Hail to the Chief: Jidenna's Incredible, Globe-Spanning Journey

We spent time with the sonically adventurous artist to hear his life story—and life after "Classic Man."

|
Mar 17 2017, 5:20pm

It's late August, and Jidenna looks like he's about to melt. Granted, we're in an air-conditioned car driving around Manhattan, killing time before a dance rehearsal in preparation for his performance at the MTV Video Music Awards a few weeks from now—but the 30-year-old musician's dressed like a tall cone of pistachio ice cream, all swirls of green and beige from head to toe. It's just one of many expressions of his personal style created bespoke by him, Whippa Wiley, and Madam Kateri, the respective creative director and designer of Jidenna's artistic collective Fear and Fancy.

"I made these clothes—I didn't make these shoes, but I'm working on it," he says with a grin, explaining that his interest in clothes dates back to his obsession with Michael Jackson's personal style circa Off the Wall. "I have more in common with an Amish man, or a Hasidic Jewish man, than I do with fashionistas. I love style, but I love the fact that I went through the process of making a bespoke suit, too. I would never buy a pre-rolled joint—rolling the tree up is part of the fucking process, period."

This ride is a moment for Jidenna to take a breather from the week's activities: tons of meetings and press opportunities in advance of his debut album, The Chief, mixed with smoke sessions and knocking back glasses of Sazerac, a cocktail he was first introduced to by video director Alan Ferguson (husband of Solange Knowles) while recording the ubiquitous 2015 single "Classic Man." "I like drinks that are both hard and tender," he says with a laugh. "I love anything that feels like an iron fist in a velvet glove. That's the kind of guy I am."

Complexities and juxtapositions define Jidenna's entire life. He describes himself as "Someone who's always been in between two worlds"—Africa and America, white and black, public school and private school, East coast and West coast. "I'm the type that will smoke a blunt in Magic City next to Young Thug, and the next day I'm waking up and heading to the White House," he says. "That world between classy and ratchet is at the center of my life story."

///

Jidenna Theodore Mobisson was born in 1985 in Wisconsin Rapids, Wisconsin; his first name translates in Nigerian to "Embrace the father." "My father told me that he wanted me to be like him," he says with a little laugh. "An innovator." His family moved to Nigeria a few weeks after he was born; despite hailing from the state that calls Cheeseheads home, he suffers from a severe lactose intolerance—an affliction that his parents were unaware of until UNICEF came to Nigeria and encountered a young Jidenna with "a distended stomach and a big ol' head."

"They wanted me to pose for a picture, and my parents were like, 'He's not the poorest of the poor,'" he laughed. "That's when they realized that there was real concern. People were like, 'You're not poor, but your child looks like a UNICEF baby." After the diagnosis, his father took a trip back to America and bought "a whole store's worth" of soy-based products so his son could eat properly without getting sick.

Both of his parents worked primarily as educators; his father, Oliver Mobisson, was a scientist as well as a founding professor of Nigeria's Enugu State University of Science and Technology. In the 80s, Mobisson had a hand in creating the ASUTECH 800 and 8000s, the first African-made personal computers—"He was racing [Bill Gates and Steve Jobs] at the time," Jidenna claims—and he was later appointed a chief of the Orsu tribe's Awo-Idemili headquarters.

One of Jidenna's earliest memories as a child is wandering into meetings his father was holding with other chiefs in the area, sliding in cassettes of Bob Marley and Michael Jackson on a boombox and leaving the room until it was time to switch sides. "My father told me later, 'That's how I knew you were going to be involved in music,'" he reminisces.

When Jidenna was six-years-old, a group of armed robbers abducted his family en route to the airport in Nigeria. His family members were beaten and, in some instances, raped; Jidenna was shot through the foot by a bullet. They escaped through a nearby wooded area—"a whole busload of us running away, as they were coming at us with AK-47s and machetes"—and even though he still refers to his upbringing as "amazing" and frequently returns to Nigeria, the incident was too traumatic for much of his family to stay any longer. "My mother was like, 'Enough of this. Let me go back to where this is less likely to happen.'"

The Chief's opening salvo, "A Bull's Tale," addresses the incident in vivid detail: "When I was six and guerillas ran up on us/ Taking my sis, beating the shit out of my mama," Jidenna snarls, wrapping his details in dramatic drums and ambience. "Shot me in the foot, put a bullet through my armor/ I'mma kill 'em when I see 'em again."

As it turns out, he never had the chance: following the incident, Jidenna moved to the Boston-adjacent Massachusetts neighborhood of Norwood with his siblings and mother. "We didn't have a lot of money when we came back—just a few hundred dollars," Jidenna says. His musical education continued in the States; his older sisters brought the music of Prince and Fela Kuti to his ears, and his older brother introduced him to A Tribe Called Quest. For his part, Jidenna brought his MJ fixation with him, going as far to dress like him at school— that is, until a girl named Reniesha stepped in.

"She came up to me and said, 'Why are you dressing like Michael Jackson?' I said, 'Because he's the King of Pop,'" he recounts. "She said, 'Nigga, Michael Jackson is not cool anymore. You need to start wearing some baggy pants and dressing the way we dress. You need to come to Roslindale and Dorchester and get a real haircut.' She had Jordans on, so I was like, 'If she got Jordans on, I'm gonna start listening to her.' That's when I realized what effect a uniform has on you. You can either fit in, or you can stand out."

Reniesha also introduced Jidenna to hip-hop, the aesthetic and style of which he took to like a duck to water. He also managed to profit off of his white classmates' burgeoning interest in the genre, purchasing fake chains for $25 at city flea markets and selling them for $125 to "White boys in the suburb who like hip-hop—they called them 'wiggers' back then, now that's just normal."

However, not all interactions with his white classmates were profitable—or positive. "My first day at school in America, I was called an 'African nigger' by this white boy named Philip with a mushroom haircut," he remembers. "I punched him in his stomach." Jidenna's mother is white, and visiting her relatives in the Midwest exposed him to expressions of hatred and racism that often took the shape of violence; while attending a football game in Johnsburg, Illinois, he was pelted by soda cans by the crowd around him. "They were calling me words he never heard before," he says, his sentences punctuated by uneasy laughs. "I learned the word 'coon' from Johnsburg, Illinois. I had to ask my mom when I was seven years old, 'What's a nigger?'"

"I was afraid of white people early on," he continues, "besides my mom, my teacher, and my aunties—who also married Nigerian men." The only other white people Jidenna carried associations with in Nigeria were, ironically, not people at all—they were department store mannequins. "They were dead—like ghosts. When I came to the US, in my mind, I was just seeing walking mannequins."

///

Jidenna's family moved from Norwood to Milton in 2000, where he attended the prestigious Milton Academy—an experience that he claims "changed his life." (Ironically, he didn't like wearing the school uniform: "I hated suits. It was horrible.") He recounts the end of his first year in attendance, when he saw a row of BMW X5s with gigantic bows on top in the parking lot—presents for the seniors at graduation. "I thought it was for a car show." After witnessing such a display of largesse, he had his mother drop him off down the block from school, telling her at the time that the distant drop-off was because of "basketball practice."

Jidenna excelled at Milton, but the same prejudices that he faced in other, presumably less educated corners of the Boston area resurfaced in different guises. "When I was applying to colleges, people would tell me, 'You're going to get in because you're black,'" he scoffs. "That shit was wack. The cafeteria became a debate room. People started spray painting 'Nigger' on the bathroom stalls." At one point, school security escorted him off the basketball courts mistaking him for a trespasser; at the time, he was captain of Milton's varsity basketball team.
Eventually, enough was enough: Jidenna, a few other students, and a teacher staged a miniature coup during a school assembly—"We literally nudged the principal out of the way"—to speak to the school about race. "Then we skipped school and partied," he laughs.

After Milton, Jidenna attended Stanford, and it was there that Fear & Fancy started taking shape: he met Wiley on campus and connected with producer Nana Kwabena during a spring break visit to UPenn. "We wanted to make sure we had a social club that united people that weren't just artists—scientists and entrepreneurs, too," he says, and the Fear & Fancy core's pursuits reach beyond music and fashion: around the time Kwabena joined up with Wiley and Jidenna, he founded AllOneBlood, a nonprofit dedicated to raising awareness of sickle cell disease.

In its infancy, Fear & Fancy also hosted social gatherings and masquerades in the greater Oakland area. One attendee was Janelle Monaé, who accepted a MySpace invite from F&F to one of the gatherings early on. The collective kept in touch with Monaé over the years and eventually began working with her Wondaland label; the first fruits of the team-up was 2015's label-showcase EP The Eephus, a five-track collection that featured Jidenna three times—as a featured artist on Monaé's single "Yoga," and two versions of "Classic Man" (one of which included Kendrick Lamar on a remix).

"Classic Man" peaked at #22 on the Billboard Hot 100, but its bouncy sound—owing itself to a sample of 2014's deathless, DJ Mustard-jacking Iggy Azalea and Charli XCX smash "Fancy"—was inescapable during the summer of 2015, a relative bullseye that Jidenna was anticipating he would nail. "Our expectation was that our song would be that big, even when we made it in the studio," he claims. Still, he's conscious about the song's true intent being misread.

"Frank Sinatra used to fuck prostitutes all the time, and he'd drink Jack Daniels religiously," Jidenna explains. "Nat King Cole smoked cigarettes to the end of his life, Dean Martin was a drunk—these are jazz-era classic men. Don Draper's the fictitious classic man—smoking weed, doing LSD and methamphetamine shots in the ass. I worked at the Martin Luther King Institute, and my job was to transcribe his speeches and some FBI files of him when they tapped him. I'd hear him say "nigga" behind closed doors. When he first got to Montgomery for the bus boycott, he actually had a pistol. The 'classic man' thing is important for me to expound on all sides, because that's all me—minus the fucking whores and heroin," he laughs.

Another concern is that the singles that followed "Classic Man"—songs that Jidenna qualifies as "equally as important"—didn't quite take off in the same way. There was "Long Live the Chief," which appears on The Chief and was also featured in Netflix's superhero series Luke Cage, in which Jidenna himself performed in a brief cameo. (The show's creator, Cheo Hodari Coker, attended the same school as Jidenna.)

Then there was "Knickers," a herky-jerky slice of nouveau-retro pop-rap that wore subversion on its sleeve, from the obvious homophonic allusions made in its lyrics ("Y'all wanna talk, wanna dance like knickers") to the vignette addressing racial discrimination that opens the video. "I wanted to create context around a word that I think is overused," he explains. "I grew up overusing it, and it's still hard for me. I'm not one of those NAACP "ban the shit" people—that's not me. I'm from the hip-hop generation, that's how we talk, and I don't want to get rid of it. But I don't say 'nigger' in front of an elderly black person. Unless they talk like that, I'm never gonna talk like that. A lot of young dudes gotta know the history of that word."

And if that sounds like some heavy shit to put in pop music, well, that's the point. "I can't stand doing records that don't party and ponder," Jidenna proclaims. "Maybe that's the product of my being biracial, but I want to forward the conversation."

///

Quad Studios is a labyrinthine recording studio tucked away in the heart of NYC's Times Square, and in late October of 2016 it's where Jidenna is putting the finishing touches on The Chief. Compared to when we last saw each other, he's dressed down today, with a Brooklyn Nets fitted cap (he's lived in East Flatbush since 2010) and Chucks on his feet. Wiley and Kwabena are around, splitting time between the lobby and the cozy studio space; as Jidenna runs through rough mixes of the album's cuts—along with other as-yet unreleased material he's working on—he brims with enthusiasm, despite perceived release schedule delays coming from Epic. "This is making me want to do another album now!" he exclaims at one point. "Being a lab rat helps a lot—it pushes you."

But for now, there's The Chief, which is as sonically multifarious and varied as any album you're likely to hear so far this year. There's hard-spitting braggadocio, swinging, bassy pop reminiscent of Henry Mancini, a song called "White Niggas," and a horn-laden twerking anthem dosed with wokeness. The Chief, like Jidenna, contains multitudes—and it's intended to be not only a reflection of himself, but also the everything-all-the-time listening habits that today's music consumer often take on. "We're a product of streaming—we naturally grew up eclectic," he ruminates on his generation's listening habits. "It's not hard to go from something heavy and lyrical like 'White Niggas' to a fun tune about being yourself that could be on the fucking FIFA soundtrack."

The notion of making a "something for everybody" album is both very old-school and nouveau: on a level, it recalls the A&R-blowout pop and rap albums that were so prevalent from the mid 90s throughout the late 00s, when "statement" albums with unified sonic and/or thematic intent—think Beyoncé's Lemonade, Kendrick Lamar's good kid, m.A.A.d city and To Pimp a Butterfly, and Kanye West's Yeezus—were less in vogue when it came to mass-product music. At first blush, The Chief resists any attempt at pegging a sonic uniformity to its framework—an inherent risk taken in an era of music consumption that, especially critically, favors narrative structure above all else.

The continent-spanning sounds and belly-busting length of Drake's Views come to mind when thinking of a solid modern analogue to The Chief—not to mention Monaé's catalogue, which has consistently resisted easy sonic categorization. Her 2010 album The Archandroid was anchored by the wildly infectious Big Boi-featuring "Tightrope," but the rest of that album dove headlong into a smattering of genres from zonked-out psych-pop to cinematic space balladry. "Classic Man"—undoubtedly, Jidenna's "Tightrope" to date in terms of mass visibility—isn't even included on The Chief, a conscious and understandable decision by the artist to avoid "people just viewing me as 'Classic Man.'" Is it too risky, though, to avoid establishing a signature sound lest that sound consume you artistically? Does that approach potentially keep listeners at arms' length from really knowing Jidenna?

There are no easy answers to those questions, perhaps because the answers aren't really needed at all: indeed, The Chief does possess a sort of uniformity in its intent, a concept record in that its concept is anchored around relaying the details and emotional complexities of his life to date. In Jidenna's words, "It's the story of a father passing the baton to his son, and the son dealing with the newfound responsibilities, trying to figure out 'How do I be a boss like my father?'"

Jidenna's father passed in 2010, and Jidenna says The Chief's release date—February 17—was intentionally chosen to commemorate the day of his father's passing, and along with the kidnapping incident, "A Bull's Tale" also recounts his funeral: "I'm on the way to put my poppa in his grave/ In a disguise, riding in a motorcade/ And I've come to bury him in the jungle/ It's where we were from so a nigga stayed humble."

"That whole process was my closure," he reminisces when talking about his father's burial, as well as reconciling with his legacy. "There were different periods where my father was in and out of my life. Sometimes I was like, 'Man, I don't want to embrace this dude,' but other times I was like, 'Man, this is a great man.' My mission is to embrace the best qualities of him."

And it's that sense of positivity that is streaked throughout The Chief—a generous approach to diaristic matters that finds Jidenna pushing through the darkness towards a brighter tomorrow. It's a sincere stance, reflective of his own inquisitive and tempered optimism towards the world around him. While speaking to him and being around him, it's hard not to resist falling in line with his worldview, even as the actual world threatens to crumble around us.

"I really love human beings, man," Jidenna says earnestly. "I find us so intriguing. I've been to places where the world feels full of life—it doesn't feel dead. During this presidency, we all have the opportunity to be more alive and full of purpose. I'm pushing this music to as much people as possible, and especially to children, because they'll be here when the rest of us are gone."

Follow Larry Fitzmaurice on Twitter.

Illustration by Efi Chalikopoulou