In 2016, one of the most distinctive voices in music is wearing a three-piece suit, with Ankara print details that demand your attention. Jidenna has been making our playlists do up their top button and find a pocket square since he released “Classic Man” in 2015, a platinum-selling meditation on outdressing and outsmarting life's crises and conflicts. Though born in Wisconsin, Jidenna spent most of his early years in southeastern Nigeria, and is outspoken about how being both Nigerian-American and biracial informs his life as an artist.
Navigating the space between Nigeria and the U.S., Jidenna told MTV News, “allows me to dress how I do, it allows me to talk how I do, to be who I am and not worry as much about belonging somewhere.” Now, Jidenna is combining his R&B credentials with hip hop and elements of Afrobeats. His tracks, equal parts fire and thoughtfulness, are featured in Marvel’s brand-new Netflix series Luke Cage, and his upcoming solo album, Long Live the Chief, is set to arrive this fall.
And as he engages with Nigeria’s sound and America’s social justice issues, Jidenna is making statements both countries are paying attention to. On Nigerian Independence Day (October 1), he Instagrammed a note saying, “This year, let us celebrate not just our beloved independence, but our interdependence with the African Diaspora.” Being biracial and Nigerian-American has shaped his blackness; he thinks of himself as “a bridge between these worlds.”
“I think that it’s an interesting line to walk, but I actually love it. It’s a dangerous line, it’s controversial, but I think at the end of the day, if you can walk it right, you can really instill some sense of compassion between people.” As he raps in the single “Long Live the Chief,” “Chief diplomat, errday / I’m black and white / Janelle Monae.”
Walking that line has shaped Jidenna's music, too. With his single “Little Bit More” now booming across speakers from Johannesburg to D.C., his work highlights the growing global influence of Afrobeats. Jidenna describes the sound as “a mixture of everything that Nigeria and West Africa has been influenced by... a combination of [Nigerian] rhythms and highlife, taking elements from dancehall, taking elements from grime, taking elements from hip hop and trap music, and most recently even just electronic dance music here and there.” It’s an alchemy that he is working with other artists to perfect. In Lagos this summer, he recorded with Nigerian Afrobeats legend WizKid, who brought the sound to Drake's chart-topping single “One Dance.”
“The trick of Afrobeats,” Jidenna said, “is it doesn’t just move your upper body, it moves your hips as well, and I think that’s what people have been missing in popular music for a while. I think that’s what people need around the world.”
Jidenna’s singular look, which he described earlier this week in a cypher as “black Abe Lincoln, half Blake Griffin,” makes use of carefully constructed suits that draw from as many influences as his music. He says that it was his engagement with U.S. history, and the legacy of Jim Crow, that served as the ultimate catalyst for his flashback style. “The affinity towards suits was a functional thing for me early on, because I was thrifting at secondhand shops, and it was also initially a way of grieving — my father had passed, and he used to wear suits all the time.” Later, Jidenna said, “I started looking at free slaves, free men and women and how they dressed, and what kind of time it was in the 1800s.”
He saw important similarities between that era, and today: Both 1865 and 2016 were dealing with the rapid introduction of new technologies in a more interconnected world, and both reckoned with the scars of slavery and racism. “Now there's more people on parole or probation, or incarcerated, than there were slaves in the height of slavery. So when I started seeing these correlations, I’ve always felt like an old soul anyway, so why don’t I go way back, and be really an old soul, which is a ghost, an apparition? I feel like we haven’t dealt with the ghosts of America’s past, and the way to deal with it is to confront it, so every time people see me I want them to be reminded, and to confront that ghost.”
When Jidenna performed in Johannesburg in early September, the echoes between American history and South African history, with its legacy of apartheid, added depth and resonance to his show, as both countries still wrangle with the challenges of dismantling racialized injustice. “South Africa was really moving [for me] in that way,” he said. His lyrics on songs like “Chief Don't Run” capture the strain involved in overcoming systemic racism, in the United States and around the world: “I live a different set of laws out here / Know my rights even when I’m in the wrong out here.”
As Jidenna works to build each new bar of his upcoming album, he shared his outlook on applying creativity to change narratives, circumstances and the status quo. “I think it’s important to not just think about what you want,” he said, “but what’s needed in the world.” Now, for Jidenna, music comes with responsibilities like any other job — “as much as a firefighter, or a police officer, or a sanitation worker.” Jidenna’s contributions to playlists everywhere — and his focus on the issues that affect millions of people across the country and around the world — prove that working within this set of responsibilities, which could be a constraint, can be just the opposite. “That's one of the most important things that I feel as an artist: We’re here to not just to express ourselves, but also to serve.”