Jidenna emerges as a unifying leader on debut album, The Chief
Brooklyn, New York – They say that all good things take time, and Wondaland-signed artist Jidenna may know the value of patience for the greater pursuit of quality, better than anyone. Following his introduction with Janelle Monaé’s label, and supported under leadership from Sony Records, the Brooklyn-based rapper first received industry-attention in 2015 for his single “Classic Man” and his collaboration with Monaé on “Yoga.” His entrance into the music community has marinated with the public for the past two years, steadily increasing his following with well-received appearances such as a highly-noted performance at the 2016 BET awards.
Speaking candidly to his fans in interviews and editorials about his diverse background and international perspectives, Jidenna’s debut album The Chief is a project that many have been anticipating. Familiar fans gravitate towards the rapper’s uncanny ability to weave socio-political content into the mainstream by revamping the lyrical aspect of storytelling in hip-hop. Whether you find yourself typically drawn to classic forms of lyricism or more mainstream-based sonics, The Chief successfully offers something for everyone. With the release of the album a few weeks behind us now, a candid conversation with the rapper touches on a project that is 15 years in the making. His reflections support the profile of an artist with an overall vision for bettering his community, and whose honest ambitions have established him as a respected voice in rap.
“Every country has been founded by a mixture of people, and it’s a beautiful thing that makes this world exciting to be in. I hope that I can bring people closer to the truth – that we’re all one.” – Jidenna
“I guess it will be real for me in a few hours,” says the Wondaland emcee as we exchange greetings and congratulations on the looming album. It’s the day before the release, and following an inquiry about his nerves leading up to drop of the album, he confides, “I don’t really get nervous much. I get nervous in random moments, like when I perform with Wondaland. I’m nervous when I tour with them because I hold Janelle Monaé in such high regard. I want to make them proud when I’m on stage, but I don’t have the nerves. What I do have is the weight lifted. I’ve lived the last decade in a constant state of anxiety with this nagging voice inside saying, ‘Aight’, man. You’ve gotta’ make the music better, you’ve gotta’ put out the album.’ It’s great to finally be at this moment.”
He elaborates on his formative years, explaining, “When I was 14, a little over 15 years ago, I knew what I wanted to do. I knew I wanted to do music. I knew why I wanted to change society. By society, I don’t mean in general – I’m talking about the economy, the politics, and the education system. For some reason, from really early on, I had this image of what I wanted to do. However I didn’t know how to get there.” To some, this reflection might seem too grandiose to comprehend from one man, but with the perceived passion in his tone there’s no doubt that his convictions are real and legitimate.
As he continues on it’s apparent that his hope for success extends past his sole desires for himself. Touching on the responsiblity of positively influencing a younger generation, he lights up, “I deal with elders who have so much wealth and are running this world from wherever they are, but have lost touch with a lot of people on the ground. I’ve gotta’ deal with those people just like you, but I would much prefer to speak to children. Those are the ones who are going to be here longer than the rest of us. I’m always thinking about the younger generation. I was a teacher before ‘Classy Man’ came out. I was working in New York City public schools just trying to make a living and make an income. I know what it’s like to have a dream and work towards it. I know what it’s like to have a job. I know what it’s like to hustle – both legitimate and illegitimate schemes. So I feel like I relate a lot to the generation to come. To me, I can’t believe when artists say, ‘I’m not a role model.’ You automatically are when you sign up to do this job. There’s people watching your every move – your every gesture. I know that because I used to look up to so many people, and rappers were my heroes. I modeled my fashion. I modeled how I spoke. I modeled what I smoked. I modeled what I drank. I modeled what politics I cared about based off of what Jay-Z or Nas would say. I almost dropped out of school because of Kanye West’s album. So for me, I’m always aware that the youth are always listening.”
His grounded approach stems from an impressive background of his own accord. Having taught as a teacher in New York’s most poverty-stricken areas, the rapper worked as a first-hand ground-worker in the education system before his career elevated in music. Furthermore, his educated personal perspectives comes from a Bachelor of Arts in Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity from Stanford. When asked about his experiences in both, he reminisces:
“Being a teacher was huge because I learned how to communicate better than I had before, in terms of being articulate. I learned how to use words that would reach a classroom of teenagers. I’d be working in the studio until 4 am, and have to wake up at 7 am – run to a bus stop in my hood and go to the hood next door. I was going from East Flatbush to Brownsville in Brooklyn, New York. I’d then teach class to a bunch of kids that had a tough upbringing. Who knows what happened last night in their house and in their neighbourhood. They’re tired like me, and they were bored because school wasn’t that great. That is one of the toughest audiences that I could face. It taught me how to communicate in a way that was engaging, and easy to digest.”
In regards to Stanford, he reveals his business mentality and hustle, and builds, “At Stanford I got connections. I got connections everywhere: the White House, Wall Street, music platforms, and the entire world. That’s what people don’t tell you. You think school is about studying, but it’s about the people that you bump shoulders next to when you’re partying. That’s why it was important for me to continue and graduate.”
More calculated than he lets on, the substance of the conversation comes from his desire to communicate effectively as an emcee, and his hopes to move his audiences as an artist. He condemns being placed in any box as a ‘conscious’ rapper, sharing, “I’ve moved into a space now where I try not to be like overly political, or so called ‘conscious’. If any rapper calls themself a conscious rapper right now – I’m probably not listening to 98% of it. I am who I am. I just project who I am in a very easy way (to consume) and have fun with it, and really romanticize the emotion that I’m trying to convey. That’s the way that we can reshape the world. That’s how I approach my lyrics now.”
One of the most well-received tracks on the album, “Bambi” touches on subject matter with a vulnerability that is unparalleled in the current rap game. Stoked further about how he approaches his own content, he confides, “With “Bambi” and actually all the love songs on the album, I could’ve made a rap song talking about how, in hip-hop, we don’t respect our women and we don’t treat them right. But, I grew up with music that was saying that. Instead, I showed how to love and adore a woman. That’s being vulnerable as a man and showing, rather than telling you, what to do. Even in “Trampoline” I’m saying that a lady ain’t a tramp just cause she wants to have fun. It’s really about liberation. I’m really bigging up a lot of the working, professional women that I know who sometimes feel like they have to tone it down in the work space but then need to let loose. She has the right to get lit. She has the right to party. She has the right to show her body if she wants to because she is the owner of it. It doesn’t mean that she’s promiscuous at all. But the way that I went about it was in a party song. I really love to make songs that you can party and ponder to. That’s what I want to be known for.”
He pauses for a moment before continuing on, “But in general I’m moving away from really wordy songs because, as a producer myself, I want you to hear the music as well. I don’t want to talk over every moment. I want you to feel the vibe and get the meaning. That’s the thing I learned from teaching – it’s not about the exact words someone uses to communicate, but it’s how someone says it and what they mean when they say it. I think I’m getting better. I don’t think everything I did on this album is perfect but I definitely think I’m getting better.”
Up until this point, politics have been left out of the conversation. But with so much going on in current US affairs, much of which is undeniably contradictory to everything that the album stands for, Jidenna inevitably ends up touching on the value of the spoken word. He confides, “When the president of your country is not a man of his word, and flip-flops, lies, and calls real news ‘fake news.’ Especially after a president who was a man of his word – a president who shared his love with the love of his life openly on international television. I feel an absolute duty to bring back the value of the word. We have to value words, or else what’s the point of living? Or else, who do you trust?”
Standing out as an obvious leader, he concludes the talk with a unifying sentiment that grows from his international background as a Nigerian-born emigrant. Tying everything together with the album, he concludes, “I’ve lived in a lot of places. I’ve spent a lot of time in international communities. The album feels diverse and it’s that way on purpose. I’ve met so many people, and I wanted to make sure that it had something for everyone. I think it’s important in this day and age to accept that every country is international. Every country has been founded by a mixture of people, and it’s a beautiful thing that makes this world exciting to be in. I hope that I can bring people closer to the truth – that we’re all one.”
Interview conducted by Kira Hunston for HipHopCanada