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From Classic Man to African Man: The evolution of Jidenna

Jidenna

Around the world, when a black person is told to “go back to Africa,” it’s often meant as an insult. It’s a racist reminder, that no matter where they go and how long they’ve lived there, black people aren’t truly welcome anywhere else. But Jidenna is reclaiming the phrase and using it as a teachable moment. His sophomore album 85 to Africa was released yesterday. It was inspired by a major incident that made the Nigerian-American rapper, well, go back to Africa. 

In early 2017, Jidenna leased a mansion in Atlanta, Georgia for a few months to live and record music. According to the rapper, his lease payments were up to date but his landlord fell behind on paying the mortgage. Eventually, the house was foreclosed with Jidenna and the company still living in it. While going through the eviction process, the rapper recalls being mistreated by some officials and believes that race might have played a role.   

The Atlanta eviction experience left a sour taste in Jidenna’s mouth. After an African tour that took him from Ethiopia to South Africa to Nigeria, the rapper decided to stay in Africa for roughly six more months. The Epic music star spent most of his time on the continent between South Africa and his native Nigeria, but he also visited Eswatini (formerly Swaziland), Namibia and Mozambique. He says the decision to remain in Africa was made easy because he could watch President Trump wall off the US from the rest of the world. And Jidenna did so from the vantage point of countries Trump singled out as s***holes.

Jidenna poured his African experience into the music. He released the Boomerang EP toward the end of 2017 and targeted it toward what has increasingly become his secondary audience. Jidenna took the biggest songs from his debut album The Chief and remixed them with African artists. He recruited Maleek Berry and Sarkodie to help cook up “Bambi Too” and snapped up Burna Boy for the remix of “Little Bit More”. The 7-track EP also contained original music, and that too had strategic features. Tiwa Savage was put on the syrupy “Spy Candy” and “Out of Body” featured fellow Nigeria-American rapper Wale.

In addition to the music, there was also a marked difference in the rapper’s dressing and presentation. Jidenna’s short career can be divided into three distinct stylistic phases that also correspond to his music. In 2015, the rapper broke out with the Grammy-nominated hit single “Classic Man”.

The song went platinum and peaked at number 22 US Billboard Hot 100 charts. Jidenna rapped about class and dressed the part, rocking bespoke three-piece suits, club collar shirts, and a finger wave hairstyle that all referenced early 20th Century style. Jidenna is signed to Epic through Janelle Monáe’s Wondaland Records, so the song that inspired his style wasn’t saved for his solo album; rather it was made the lead single for a group project titled The Eephus. 

The post-Classic man Jidenna gradually swapped out the fancy suits for Nigerian-styled, knee-length kaftans. The rapper had sprinkled Ankara patterns into his earlier attires but this was a period when his African-ness was evidenced with more than just a few yards. The sound, too, started to shift. As Jidenna put out more music, he started to expose more of his personality and his African heritage. His debut album The Chief (2017) paid homage to his late Nigerian father who was a titled chief. Jidenna also made sure to add influences from his home country into the project. 

Unfortunately, America wasn’t quite ready for the type of music fusion Jidenna had to offer. And, when you compare the level of acceptance that Davido, Wizkid and Burna Boy have had recently, in some ways the project was ahead of his time. The Chief debuted at number 38 on the Billboard 200, selling 13,312 album-equivalent units, and 8,387 pure album copies in the first week. The project wasn’t successful commercially in the US, but being a dual citizen of two continents, Jidenna was still able to continue to cultivate his following in Africa. 

The third phase of Jidenna is by far his most dressed down. The rapper has bulked up and recently got a sleeve-length tattoo made up of a combination of ancient Nsidibi symbols and Polynesian patterns. Naturally, in order to show off his investment in fitness and body art, he’s incorporated more short-sleeve tops in his wardrobe. Ankara now features more than ever in his attires. The music has evolved as well. Without a big radio single to push his second album 85 to Africa, the rapper released “Tribe” and “Sufi Woman”, the types of records that showcase his depth as a human, his love for culture and community, and his worldliness. 

85 to Africa is symbolic; Interstate 85 is a highway that leads straight to the Atlanta international airport where you can get direct flights to a number of destinations in Africa. Jidenna sees the album as a bidirectional highway between the two continents. There is a cultural renaissance going on and Jidenna is certainly a big part of it.  

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