technology, but we have to realize that your possessions can possess you. These tools are supposed to help us, not enslave us.
EBONY: Fear & Fancy is a group you’re associated with. How have they dealt with all the upheaval that’s been going on?
Jidenna: Fear & Fancy is a social club that was definitely inspired by the social age and pleasure clubs. It’s important that’s the history, not just creating masquerade balls, but also help organizing. We are comprised of artists and scientists, which you don’t always find in social clubs. I won’t speak for Fear & Fancy, but I will speak for myself. With everything’s that’s going on, it’s been going on for a long time, so it’s nothing new. I, and there’s a lot of members of Fear & Fancy that do the same thing, we do everything we can. We’ve discussed with both [Michelle Obama] and [Barack Obama] what their views are, and they’ve been very vocal about the views on mass incarceration and other issues that we have been facing as a country. So, I know that there’s a lot of work. One thing that I was thinking about when you brought up the Classic Manifesto was just putting together programs so the average citizen knows what he or she can do.
EBONY: How do you characterize yourself, as a rapper or a singer? A lot of artists lately like Anderson .Paak, Vic Mensa, and Raury dabble in both.
Jidenna: Melody is one of the best forms of communications. It’s usually more emotive than just monotone performance, so, we’ve evolved in hip-hop. For me, I consider myself a “swank” artist. The music I make has a certain element that we stir in the pot that we call “swank.” All and all, it’s just the next form of hip-hop; we’re moving away from the pure monotone rap.
EBONY: From “Classic Man” to “The Let Out,” each song you’ve dropped sounds very different from one another. Does the album sound as varied lyrically and musically?
Jidenna: The album, it reminds me of the phrase Fear & Fancy. It’s like the Ying & Yang. I would say that the album would have a good balance of these kinds of records that, in general, move your body and move your mind.
Our key phrase and guiding principle is “Party and Ponder.” If it’s more of a party record like “Little Bit More,” and more of a ponder record like “Chief Don’t Run,” then that’s amazing as well. That combo punch, that’s throughout the album for sure. The elements of both the records are worldly, as in it comes from a man that’s travels, that’s also crucial element to it. I feel that these are my adventures in life everyday and I feel a little bit different when I wake up. That’s how the album will feel.
EBONY: What’s your role in bridging the gap between America and the African Diaspora?
Jidenna: It’s an amazing time right now for the entire African Diaspora. Right now, what I’ve seen in the past couple years is the shift in music to do two things: one, I see a shift where pop artists and hip-hop artists incorporat dancehall elements, which they’ve done before, of course, but now I see lots of people doing it—Drake, of course, Justin Bieber. These people are bringing music closer to dancehall.
I think it’s exciting, not just musically, but what that means culturally. If you want a culture to change, a lot of times it starts with trade. The Silk Road was between Europe and Asia. What happened after the Silk Road was you started seeing something like a rosary end up in Catholicism. The rosary traveled from East Asia, where you had Buddhists, and in the Middle East, where you had Muslims, who had been praying with beads, you put a crucifix at the end, it becomes a rosary. Culture follows the trade of goods. What happened in the 1970s in America, we tried to embrace our African heritage. If we really want that to happen on a large scale, it’s the trades of goods and I think right now, it’s the trade of music that’s leading the front.
EBONY: With your debut album, do you feel any pressure to follow-up “Classic Man?”
Jidenna: I don’t know how it is for other artists, but I’ve always, as T.D. Jakes would say, “assumed success.” When you do that, the pressure you feel, you have the same pressure later in life as you do earlier, at least for me thus far. We’ll see when I place even higher stakes as I continue. Now, it’s game time, it’s show time. Now, I believe I have some answers for “Classic Man.” I love that as a benchmark; I love starting high, but not too high.
Jidenna’s album The Chief is out now.